As a musician, Matt Oestreicher was familiar with songs like “Charlie Brown,” “Love Potion #9” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
He was not, however, familiar with the names Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Oestreicher is in his mid-30s. The songwriting duo’s heyday was the mid-20th century. As in, last century.
Today, Oestreicher knows all about them. The son of longtime Westport dermatologist Mark Oestreicher, and brother of entertainer/artist/writer Amy Oestreicher, even knows Stoller personally.
The songwriter — now 85 years old — is working closely with the cast of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” The long-running musical revue/review of Lieber and Stoller’s career opened off-Broadway on Sunday at Stage 42.
And Oestreicher is the show’s music director and conductor.
Stage 42 is just an hour from Westport, where Oestreicher’s parents live. But the road there was not exactly straight and smooth.
After graduating from Hamden Hall Country Day School, Oestreicher began a 5-year Tufts University/New England Conservatory dual degree program as a pre-med and economics major.
He graduated in 2000 with a degree in philosophy and music.
He went to work for Paine Webber in Fairfield. But finance was not for him.
For the next decade or so Oestreicher performed on cruise ships in Mexico and Hawaii; studied yoga and meditation in Massachusetts; toured internationally with a Phish-like jam band and jazz artist Melvin Sparks; opened for Blink 182, Weezer and Lady Gaga; appeared on Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel’s TV shows, and did odd jobs for Ram Dass.
Then came a stint playing keyboards and guitar with the Apollo house band. He worked with Stevie Wonder, will.i.am, John Legend, Snoop Dogg, Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys and Bon Jovi.
Two years ago, he was asked to work on the “Smokey Joe’s” revival. Which is how — with Jerry Leiber gone since 2011 — Mike Stoller is now collaborating with Matt Oestreicher.
“I always loved their songs,” Oestreicher says. “I knew they collaborated with artists like Elvis and the Drifters. But I didn’t really know how much great music they wrote.”
He’s getting a musical history lesson from Stoller. The songwriter tells Oestreicher — 50 years his junior — how he and his partner wrote “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton. The songwriters were in Europe 3 years later. When they returned to the US, they learned it was a monster hit for a kid named Elvis Presley.
Stoller also talks about the story behind “Stand by Me.” That way, Oestreicher says, “we can bring it authentically to life.”
As music director and conductor, Oestreicher’s job is liaison between “the songs and everything else.” He makes sure the tunes are translated well to and by the band, and that the actors know the music.
Of course, he also leads the band.
“Mike talks about the sincerity and the innocence of their music,” Oestreicher notes. “If we play in a way that’s not true to it, he quickly gets us back on track.”
Leiber and Stoller’s music — as conveyed through “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” — reaches older audiences familiar with it, and younger ones who are not, he says.
Matt Oestreicher’s still-short life — with all its twists and turns, from Paine Webber to off-Broadway — is quite a story.
Leiber and Stoller could probably have turned it into quite a hit song.
(Matt Oestreicher also produces the podcast “The Mindful Musician,” which explores the forces shaping the music industry, and the inner worlds of artists. Hat tip: Nadine Cherna.)