Huey (Piano) Smith and the Rockin’ Pneumonia of New Orleans
One of the many fascinating things about New Orleans, arguably America’s most musical city, is how many of its musicians have sustained long and revered careers without the benefit of multiple hit records.
Huey (Piano) Smith, who died Monday at the age of 89, reached the top 10 on the pop charts only once, slipping in at №9 in 1958 with “Don’t You Just Know It.” His best-known record, the classic “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” peaked a year early at №52. Lyrics-wise, neither reminded anyone of Oscar Hammerstein, but if they don’t get you moving whatever you can move, you’re just not paying attention.
Huey Smith recorded another hit as well. It just got re-recorded out from under him. He cut the original version of “Sea Cruise,” which he also wrote, but his record label owner Johnny Vincent erased Smith’s vocals and replaced him with another New Orleans singer, Frankie Ford, whom Vincent hoped to turn into a teen idol.
That didn’t happen, though unlike, say, Fabian, Ford did fine on the vocals. In fact, with Smith’s band playing the instrumental track, the record sets the woods on fire. It’s just too bad the infuriated Smith got no credit or significant financial remuneration, since “Sea Cruise” has Huey Smith written all over it.
When Smith was 8 years old, he was already listening to R&B pianists like Amos Milburn, Charles Brown and New Orleans icon Roy Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair. Smith wrote his first song that year and named it “Robertson Street Boogie,” after the street where he lived.
He was still at Walter C. Cohen High School when he started performing professionally with Eddie Jones, stage name Guitar Slim. He signed a deal with Savoy Records in 1952, when he turned 18, and a year later was recording with bluesman Earl King. If everybody didn’t exactly know everybody else in New Orleans music circles, a whole lot of the music there still felt like a communal project.
In 1955 Smith played piano on Little Richard’s first sessions for Specialty Records. While Richard was a virtuoso at using the piano as a stage prop, he wasn’t very good at playing it.
Smith also played piano on sessions that produced two of New Orleans’s most enduring R&B hits, King’s “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” and Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking.”
Smith’s band for his own records included King plus sax man Lee Allen and drummer Earl Palmer, two of the great session players of rock ’n’ roll.
His vocalists on “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and “Don’t You Just Know It” included Bobby Marchan, a New Orleans fixture known for his female impersonation act, Gerri Hall and “Scarface” John Williams, a Native American whom Smith credited with bringing in the “Mardi Gras” call-and-response style that became a signature of those hits.
Lest we make the mistake of overly romanticizing the New Orleans music world, Scarface Williams was stabbed to death in 1972 while trying to break up a bar fight. He was 34. Curly Moore, who joined Smith’s band as the vocalist when Marchan went solo in 1960, was murdered in 1985 at the age of 42.
And then there’s the rest of the story with Huey (Piano) Smith. Despite a lack of subsequent hit records, he remained near the heart of the New Orleans music world for two decades, influencing young pianists with his blend of R&B, boogie-woogie and jazz and creating songs later recorded by artists from the Grateful Dead to the Beach Boys and Aerosmith.
The problem was that he never got paid, or never got paid anything like what he had fairly earned. Vincent erasing his vocals on “Sea Cruise” was damaging, but not the worst of it. Vincent also took cowriting credits on some of his songs, a common practice among label owners who realized that the real long-term money came from publishing.
Huey Smith had largely dropped out of the business by the early 1970s. He reunited different configurations of his several bands a couple of times in the late ’70s and early ’80s, for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but those reunions led nowhere. As the reissue boom of the late 20th century kept his old recordings popular and lucrative, he tried to get his share and never did. He declared bankruptcy in the ’90s and lived out his life in a modest home in Baton Rouge.
Never as flamboyant or gregarious as many of his New Orleans colleagues, he became a Jehovah’s Witness and receded almost entirely from public sight until journalist John Wirt convinced him to cooperate on a biography published in 2015. It’s a book worth reading, and it includes sobering tales like the way black musicians would have to sneak out of Southern towns after shows because the local police knew they had just been paid and would arrest them on trumped-up Jim Crow charges to relieve them of that cash.
The good news — as much for the rest of us as for Huey Smith — is that out of it all he made music that remains exhilarating. Not to mention unmistakably New Orleans.
The roster of New Orleans artists sometimes feels endless, from Louis Armstrong to Sidney Bechet, Fats Domino, Harry Connick Jr. and the Marsalis family.
So maybe it’s just a curious footnote that many of those artists surfaced only briefly outside their city.
There are exceptions, Fats Domino being the most prominent in the rock ’n’ roll era. Lloyd Price placed a half dozen records in the top 20.
But around the early ’60s, in particular, a whole string of New Orleans artists who had a record that was known across America couldn’t find a second.
Frankie Ford never had another hit after “Sea Cruise.” Joe Jones reached №3 with “You Talk Too Much,” and never scored again. Ernie K-Doe had a №1 hit with “Mother In Law” and then got nothing. Phil Phillips reached №2 with “Sea Of Love” and that was it. Chris Kenner got to №2 with “I Like It Like That” and then vanished. Barbara George hit №3 with “I Know” and then was gone. You could throw in Shirley and Lee from a few years earlier, since “Let the Good Times Roll” was bigger than their several modest follow-up hits.
Even one of the white guys, the well-liked Dr. John, only had one top-10 hit, “Right Place Wrong Time.” He still sustained a career in music, and while not all New Orleans artists reached that level, many still made a living from music for years just from their in-town popularity.
Maybe the best examples are the much-honored and well-deserving Neville brothers. Art started in the Meters, who are legendary in New Orleans and never cracked the top 20. The Meters broke up with the formation of the Neville Brothers, who never had a chart single at all.
The most successful Neville on the charts was Aaron, whose 1966 gem “Tell It Like It Is” was his one hit until 23 years later when his duet of “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt brought him back to №2 again.
A couple of New Orleans artists had two or three hits, including Lee Dorsey with “Ya-Ya” and “Working in a Coal Mine” and the Dixie Cups with the №1 “Chapel of Love” followed by “People Say.”
True, popular music is a one-hit business for artists from all over the place. What makes the New Orleans group a little different is the way so many of them worked together, sometimes under the direction of gurus like Dave Bartholomew and Allen Toussaint who didn’t have hits of their own, but wrote or produced streams of hits for others.
In a business where rewards often do not match achievement, New Orleans artists like Huey Piano Smith were often treated unkindly. They still built a shining city of American music.