Written by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, this song was inspired by a real cafe, a beanery called "Smokey Joe's" which was right next to an oil well at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega. Oil wells were a very common sight in the early days of Los Angeles, but even at that it was unusual to see a greasy spoon restaurant dwelling in the shadow of one.
This was the last release on Leiber and Stoller's label Spark Records.
While rehearsing "Smokey Joe's Cafe" in their storefront studio on Melrose Avenue, a vocal coach next door to Leiber and Stoller took exception to their racket. He would come out complaining, "I'm trying to train a future opera star!" Jerry Leiber shot right back, "Hey, bring her in here. We'll teach her how to sing!"
This song is a perfect example of the point at which Leiber and Stoller began to take off into their own brand of traditional Blues mixed with a humorous Pop edge. And it also stands as the point at which The Robins evolved into The Coasters, becoming not just singers but actors of a sort as well. With The Coaster's later filmed performances of Leiber and Stoller songs such as "Charlie Brown," they demonstrated a gift for pantomiming along with the song as the characters.
When they closed Spark Records, the strength of this song led to Leiber and Stoller's next big contract at Atlantic Records. Producer Nesuhi Ertegun said that "Smokey Joe's Cafe" was sensational, but Leiber and Stoller couldn't sell as well as they could write. He expressed regret that he'd heard several Spark Records "hit songs that weren't hits." So he offered to sell their music for them.
Smokey Joe's Cafe is the name of a musical revue featuring the songs of Leiber and Stoller. The show opened on Broadway in 1995 and run until 2000. This song shows up in Act 2.
In the 1992 movie School Ties, the boys in the dorm - including Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Brendan Fraser - jam to this song.