Smokey Joe’s Café raises the Riverside roof

REVIEW

MILT THOMAS

If you are a member of the Baby Boomer generation, you lived the songs of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller; so you must see the show, Smokey Joe’s Café, based on their music now playing at the Riverside Theatre!

Who are Lieber and Stoller you ask? They wrote 79 songs that made it to the Billboard charts, and in some cases, their songs made the artists who sang them – The Coasters, The Drifters, even, to some extent, Elvis Presley himself. How many of you “discovered” Elvis after hearing “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Don’t,” “Loving You” or “Treat Me Nice?”  Where would The Coasters be in popular music history if Lieber and Stoller had not written “Searchin’,” Yakey Yak,” “Charley Brown,” “Along Came Jones,” “Poison Ivy” or “Little Egypt?”

What about The Drifters and their lead singer, Ben E. King?: “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” “Spanish Harlem” or “There Goes My Baby.”

These songs are legendary and you can hear them all (and more) in one show if you take in Smokey Joe’s Café. It is a musical revue; in other words, unlike a typical Broadway-style musical, it is strictly music – no dialogue, no book – just one song after another. And the show is dazzling to watch. The ensemble cast performs each song as if it is a show unto itself. The gravity defying dance numbers draw spontaneous bursts of applause, the singing is beyond expectation or definition for that matter, from infectious pop to heart wrenching ballads to soulful gospel glory. Nine performers take the stage and seem like twice that number. The intermission really wasn’t necessary for the audience – it certainly was for the performers!

One characteristic most Lieber and Stoller songs have in common is their association with traditional rhythm and blues music of the 1950s. Considering they are two Jewish guys from the east coast, most of their songs were popularized in the African-American community. The term “crossover” was practically invented by Lieber and Stoller. Even though we automatically associate “Hound Dog” with Elvis, it was actually first performed by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, three years before Elvis. Many of their songs were R&B hits, never making it to Billboard mainstream charts.

The songwriting duo were responsible for 18 songs by The Coaster as well as six more for the R&B group that preceded them called The Robins. (Their biggest hit, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” is not part of the show except for a little instrumental snippet at the beginning of Act Two.)

The Coasters also had a Treasure Coast connection. Their lead singer for 50 years was Carl Gardner, a Port St. Lucie resident after his retirement. I interviewed him at home once and when he opened the door, I couldn’t miss his collection of gold records from floor to ceiling.

If you don’t realize it by now, I enthusiastically recommend taking a trip back into the early days of rock and roll by experiencing Smokey Joe’s Café at the Riverside Theatre Stark Stage. It plays through November 11 and tickets start at $35. You can purchase yours by calling the Box Office at 772-231-6990 or online at http://www.riversidetheatre.com.

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