on this day


Pianist/singer/songwriter/bandleader Huey “Piano” Smith, whose rambunctious songs propelled the sound of New Orleans R&B into the pop Top 10 in the late 1950s, died on February 13 , 2023 in his sleep at his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 89.
Smith married Margrette Riley in 1971. She survives him, along with his children Ms. Acquelyn Donsereaux, Sherilyn Smith, Huerilyn Smith, Hugh Smith, Katherine Smith, Tanisha Smith, Tyra Smith and Glenda Bold; his stepson, James L. Riley Jr.; 18 grandchildren; and 47 great-grandchildren. His daughter Acquelyn Donsereaux confirmed his death on February 20th, but no cause was given.
Smith wrote songs that became cornerstones of New Orleans R&B and rock ’n’ roll perennials, notably “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t You Just Know It” and “Sea Cruise.”
As a pianist and bandleader, Smith was known for strong left-hand bass lines, splashy right hand and forceful backbeat. He was influenced by the innovative work of Professor Longhair, and became known for his shuffling right-handed break on the piano that influenced other Southern players, yet he didn’t take center stage. His band, the Clowns, was fronted by a group of dancing lead vocalists, among them Bobby Marchan, who often performed wearing women’s clothes.
Huey Pierce Smith was born on January 26, 1934, in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana as the son of Arthur Smith, a roofer and sugar cane cutter, and Carrie Victoria (Scott) Smith, who worked at a laundry.
As a boy, Smith took up piano, learning by watching his uncle play, and he soon mastered the eight-bar progression that anchored countless blues songs. He 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 Percy Anderson, with the two billing themselves as Slick and Doc. Smith attended Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans. He played obsessively, sometimes to the annoyance of his neighbors, and in high school he helped start the band the Joy Jumpers.
He soon taught himself to play boogie-woogie piano, strongly influenced by the New Orleans master Professor Longhair, and by his teens was performing regularly at the Dew Drop Café, a top Black club in what was still a segregated city. He would eventually absorb a wide range of styles, whether the jazz of Jelly Roll Martin or the rock-rhythm and blues of Fats Domino.
“I took up to tryin’ a variety of music other than just one individual style,” he told Wirt. “I like my own style, but my own style is completely different than rhythm-and-blues, or calypso or any of that. It’s just deep down funk.”
He formed a duo with Eddie Lee Jones, who performed and recorded as Guitar Slim and who gave him the “Piano” moniker. When Smith was 15, he began working in clubs and recording with the flamboyant 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. Smith also became a regular session player at J&M, the recording studio owned by Cosimo Matassa, where the sound of classic New Orleans R&B was forged, playing 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 Rebennack, 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.
He formed the Clowns in 1957 with sometime vocalist Bobby Marchan, and signed a long-term contract with Ace Records, represented by former Specialty record producer Johnny Vincent.
and had a nationwide hit that year with “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (later versions often rendered it as “Rockin’”) 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, reaching #5 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and #52 on the pop chart. A medical-minded follow-up, “Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues,” didn’t fare as well, but Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns hit the Billboard charts with several follow-up singles in succession. The Clowns also were known for “Don’t You Just Know It”, “We Like Birdland”, “Well I’ll Be John Brown” and “High Blood Pressure.”
With his new career as a bandleader thriving, Smith married Doretha Ford in 1957. They had five children before they divorced in the mid-1960s.
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.”
Smith and the Clowns reached the pop Top 10 in 1958 with the wry “Don’t You Just Know It.” The title was a phrase often used by the band’s bus driver, Rudy Ray Moore, who would go on to a career as a bawdy comedian and the star of the “Dolemite” movies.
That same year, Smith recorded “Sea Cruise.” Johnny Vincent, the owner of his label, Ace Records, was a partner in a distribution company, Record Sales Inc., with Johnny Caronna. The day after Smith recorded the music for “Sea Cruise,” planning to have the Clowns add vocals, Caronna claimed the song for a teenage singer he was managing, Frank Guzzo, professionally known as Frankie Ford.
According to biographer John Wirt, whose “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues” came out in 2014, Smith was told, “Johnny Vincent agreed that if you can sell a million on this record, Frankie can sell 10 million.”
Smith later recalled, “I had been drinking a little bit. It hurt me to my heart when he told me he was taking that.”
