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Huey "Piano" Smith was an important part of the great New Orleans piano tradition, following in the footsteps of Professor Longhair and Fats Domino to take his place among the Crescent City's R&B elite. He was also one of R&B's great comedians, his best singles matching the Coasters for genial, good-time humor, although his taste often ran more towards nonsense lyrics. Smith's sound was too earthy to match the pop crossover appeal of Domino or the Coasters, which limited his exposure, and he couldn't match the latter's amazing consistency, lacking their reliable supply of material. But at the peak of his game, Smith epitomized New Orleans R&B at its most infectious and rollicking, as showcased on his classic signature tune "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu."
Huey Smith was born in New Orleans on January 26, 1934, and began playing the piano at age 15. At the dawn of the '50s, Smith backed New Orleans guitar legends Earl King and Guitar Slim, and quickly became a popular session pianist, playing on records by the cream of the New Orleans R&B scene: Smiley Lewis (the classic "I Hear You Knockin'"), Lloyd Price, and Little Richard. During the mid-'50s, Smith began leading his own band, the Clowns, which usually featured popular local blues singer and female impersonator Bobby Marchan on lead vocals. Smith & the Clowns signed with the Ace label and scored a breakout Top Five R&B hit in 1957 with "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu," which despite becoming a classic rock & roll standard didn't even make the pop Top 40, thanks to reticent white radio programmers. The following year, Smith scored his biggest hit with the double-sided smash "Don't You Just Know It"/"High Blood Pressure," which reached the pop Top Ten and the R&B Top Five. In 1959, Smith cut the original tune "Sea Cruise," and seeking pop radio airplay, Ace had white teenage R&B singer Frankie Ford overdub his own vocal onto Smith's backing track; the result became a nationwide hit.
Smith cut a few novelty numbers in an attempt to duplicate the success of "Rockin' Pneumonia," some even using the same type of illness joke ("Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues," for example). It didn't work, and Marchan left the Clowns after scoring a solo hit with "There Is Something on Your Mind" in 1960; he was replaced by female singer Gerry Hall and male vocalist Curley Moore. Smith switched briefly to the Imperial label, then returned to Ace for one last chart single in 1962, "Pop Eye." Smith spent part of the '60s recording for Instant and touring not only with the Clowns, but alternate groups the Hueys and the Pitter Pats as well. Unable to return to the charts, he eventually converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses and left the music industry permanently.
Huey "Piano" Smith (born January 26, 1934, New Orleans, Louisiana) is an American rhythm and blues pianist whose sound was influential in the development of rock and roll.
His piano playing incorporated the boogie styles of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons; the jazz style of Jelly Roll Morton; and the piano playing of Fats Domino. Allmusic journalist Steve Huey also noted "At the peak of his game, Smith epitomized New Orleans R&B at its most infectious and rollicking, as showcased on his classic signature tune, 'Don't You Just Know It.'"Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 96. ISBN 0-214-20512-6. "Biography by Steve Huey". Allmusic.com. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
Smith was born in New Orleans' Central City, and was influenced by the innovative work of Professor Longhair. He became known for his shuffling right-handed break on the piano that influenced other Southern players.
Smith wrote his first song on the piano, "Robertson Street Boogie" (named after the street where he lived), when he was only eight years old, and performed the tune with a friend. They billed themselves as Slick and Dark. Smith attended McDowell High and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. When Smith was fifteen he began working in clubs and recording records with his flamboyant partner, Eddie Jones, who rose to fame as Guitar Slim. When he was eighteen, in 1952, he signed a recording contract with Savoy Records, which released his first known single, "You Made Me Cry". In 1953 Smith recorded with Earl King.
In 1955, Smith turned 21, and became the piano player with Little Richard's first band for Specialty Records. The same year he also played piano on several studio sessions for other artists such as Lloyd Price. Two of the sessions resulted in hits for Earl King ("Those Lonely Lonely Nights"), and Smiley Lewis ("I Hear You Knocking").
In 1957, Smith formed 'Huey 'Piano' Smith and His Clowns' with Bobby Marchan, and signed a long term contract with former Specialty record producer, Johnny Vincent at Ace Records. They hit the Billboard charts with several singles in succession, including "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu". The record was issued as "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 1" on the topside (a vocal) and "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 2", an instrumental, on the flip. The lyrics were written by John Vincent, and the record sold over one million copies, achieving gold disc status.
In 1958, Vin Records, a subsidiary of Ace Records, released a popular single "Little Chickee Wah Wah" with Clowns singer Gerri Hall, under the billing of Huey and Jerry. (This song is sometimes confused with the similarly titled 1956 single "Chickie Wah Wah" by Bobby Marchan, which has entirely different lyrics, tempo, chord structure and melody; the Vincent-Smith composition is built around the melody of the old black children's play-song "Little Sally Walker.")
Meanwhile, Ace Records released several more singles from 'Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns', including "We Like Birdland", "Well I'll Be John Brown", and "Don't You Know Yockomo." (Later, in 1964, New Zealand artist Dinah Lee took her cover version of this last song to number 1 in both New Zealand & Australia.)
The Clowns' most famous single, released in 1958, was "Don't You Just Know It" b/w "High Blood Pressure." This hit number 9 on the Billboard Pop chart and number 4 on the Rhythm and Blues chart. It was their second million seller.
In 1959, Ace Records erased Huey Smith's vocal track from the now classic single Smith composed, arranged and performed entitled "Sea Cruise", and replaced it with a vocal track by white singer Frankie Ford. The tune was a huge hit for Ford.
Smith left Ace Records for Imperial Records, to record with Fats Domino's noted producer (and fellow Louisianan) Dave Bartholomew, but the national hits did not follow. Instead, Ace Records again overdubbed new vocals by Gerri Hall, Billy Roosevelt and Johnny Williams on another one of Smith's unreleased tracks, to produce the last hit single credited to Huey "Piano" Smith, entitled "Pop-Eye".
In the years following, he made several comebacks, performing as 'Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns', 'The Hueys', 'The Pitter Pats', and as 'Shindig Smith and the Soul Shakers', but he has never attained his former degree of success.
In 2000, Smith was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 157. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. Kennedy, Rick, and McNutt, Randy (1999). Little Labels—Big Sound, p. 132. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33548-5. Nite, Norm N. Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock n' Roll (The Solid Gold Years). Thomas Y. Crowell (1974), p. 573. ISBN 0-690-00583-0. Russell, Tony (1997). The Blues: From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray. Dubai: Carlton Books Limited. p. 131. ISBN 1-85868-255-X. Cite error: The named reference AMG was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Bogdanov, Vladimir, et al. (eds.) (4th ed. 2001). All Music Guide, p. 372. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-627-0. Cite error: The named reference The_Book_of_Golden_Discs was invoked but never defined (see the help page). Koster, Rick (2002). Louisiana Music, p. 92. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81003-4. "Rhythm & Blues Foundation - Preserving America’s Soul". www.rhythm-n-blues.org. Retrieved 2009-10-11.