They were rock ‘n’ roll

One of the fun things about working with an arts organization is that I get to go on amazing journeys of discovery. I can watch rehearsals for shows that are coming up at the Lesher Center for the Arts, talk to the directors and actors, and do research on the show’s history, cultural relevance, artistic impact.

Last week, I went to see a very high-stepping, heart-and-soul run-through for Smokey Joe’s Café, which Center Repertory Company, the resident theater group for Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center, is opening this coming Friday.

But I confess: before I went to the rehearsal, I knew very little the show, other than that it was a Tony Award-winning musical revue of 39 rock songs, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand By Me” written by the songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

With songs like these on their resume, Leiber and Stoller didn’t sound like slouches. Because I’m no expert on rock music history, I didn’t know anything beyond that. I didn’t realize how big of a deal they were until I clicked on the New York Times and BBC homepages early last week.

As it happens, I wasn’t looking up anything Smokey Joe’s-related. I was checking on events in Libya and the rest of the world. And there, below the latest news on the downfall of Quadafi and sniping amongst Washington politicians were stories about Leiber, Stoller, “Hound Dog,” and Elvis Presley.

The stories were reporting sad news. Leiber had died on Aug. 22 at age 78.

I had one of those “where have I been” moments when I starting reading the obituaries and then found many more stirring eulogies populating news and culture sites.

Leiber was “rock ‘n’ roll’s first major worksmith,” said the Wall Street Journal’s Mike Myers, who credited him with being “one of the most visionary and authentic lyricists” in U.S. music history. He and Stoller were leading figures of postwar popular culture, opined the Financial Times. They were rock ‘n’ roll, declared Time magazine’s Richard Corliss.

A blogger also linked to a YouTube world music version of the classic “Stand by Me,” which Leiber and Stoller wrote with Ben E. King and which gets a gospel treatment in Center Rep’s Smokey Joe’s.

These writers described how Leiber and Stoller, coming along in the early 1950s, used their ear for R&B and urban youth culture to pen hit after hit. The two were from East Coast Jewish families who met as teenagers in Los Angeles and became enamored of the R&B music being performed by artists who left the South as part of the black migration.

The two became top players in the movement that brought the sounds of blues and gospel to mainstream audiences. Their songs were edgy, passionate, witty and tender and could be covered by a wide range of artists: Elvis Presley, the Drifters, the Coasters, Fats Domino, Peggy Lee, John Lennon, the Rolling Stones.

The crossover appeal of their music can be seen in “Hound Dog’s” path to No. 1 on the Billboard’s pop singles chart. The two originally wrote it in 1952 for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, a woman of “girth and bossy demeanor.” Four years later, Elvis Presley covered it, making Leiber and Stoller the hottest songwriting team in rock ‘n’ roll, according to the New York Times. Apparently, Leiber and Stoller were not too fond of Presley’s more mainstream version, though they wrote many other songs for him and his movies, including “Jailhouse Rock.”

You can hear both “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” in Center Rep’s Smokey Joe’s production—“Smokey Joe’s” is the title of another Leiber and Stoller hit. But Smokey Joe’s “Hound Dog,” definitely takes its queue from Big Mama Thornton.

In an interview with Walnut Creek Patch, director Robert Barrett Fleming says his vibrant and talented cast, who can belt out songs and bust some serious grooves, try to capture that feeling of excitement and cultural revolution that occurred when African-American culture and musical styles took center stage in the 1950s and 1960s.

“That cultural experiment is what defines us as American,” Fleming said. “It brings wonderful tensions and the birth of rock and roll.”

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