Huey “Piano” Smith

TrackSingle
Everybody's Whalin'Ace 521
Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu (Part 1)Ace 530
I Think You Jiving MeVin 1000
High Blood PressureAce 545
Don't You Just Know ItAce 545
Well I'll Be John BrownAce 553
Would You Believe It (I Have A Cold)Ace 562
Dearest Darling (You're The One)Ace 571
Blues '67 Pt 1White Cliffs 266
Ballad Of A BlackmanInstant 3305

Huey Smith photo 1

 

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Huey “Piano” Smith playlist

 

Huey Smith poster 1

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES

#15 HUEY “PIANO” SMITH

 

The hit record that Huey Smith never had. It didn’t have his name on it. Well, it did, but in small print, bracketed in the composer credits, and in similar miniscule characters stating “with Huey “Piano” Smith and Orch.” underneath FRANKIE FORD in large caps. Don’t know the story? Well, here goes:

Having established a solid reputation as A&R Man at Specialty Records of L.A. where he worked with several of their big names, budding music biz entrepreneur Johnny Vincent (born Vincent Imbragulio, but Art Rupe, boss man of Specialty, thought Johnny Vincent sounded better) founded his own label, Ace Records, in Jackson, Mississippi, less than 200 miles from New Orleans. Initially, the Ace list largely focused on blues with the occasional diversion but it quickly settled down to an output of blues but with a distinctly New Orleans flavour, plus R&B from artists like Earl King and Eddie Bo. Huey “Piano” Smith was one such musician who had some minor hits at Ace culminating in his real biggie, High Blood Pressure c/w Don’t You Just Know It which hit #9 in the Hot 100 in spring 1958. Further records from Huey in ’58 did relatively little. Meanwhile Vincent, convinced that he wasn’t going to see regular pop chart action from his stable of black artists, picked up some white youngsters who he envisaged might just give him such success. The first of these was Jimmy Clanton, followed by Frankie Ford.

In late 1958, Huey and the boys cut two songs, Sea Cruise and Loberta, and Huey was convinced he had the so far elusive big follow-up to High Blood Pressure / Don’t You Just Know It in his hands. Johnny though, had other ideas. He wiped the original vocal and overdubbed the backing track with the voice of Frankie Ford, added foghorns and bells to Sea Cruise and turned Loberta into Roberta. And it became a hit, not quite as big as Huey’s earlier track, stalling at #14, but still a satisfactory return. At least I would guess that was Johnny’s reaction.

Quite how much Huey knew about what went on seems to vary depending on which account you read. Some suggest that he was entirely in the dark but Michael Kirby writing in the Wayback Attack essay on Frankie Ford says, “Huey wanted Sea Cruise for himself (he had written it) but Vincent convinced him to let Frankie take a stab at it.” Regardless of the fine detail, the whole episode does leave a very sour taste in the mouth and it’s likely that it also soured the relationship between Huey and his label manager considerably.

Moving away from those thoughts and on to the actual results of Johnny Vincent’s handiwork (not forgetting Frankie’s effort) this is the resulting Sea Cruise:

And here is the original Huey Smith version which eventually appeared on 1971’s Huey “Piano” Smith’s Rock & Roll Revival LP. The vocal comes from Huey plus Gerri Hall, one of his regular singers. The track was essentially a demo cut by Huey & team with the original plan being for Bobby Marchan to take over the lead vocal role. (Bobby makes his entrance in “The Story”- below.)

I didn’t pick up that LP at the time or even later so the ‘naked’ original comes as new to me and, at risk of being accused of heresy, I still prefer the Vincent version, Frankie, foghorns and all. I think it’s mainly the more shrill voice cutting through the backdrop that does it. Whichever interpretation you go for just listen to those saxes and that beat; this is one of the key records which has led to those claims of New Orleans being one of the sources of ska and reggae.

 

 

THE STORY

Huey Pierce Smith was born in New Orleans on 26th January 1934. He was playing piano by the age of 15 and in the early 50s was getting regular work backing some of the big names in the city like Earl King and Guitar Slim. In 1952, he made his first single, You Made Me Cry c/w You’re Down With Me for Savoy Records. Both were pounding blues of the style favoured by his regular partner Eddie Jones (Guitar Slim). He started picking up frequent session bookings at Cosimo Matassa’s Studio and appeared on records from Smiley Lewis (that was him on the intro to I Hear You Knocking), Lloyd Price and Little Richard. He started putting a vocal team and band together, the outfit which would later be known as the Clowns. The guys got a contract in 1956 with Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records.

