Those were fighting words in 1954. Riot in Cell Block #9, performed by the Los Angeles quartet the Robins, is vintage rhythm and blues by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting team who, as much as anybody, invented rock 'n' roll. To imagine '50s pop music without their propulsive tunes-Hound Dog, Kansas City, Jailhouse Rock, Searchin', Love Potion #9, There Goes My Baby, Love Me, Yakety Yak-is pretty much to imagine the '40s. As writer-producers, impresarios on call to Elvis Presley, the Coasters, the Drifters and many more, Leiber and Stoller were the prime concocters of sass, smarts and blue-eyed soul in rock's first decade.
This week, 30 years after they chucked the teen format to write cabaret songs for the cognoscenti, these two troublemakers are On Broadway (another number they helped write). Smokey Joe's Cafe: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller is a gaudy, exuberant concert of 40 or so prime L&S tunes, directed at stock-car speed by Jerry Zaks and sold with foot-in-the-door showmanship by a cast of five guys and four gals. The evening serves as a celebration-of what L&S did and what Broadway, when it gets the spark, can still do. It is also an occasion for melancholy, for the team's songs had the distinctive voice and dramatic line of the best musical theater. Broadway blew it when, for decades, it neglected Leiber and Stoller and the songwriting generation they nurtured.
Smokey Joe's Cafe is as colorful and jaunty as the Day-Glo zoot suit that comes to life and struts through the Shoppin' for Clothes number. Choreographer Joey McKneely gives the performers a killer aerobic workout. When they're not executing brisk parodies of the goofy-cool footwork done by every backup group in the '50s, they are sexily slow dancing to L&S's low-tempo stuff or, in a gorgeous version of Spanish Harlem, bringing ballet to the barrio. These cats can sing too, both as solo stunners-check out Victor Trent Cook's rabid virtuosity on I (Who Have Nothing)-and as part of street-corner quartets that seem to have been together for years.
Because Zaks did not impose a story line on the song cycle, the show is always in danger of playing like an after-dinner revue on a cruise ship. But the music's wit and the cast's verve carry Smokey Joe's Cafe past easy nostalgia into knowledgeable evocation. Unlike the heavy production of Show Boat now on Broadway, this one sails and soars. It's not just a revival; when B.J. Crosby puts her capacious lung power to the gospelish Saved, the show is a revival meeting.
There is a connection, though, between the panoramic prettiness of Show Boat and the searchlight grittiness of Smokey Joe's Cafe. Whether or not they realized it, Leiber and Stoller were accomplishing in the '50s what Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein did in the '20s: translating the black music of church halls and barrooms into sophisticated songs that were at once true to the original spirit and acceptable to a mainstream audience. For L&S, that acceptability was a fluky byproduct of their urge to write rhythm and blues for the "race music" market. They didn't need to dilute their material for white listeners: the mainstream diverted itself to reach their fertile backwater.
Stoller, the kid composer from Long Island, found dozens of cunning variations on the traditional 12-bar blues. And Leiber, the Baltimore-born lyricist, poured his love of radio melodrama into the two-minute song. There was no June moon in the lurid Leiber landscape; it was a night town of train wrecks (Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots) and knife Ūghts (the show's title song), sawmill slicings (Along Came Jones) and countless jailbreaks. Even a love song could sound like a taunt when Leiber wrote it. Consider the capper to the Peggy Lee I'm a Woman: "I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you." Pop music was supposed to be kid stuff; Leiber and Stoller gave it a stiff drink and made it grow up fast and strong. Baby, that was rock 'n' roll.
It could have been musical theater too. But Broadway remained a musty gentlemen's club, tweaking the old formulas, calling on the same aging composers instead of summoning L&S, Randy Newman, Roy Orbison, Jimmy Webb, Jim Steinman and the whole Brill Building contingent. Every once in a while rock turns up onstage as part of an oldies package: Tommy, Leader of the Pack and, in London, compendiums of songs by Buddy Holly, Barry Manilow and ABBA. Smokey Joe's Cafe is one such package, snazzy and tightly wrapped. It's just three decades late. With Leiber and Stoller's help, there could've been a riot goin' on-on Broadway.