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Mike Stoller is fired up for 'Smokey Joe's Cafe'

The revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe" features the music

The revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe" features the music of composer Mike Stoller and lyricist Jerry Leiber. Credit: Gary Ng

Mike Stoller was supposed to be on another ship. But at the last minute, returning from Europe in July 1956, the then-aspiring songwriter from Belle Harbor and his wife snagged a small, windowless cabin on the grand Italian ship Andrea Doria. “You’ll never forget it,” a travel agent told him.

He didn’t.

Stoller (rhymes with rock and roller), along with lyricist Jerry Leiber, would help establish the rock and roll era, writing and producing some of pop music’s greatest hits of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s: “Searchin’, ” “There Goes My Baby,” “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy” and more. They're all featured in “Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber and Stoller,” a revue that debuted on Broadway in 1995 and is now back in a rousing Off-Broadway revival opening July 22 at Stage 42.

Recalling his fateful voyage, Stoller says he felt a crash when the transatlantic liner was struck by a Swedish ship off the foggy coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. She began taking on water — fast. He raced to his cabin for life preservers, and then he and his wife clung to the ship rail for hours, to keep from sliding down the listing deck.  “I remember thinking, ‘This is it — I was going to die,’ ” says Stoller, now 85.

Stoller grew up with his parents, sister, two aunts, an uncle and assorted cousins in his grandparents’ home three blocks from Jamaica Bay. At 4, his family moved to Sunnyside.  

At 8, he saw an African-American teenager playing boogie-woogie on a beat-up piano at summer camp. “He thought he was alone but I was standing in the corner, mesmerized,” Stoller recalls. “When he left, I tried to make my fingers move the same way.” Later, he trained with James P. Johnson — Fats Waller’s mentor — who taught him the 12-bar blues.

After surviving that sea voyage, Stoller and his wife divorced. He later married jazz harpist Corky Hale, won Grammys and became an inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But likely nothing compares to the moment his rescue ship docked in Manhattan and he stepped on dry ground.

“Jerry ran up and said, ‘Mike, we got a smash hit!’ ” he says, laughing. “It was ‘Hound Dog.’ I said, ‘Big Mama Thornton?’ ” referring to the African-American singer they’d written the song for in 1952. “He said, ‘No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.’ ”

After such a night, all Stoller could think was: “Elvis who?”

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