Record #1 for Huey at Ace came out at the tail end of ˈ56. It coupled Everybody’s Whalin’ with Little Liza Jane with performer credit going to Huey Smith and his Rhythm Aces. Both sides were distinctly unlike what I would term the mainstream of New Orleans R&B music coming from the likes of Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. They were, at the same time, both more simple and more complex. More on that music later.

Ace records from #2 onwards were credited to Huey Smith and the Clowns or Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns (with minor variations). A few words on the Clowns would be a good idea. Huey himself was a reluctant vocalist so picked up the concept which Billy Ward had patented with “Billy Ward and the Dominoes” of having the non-singing man in charge being the named leader of the vocal group with that group being the Clowns. The original Clowns consisted of Dave Dixon, Junior “Izzycoo” Gordon and Roland Cook but that make-up was changed during 1957 by the addition of lead singers Gerri Hall, John “Scarface” Williams and Bobby Marchan. Information isn’t readily forthcoming on the members of Huey’s road band. In the studio he’d regularly use members of the New Orleans A team: Lee Allen, Red Tyler, Earl Palmer etc., but these guys probably had too many other calls on their time to be on the road with Huey. But he coped and all sources tell us that Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns went down a real storm on stage.

Record #2 with the new names on board went one step better than #1; it became Huey’s first hit and quite a big one at that: #5 in the R&B Chart and #52 Pop, which might not sound that massive but it continued to sell over time, reaching the million sold mark. The record was Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu Parts 1 and 2. Three releases later, he was back in the charts again in an even bigger way, just breaching the Pop Top Ten with the double A-sider High Blood Pressure / Don’t You Just Know It. In terms of sales this was to be the high point of the Smith career. It even caused some heads to turn on this side of the pond with HMV giving Huey his first UK release, albeit five months later than the US one and I don’t recall any plugging taking place for either side. This was but part of the starve-the-UK-public of Huey Smith records campaign from the establishment, until Guy Stevens attempted to single-handedly overturn that attitude on the Sue UK label in the mid-sixties. Which action was near replicated decades later by Mark Lamarr.

I digress. Other than a #56 Hot 100 showing in 1959 for Don’t You Know Yockomo, Huey’s later Ace records didn’t garner sales and, frustrated by lack of further success plus lack of financial recognition for his work – an issue which would continue to fester in later years and never saw proper resolution – he moved to Imperial in late 1960 with one record on an indie label (Spinett) in between, masquerading as “Snuffy Smith” and it’s so obscure that it hasn’t even made it to YouTube.

The Imperial stay didn’t last long. The fact that he’d moved didn’t stop Johnny Vincent issuing Huey Smith singles from the built-up backlog. In January 1962, Ace released the single Popeye / Scald-Dog credited to Huey Smith and the Clowns. The A-side consisted of a backing track from the usual team, over which Johnny had transposed the vocals of Gerri Hall, Curley Moore and Billy Brooks over lyrics specifically written to capitalise on the new Popeye dance craze (source: John Broven in “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans” Chapter 13). And it worked. Number 51 in the Hot 100 wasn’t something to sneeze at. It blew Huey’s contract at Imperial of course leaving the two principals at loggerheads but that probably didn’t worry Johnny.

This is the record. Note the line “The Originators of The Popeye Dance” underneath the credits.

After Ace folded, Huey spent most of his later recording years from the mid/late sixties to the early seventies with Joe Banashak’s Instant label, sometimes recording under alternate names like the Pitter Pats, sometimes his own. Stylistically, he moved more towards soul and then funk. His records continued to sell in the Crescent City but outside of a small core of devoted fans, his name was largely forgotten elsewhere. Eventually, disheartened by lack of reaction to his records he left the music business altogether, became a Jehovah’s Witness and devoted much of his later life to attempts to win back control of his song copyrights. My understanding is that this period is covered very well in John Wirt’s biography, “Huey “Piano” Smith And The Rocking Pneumonia Blues” (published in 2014) though I haven’t read the book.

Huey is still with us and is living in Baton Rouge.

