Huey "Piano" Smith
Huey "Piano" Smith
|Birth name||Huey Pierce Smith|
|Born||January 26, 1934|
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
|Genres||Rock & roll, R&B|
|Occupation(s)||Pianist, songwriter, band leader|
|Labels||Savoy, Ace, Imperial|
|Associated acts||Curley Moore, Bobby Marchan, Charles "Hungry" Williams, "Scarface" John Williams|
Huey Pierce Smith, known as 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 rhythm-and-blues style of Fats Domino. Steve Huey of AllMusic noted that "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.'"
Smith was born in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. He 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 "Robertson Street Boogie", named after the street where he lived, on the piano, when he was eight years old. He performed the tune with a friend, with the two billing themselves as Slick and Dark. Smith attended McDowell High School and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.
When Smith was fifteen, he began working in clubs and recording with his flamboyant partner, Eddie Jones, who rose to fame as Guitar Slim. When Smith 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 became the piano player with Little Richard's first band in sessions 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 1956, Smith recorded for Ace Records' with his Rhythm Aces. The A-side of the record was "Little Liza Jane", backed with "Everybody's Whalin'". On the session, in addition to Smith on piano, were sax man Lee Allen, Earl King on guitar, and Earl Palmer on drums. The Rhythm Aces consisted of vocalists Dave Dixon, Roland Cook, and Issacher "Izzycoo" Gordon. Mac Rebennac, also known as Dr. John, said, "And Huey was catching the real second line on 'Little Liza Jane'. Of course he had the right cats doing it, but he had that instinct for getting it. And with Dave Dixon and Izzycoo (Gordon) singing on it, man, he couldn't get no better." Gordon, who also sang with another notable New Orleans vocal group The Spiders, recorded Smith's Latin-tinged "Blow Wind Blow" under the name "Junior" Gordon in 1956.
In 1957, he formed a band, Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, with sometime vocalist Bobby Marchan, and signed a long-term contract with Ace Records, represented by former Specialty record producer Johnny Vincent. Smith and the Clowns recorded "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" with singers Sidney Rayfield (Huey's barber) and eighteen-year-old "Scarface" John Williams joining him on vocals. Not caring for the sound of his own voice, Huey instructed Williams to move closer to the microphone. "Get in closer, John," he said. "I'm trying to get a hit out of this." The record was issued as "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 1" on the A-side and "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 2" (an instrumental) on the flip side by Ace Records' John Vincent. The record sold over one million copies, achieving gold disc status. Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns hit the Billboard charts with several follow-up singles in succession.
It was "Scarface" John Williams who contributed the trademark "Mardi Gras" sound to Huey Smith's records. He was a member of the Apache Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. He sang lead on "Genevieve", "Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas And The Sinus Blues", "Beatnik Blues", and "Quit My Job", and contributed vocals to "Don't You Just Know It", "Pop-Eye", "Just A Lonely Clown", and others. Williams left the Clowns in 1959 and formed the Tick Tocks. New Orleans musician Aaron Neville said " I was close with Scarface when we were teens. He sang with Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns in the early 1950s and then with the Tick Tocks--significant R&B groups in New Orleans. Scarface and I hung out a lot at the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street. One night in March 1972, he was stabbed trying to stop a fight in front of a club on Dryades Street. His death was a big blow, not only because he was a well-known musician but also because he was the Big Chief of the Mo Hawk (sic) Hunters and a friend of our uncle, Big Chief Jolly, who was chief of his Mardi Gras Indian tribe." Art Neville added, "My three brothers and I were all singers and musicians, but we didn't officially come together as a group until 1976, when we sang back-up harmony on 'The Wild Tchoupitoulas'--my Uncle Jolly's album. It was named after his tribe and featured Mardi Gras Indian call-and-response chants. Members of the New Orleans band the Meters were on there, and it was co-produced by Allen Toussaint. That's the first time we recorded Cyril's "Brother John." "In the case of "Brother John,", Cyril Neville noted, "I wrote the lyrics in the early '70s with my Uncle Jolly [George Landry]. They're set to a song with an African rhythm that was popular with every Mardi Gras Indian tribe then. James "Sugar Boy" Crawford was first to popularize this rhythm on his 1954 hit "Jock-a-Mo." I wrote "Brother John's" lyrics with my uncle as a tribute to a friend--John 'Scarface' Williams--who had been killed a short time earlier."
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 by Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, including "We Like Birdland", "Well I'll Be John Brown", and "Don't You Know Yockomo" (a cover version of which, recorded by the New Zealand artist Dinah Lee, reached number 1 in both New Zealand and Australia in 1964).
The Clowns' most famous single, released in 1958, was "Don't You Just Know It" backed with "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 removed Smith's vocal track from the original recording of his song "Sea Cruise" and replaced it with a vocal track by singer Frankie Ford. The song was Ford's first hit, selling over a million copies. Ace's decision to release the song with the Ford vocal and to not release Smith's original version meant that Smith was unable to fully benefit from his own work, and the move by Ace is considered by music historians to be an example of racial injustice in the 1950s pop-music industry. (Smith's original version of the song was eventually released.)
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 "Scarface" John Williams on another one of Smith's unreleased tracks, to produce "Pop-Eye", the last hit single credited to Smith.
One of the vocalists for the Clowns during the late 1950s and 1960s was Curley Moore (1943–1985), who also had minor regional solo hits under his own name, including "Don't Pity Me", recorded for SanSu Records; "Soul Train", on Hotline Records; and "Get Low Down." in 1979, Moore joined a re-formed version of the Clowns with Smith at the 1979 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Moore was murdered; his body was found in Algiers, Louisiana, near New Orleans, in December 1985 . He was 42 years old.
In the years following, Smith made several comebacks, performing as Huey "Piano" Smith and His Clowns, the Hueys, the Pitter Pats, and Shindig Smith and the Soul Shakers, but he has never attained his former degree of success. A new recording of “Rocking Pneumonia”- featuring original vocalist “Scarface” John Williams- came out on Atlantic Records subsidiary label Cotillion in 1972. It had been recorded along with remakes “High Blood Pressure”, “Don’t You Just Know It”, and “We Like Mambo” in 1970. Williams by this time had become a chief of the Apache Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and “We Like Mambo” contained Indian references.
In 2000, Smith was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In his acceptance speech he said, "Actually you might not believe it, but this is a debut for me. It was Huey Smith and the Clowns, men like Curley Moore, Bobby Marchan, Roosevelt Wright, and John Williams." When the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame honored Smith a year later, he said humbly that the honor mainly belonged to the Clowns. "I had the group the Pitter Pats and also the Hueys, but, now, very important is the members of the Clowns"- Bobby Marchan, Curley Moore, "Scarface" John Williams", and Gerri Hall.
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