Vincent, who died in 2000, also claimed co-writing credits on many songs Smith wrote and recorded for Ace, including his hits, although he later relinquished those credits.
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 #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 #9 on the Billboard Pop chart and #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 Curley Moore, Gerri Hall and Billy Brooks on another one of Smith’s unreleased tracks, to produce “Pop-Eye”, the last hit single credited to Smith. Moore 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.”
Smith returned to Ace to record a rollicking holiday album, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” on which he declaimed the title poem over a jaunty horn section.
With the British Invasion of the 1960s, guitar-driven rock supplanted piano-centered New Orleans R&B on the pop charts. Smith continued to record on the Pitter Pat and Instant labels through the late 1960s, under his own name and others, and he had some regional hits. He also wrote and produced songs for other performers, notably Skip Easterling, who had a hit across the South in 1970 with Smith’s funk reworking of the Muddy Waters standard “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
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.
Barely able to make a living from his music in the early 1970s, Smith turned to other work. He started a gardening business, Smith’s Dependable Gardening Service. He also became a Jehovah’s Witness and gave up drinking and smoking.
Meanwhile, the value of his old songs was increasing. In 1972, Johnny Rivers’s remake of “Rocking Pneumonia” reached #6 on the pop chart. Dr. John included a medley of Smith’s songs on his album “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” and Ace Records rereleased Smith’s songs on compilation albums.
Smith made a new recording with a band named Skor in 1977 at Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans. This recording was released as the album, “Rockin’ & Jivin'” by the British record label, Charly Records, in 1981. This album was the final studio recording by Smith.
Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns also appeared at Tipitina’s in New Orleans and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1981, but they did not perform after these two shows.In 1979, Smith along with the re-formed version of the Clowns made his debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The members included Bobby Marchan, Gerri Hall, Roosevelt Wright, and Curley Moore.
Smith performed occasionally as the 1970s ended. At the New Orleans club Tipitina’s and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1979 and 1981, he reunited with singers from the Clowns’ peak years. At the 1981 festival, his musicians included the Meters’ rhythm section: George Porter on bass and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums.
Smith moved to Baton Rouge in 1980 and stopped performing soon after that. His catalog continued to be heard in cover versions, on movie soundtracks, in commercials and in reissues, but bad deals deprived him of much of his royalty income.
On December 17, 1985, Curley Moore was found murdered in Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was 42 years old.
In a series of lawsuits from 1988 to 2000, Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation (a company Smith had engaged in 1982 to help collect back royalties and then fired in 1984) demanded and won a 50 percent share of Smith’s ongoing royalty income from four of his biggest songs, including “Rocking Pneumonia.”
Smith declared bankruptcy in 1997; by then, he had pawned his piano. When full rights to the four songs were sold for $1 million to the publisher Cotillion Music in 2000, Mr. Smith remained entitled to foreign royalties but netted less than $100,000 to escape bankruptcy.
The Rhythm & Blues Foundation gave Smith its $15,000 Pioneer Award in 2000, and he gave his last major performance at the foundation’s gala. 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.
Mac Rebennack, the New Orleans pianist, guitarist and singer who recorded as Dr. John, received vital early songwriting guidance from Smith, according to Mr. Wirt’s biography. “Anyone who can talk can write a song,” he recalled being told. “So whatever you got to say, play good music and say it. You just put it where you need to say it.”
Smith, Rebennack said, also advised, “If you don’t have a song that’s got some kind of simple melody people can hum, sing with and roll with, it’s like, what do you got?”
Smith’s lyrics were full of droll wordplay and irresistible nonsense-syllable choruses. “I use slangs and things like that,” he was quoted as saying in Wirt’s biography, “When you put the music with words and things together, the songs just make themselves. And after you listen at it, it says something its own self, that you hadn’t planned.”
Smith, Rebennack said, also advised, “If you don’t have a song that’s got some kind of simple melody people can hum, sing with and roll with, it’s like, what do you got?”
“To me he was the man who got more out of simplicity than anybody in New Orleans,” 
drummer Earl Palmer told Wirt.
Smith’s songs have been covered by Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Rivers, Patti LaBelle, Jphn Fogerty, The Beach Boys, Deep Purple and many others. But he struggled to collect royalties through more than a decade of lawsuits, and in the 1990s he filed for bankruptcy.

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