Smiley Lewis

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Smiley Lewis
Birth name Overton Amos Lemons
Born (1913-07-05)July 5, 1913
Origin DeQuincy, Louisiana, U.S.
Died October 7, 1966(1966-10-07) (aged 53)
Genres Blues, New Orleans
Occupation(s) musician, songwriter
Instruments vocals, guitar
Years active 1940s-1960s

Smiley Lewis (July 5, 1913 – October 7, 1966[1]) was an American New Orleans rhythm and blues musician. The journalist Tony Russell, in his book The Blues - From Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, stated "Lewis was the unluckiest man in New Orleans. He hit on a formula for slow-rocking, small-band numbers like 'The Bells Are Ringing' and 'I Hear You Knocking' only to have Fats Domino come up behind him with similar music more ingratiatingly delivered. Lewis was practically drowned in Domino's backwash."[2]

Life and career[edit]

Lewis was born in DeQuincy, Louisiana, U.S., a rural hamlet near Lake Charles, to Jeffrey and Lillie Mae Lemons, as the second of three sons and given the name of Overton Amos Lemons.[3] His mother died while he was a child, and later Lewis named a song[4] and several automobiles after her. In his mid-teens, he hopped onto a slow-moving freight train with some friends, who jumped off when the train began to speed up. Lewis alone remained on the train, getting off when it reached its stop in New Orleans. He found boarding with a Caucasian family in the Irish Channel, eventually adopting their surname of Lewis.[5]

He began playing clubs in the French Quarter and "Tan bars" in the 7th Ward, at times billed as Smiling Lewis, a variation of the nickname earned by his lack of front teeth, and often accompanied by pianist Isidore "Tuts" Washington, whom he spent the mid-1930s with in Thomas Jefferson's Dixieland band. When the band dissolved, Lewis turned to going from one club to another, playing gigs for only tips.[6]

Lewis married Leona Robinson in 1938, the couple living with her mother until they began having children, when they moved to South Tonti Street while Lewis spent the daytime hours working odd manual labor jobs and the nights singing. During World War II, he joined Washington again, this time with Ernest "Kid" Mollier's band entertaining soldiers stationed at Fort Polk outside of Bunkie, Louisiana while also serving as the house band at the Boogie Woogie Club. The two formed a trio with drummer Herman Seals after the war ended, and again began playing the French Quarter and down Bourbon Street.

An invitation by David Braun to record a session with his DeLuxe Records followed in 1947 for the trio and resulted in the release of his debut record, Here Comes Smiley,[7] though Papa John French replaced Seals and played bass. The single "Turn On Your Volume" was a hit in local jukeboxes, but DeLuxe requested no more material and even left two other recorded sides unreleased. An invitation by Dave Bartholomew, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Lewis and was then beginning a production career with Imperial Records, led the trio to record a session in March 1950 that resulted in the song "Tee Nah Nah". Lewis scored his first national hit song with "The Bells Are Ringing" in 1952. In 1954 he recorded the original version of Bartholomew's song "Blue Monday", a hit for Fats Domino two years later.[8][9] In 1955 he achieved his biggest sales with the original recorded version of "I Hear You Knocking" (written by Bartholomew and Pearl King) featuring Huey Smith on piano.[10]

An attempt prompted by Imperial Records president Lew Chudd to attract new record buyers in 1957 saw Lewis recording pop and country music songs; the experiment failed and did nothing to boost Lewis's declining record sales. He was released from the label, and spent the early 1960s as an opening act for new performers, including Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and Ernie K-Doe, the money short and Lewis arriving at gigs via the city bus. His career rounded out with a brief stint at Okeh Records in 1961 that consisted of one single, a 45 produced by Bill "Hoss" Allen in 1964 for Dot Records, and ended with a Loma Records release of "The Bells Are Ringing", remade with record producer Allen Toussaint.

He was hospitalized in 1965 and diagnosed with an ulcer; the operation led to the discovery that Lewis had stomach cancer, and quickly a benefit was organized by Bartholomew at La Ray's on Dryades Street. In the arms of his second wife, Dorothy Ester Lemons, whom he had married only six months prior, Lewis died on October 7, 1966, three days before the benefit.

Although Lewis' Imperial singles never sold more than 100,000 copies individually, they often lent themselves success to other artists.[10] Gale Storm's pop version of "I Hear You Knocking" found its way into the top five on the charts.[11] In the 1970s, Dave Edmunds covered the song as his first hit.[12]

Elvis Presley's cover of the Lewis song "One Night" (altering one risque lyric) was #4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, and #1 on UK Singles Chart.[13] Where Lewis' "I Hear You Knocking" had been too early to break from segregation involved in U.S. radio at the time of its release,[14] Dave Edmunds' cover of the song reached number one in the UK[12] and peaked at number four in the U.S.[15] His version of the song lyrics actually names Lewis (alongside Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Huey Smith).

Lewis' track "Shame, Shame, Shame" appeared on the soundtrack accompanying a dramatic chase through a collapsing attic in the film Baby Doll in 1956. The song failed to find entry to the R&B chart. It was covered by The Merseybeats on their EP On Stage in 1964.[1] Later, Aerosmith included it on their blues album, Honkin' on Bobo. The song also provided the title for the fifth episode of HBO's original series Treme and included a re-written version of the song with lyrics critical of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

A short clip from "I Hear You Knocking" is included on Buchanan and Goodman's novelty hit, "The Flying Saucer (song)." There, in an ironic nod to his original stage name, he is referred to as "Laughing Lewis." Like everyone else whose music was appropriated for the record, Lewis did not get paid.

Key recordings[edit]

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