The words of ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe’

Well, here’s a song I can’t get it out of my head, so I’m gonna share it with you in what is a searching, but probably vain, hope that it will end up in YOUR head and leave mine:


By Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

One day while I was eating beans

At Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

Just sittin’ diggin’ on the scene

At Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

A chick came walkin’ through the door,

that I had never seen before.

At least I never saw her down

At Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

And I started shakin’ when she sat right down next to me.

Her knee was almost touching mine

At Smokey Joe’s Cafe.

A chill was runnin’ down my spine.

At Smokey Joe’s Cafe. (If you want the rest of the lyrics Google them).

Sung by the Robins, forerunners of the Coasters. Cool stuff, in the late ’50s. I’m back into this because Kathy and I are reading the autobiography of Leiber and Stoller, called “Hound Dog,” and it’s pretty cool as it jumps back and forth between Leiber’s take on something and Stoller’s take on something, and it’s mostly about the music – writing for the Robins, the Coasters, the Drifters, Elvis – and the New York scene and the LA scene and how two teenagers made musical history. Great stuff.

And the other songs? Man – “Yakety Yak” (you gotta read how they came up with the lyrics), “What about Us?” (as close to a civil rights song as whitey got before Baez recorded “We Shall Overcome” and Dylan wrote “Only a Pawn in Their Game”) and the naughty, for the early ’60s, “Little Egypt.”

Yeah, this line got “Little Egypt” banned from New York radio in either ’61 or ’62:

“Little Egypt came out struttin’ wearing nuttin’ but a button and a bow …”

Ohhhhhhh. The moral arbiters went NUTSO.

Or maybe it was this that got ’em:

“She had a ruby on her tummy and a diamond big as Texas on her toe

“She let her hair down and she did the hoochie-coochie real slow …”

Man, that hoochie-coochie got ’em ALL freaked out.

Of course, there was this:

“She did a triple somersault and when she hit the ground

“She winked at the audience and then she turned around

“She had a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine

“Saying Phoenix, Arizona, nineteen forty-nine.”

I don’t know, maybe the people in Arizona got weird about it.

But, you know, they needn’t have banned it and the fact that they did PROVED that the moralists never actually listened to the song because in the end, Little Egypt went straight, married the narrator and had seven kids. What could be more moral than that, eh?

See, I’m convinced that people who ban things – “Little Egypt,” “Fanny Hill,” “Tropic of Cancer,” Lenny Bruce – never really listen to, or read, what they’re banning.

“I can’t do that. I’d be forever sullied.”

“Then how do you know there’s anything wrong with it.”

“Somebody told me.”


I know that “Little Egypt” isn’t deathless prose, it isn’t Shakespeare, and it wasn’t going to make us think about the state of the world in the early ’60s, but what it could have made us think about was the state of our moralism then and how some people were so afraid of words that we chose to keep the rest of us from hearing it. What?

“Little Egypt” was gonna warp my 16-year-old mind, destroy my teenage morals? Kids, at 16 all I WANTED was to get warped. “Little Egypt” wasn’t gonna push me over the edge, any more than Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” was going to turn me into a raving vampiric sex maniac, yet it was on the banned list posted in the Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tenafly, N.J.

I watched it as often as it was on Zacherley’s “Chiller Theater” on New York TV.

See, the more you tell people something will warp their minds, the more interested they are in finding out about it. That being the case, why don’t we tell them that studying history will warp their minds, that studying a foreign language will destroy their morals?

How about:

“Kids, exercise will turn you vampiric and then you, too, will be flying around trying to find Mina Harker!”

Kids’d be out running marathons every day. I would.

Anyway, please, for the love of Puritanism, take the words of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” into YOUR head so when I’m trying to get to sleep at night, I can think about something else but that woman with the sweet perfume.

Little Egypt, maybe.