 

 

THE MUSIC

Everybody’s Whalin’ – Latin jumper with hints of counter rhythms that conjure up visions of marching along all those streets with evocative names. Minimalist lyrics which do little more than encourage band members to do their thing. Reappeared less than a year later with Clown Junior Gordon behind the mike as Blow Wind Blow but here’s the original:

Little Liza Jane – Ultra simplistic trad. arr. nursery rhyme semi-chant style but with marked resemblance in delivery to what would appear over a decade later from James Brown as a multi-part riff though with the bulk of the work handled by individual and grouped Clowns.

Hindsight suggests that the single containing the above pair was little more than some warming up exercises before the next one and one wonders just how long Huey had had it in his kitbag waiting for the right moment to dig it out.

Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu – Your attention constantly switches between the riffing horns, that piano and Johnny “Scarface” Williams’ vocal. This is what Dave Marsh said about it:

“The classic New Orleans shuffle is a deterioration of parade rhythms and that makes Rockin’ Pneumonia a true classic of the locale, because these guys could really strut their stuff.”

Huey would return to this track for inspiration on numerous occasions using either its melody line and rhythm and the illness theme either singly or combined. Or, he might use the intro only …

… as in Just A Lonely Clown, the very next single where the formal structure with seemingly informal additions brings to mind that multi-part riff thing again.

Little Chickeee Wah Wah, disc #4 from HPS and the Clowns, had the basic building blocks of “Rockin’ Pneumonia” but the differing scansion provided an element of disguise, as also did its appearance on Ace subsidiary, Vin Records, plus the fact that it was credited to Huey and Jerry as in Mr Huey Smith and Ms Gerri Hall. An attempt, presumably, to rival those other New Orleans songbirds, Shirley and Lee. Charming as this one is, its level of charm is delightfully exceeded by the flip, I Think You Jiving Me, which managed not to plunder any of the tropes we’ve come across so far and on which young Huey is so astounded at the possibility that Ms Hall might be soft on him that he utters that title line.

All of which leads me in no uncertain manner to Huey’s double sider High Blood Pressure and Don’t You Just Know It. The A-side was an unashamed return to all those things that made “Rockin’ Pneumonia” so memorable with a stunning barrelhouse break from Huey thrown in. Coasters comparisons do come to mind – and I’ve surprised myself by not mentioning them so far – but the Coasters weren’t the first to use those vocal gimmicks, they’re just the guys who regularly assembled the tropes so brilliantly that we just can’t forget them.

My eyes get to jumpin’ up and down in vain
My heart just a-jumpin’ up and down it’s a strain
Shivers up and down my spine it’s true
My face started sweatin’ and (it’s all because of you)
I get a high blood pressure ’cause I’m your man, oh yeah

And Don’t You Just Know It. Wasn’t this just marvellous? Perhaps the greatest thing that Huey and the guys ever did. Yes, the Coasters come to mind again but they’re quickly banished. No one but Huey’s bubbling over team could have delivered this wonderful chunk of gibberish with gooba goobas and ah hah hah hahs and call and response so dense that you forget who’s calling and who’s responding. A pre-funk masterpiece.

Follow that pair, indeed. Well they did but only musically. In terms of sales it seemed as if a fickle public had moved elsewhere. Let’s dwell on those goodies though:

Well I’ll Be John Brown – The first thing that strikes you is what great scenery Huey has provided for his storyteller to operate in with background singers and rumbling, riffing horns almost stealing the show, and then, and then – apologies I’m back with the Coasters again, and that was me not Huey – there’s that punchline. This is that final line in full – “And I ain’t gonna stand no fooling ‘round with you, if I do, if I do (different voice), well I’ll be John Brown (different voice again)”. The nearest to the meaning I can get is “I’ll be damned” but I have to say that with titles like this and the later For Cryin’ Out Loud, Huey was showing an ability to capture the language of America along with his particular vision of the music of America (and there’s comment on Well I’ll Be John Brown in the Footnotes).

Would You Believe It (I Have A Cold) – The health issues return, only this time to his baby so he’s been drinking tequila all day – “Yes, I have a cold but I’ve never felt better in my life” – NOT the “Rockin’ Pneumonia” template on this one but there are some whopping great saxes which conjure up such a beast of a descending phrase that they repeat it twice before the denouement. Mind you, Huey is so besotted with THAT song that it does make yet another return under the minimal disguise of Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas And The Sinus Blues which I have to say is as good as the original, decorated with Gene Vincent style hand clapping and a lovely horn riff we’d not heard before.

“Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas” was in hiding as the B-side to that rare thing, a Huey Smith ballad. He proffered Dearest Darling from the hat as if to say “we can do a ballad just as well as any of those doo wop groups out there if not better”, in full recognition of the unwritten rule that any doo wop group had to be able to deliver ballads ideally powered by that good old doo wop progression. I almost wonder if this was a deliberate pastiche but no I don’t think the tongue was in the cheek. And yes they could.

Huey’s move to Imperial in 1960 wasn’t accompanied by any major stylistic changes though his output there suffered a little in relation to his time at Ace records (though that could be partially due to my much higher level of familiarity with the latter). Something that did happen round about this time was Curley Moore coming on board to replace Bobby Marchan who was aiming at a solo career. Some of the better tracks for the label were a tad tucked away; Heart Trouble, a continuation of our man’s obsession with his health, didn’t see release as a single but was on the first compilation of the Imperial material, The Imperial Sides 1960-61, released on vinyl in 1983 but later on CD. It’s an entertaining track which for once doesn’t revisit that occasion when he got the boogie woogie flu.

A track that didn’t get included on that album (though it is on another comp of Imperial sides, Snag-A-Tooth Jeanie released in 1996) was the flip side of his final 45 for the label, titled Don’t Knock It, or to extend that into the full catchphrase which, if you recall, was a newish habit with Huey, (If You Don’t Like It) Don’t Knock It. Check out the slow opening and much of the delivery from Mr Moore wherein his ability to handle soul fare is on show.

Come 1962 and Huey was back at Ace and before spring was over with a mini hit record no less. I’m talking Popeye, of course, which we heard earlier. A more enjoyable record for me from the second Ace stint was Huey’s latest venture into catchphrase territory, the slurry draggy If It Ain’t One Thing It’s Another which featured assembled Clowns bemoaning the misery of life though no one seems to have told the horn section ‘cause those guys are as happy as usual. And the record on the clip has a scratch towards the end. I left it in. It seemed fitting. Guy Stevens liked the track; he selected it as the first of a couple of Smith offerings in ’65 when he was in a position of some power at Sue UK (the other was the two-parter “Rockin’ Pneumonia”).

Johnny Vincent released three LPs from Huey & the Clowns during their relatively short second period with his label, of which the last, Twas The Night Before Christmas in 1962, was (obviously) a seasonal effort. While it’s not quite up there with the zillion times better known, Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You which would come out a year later, it does boast a track record of having been withdrawn from circulation (by Vincent) because the treatment of some of the “sacred” songs contained within was deemed sacrilegious. It’s on Spotify and is well worth sampling. I’d recommend a listen to the title track which contains a lengthy chunk of early rap plus an unusually cheerful Silent Night. I do wonder if it was the last named which got up the noses of the establishment at the time.

Due to problems with the Vee-Jay label which had been acting as distributor, Ace gradually ground to a halt in the early to mid-sixties. Although Vincent revived the label for reissues in ’71, Huey left in 1963 when his contract expired. He didn’t record again until 1966 when he cut a single for the tiny Pitter Pat label owned by Carlton Picou. The single was titled Though Fooling Around Pt.I and Pt.II from Shin-Dig Smith And The Soul Shakers. Both song and artist names were misleading, “Shindig” was, of course, Huey and the “Though” in the title should have read “Through” which is totally clear when you give the record a listen:

What is also evident is that, while traces of New Orleans had by no means disappeared, Huey’s approach had moved on to embrace soul music to a greater degree than hitherto (although the last third or so of Part I was devoted to “fooling around” which might have recalled the Clowns). The leading lady who is named as Gloria Franklin by Bob Fisher in the sleeve notes to It Do Me Good: The Banashak & Sansu Sessions 1966-1978, clearly had strong gospel roots and wasn’t afraid to show them.

It’s roughly at this stage in the Huey Smith career that things get murky, since (a) only a limited number of tracks issued (or kept in the can) appear on YouTube and/or Spotify, and (b) information on them is sparse and, when it does appear, often conflicting. It’s for these reasons that I forked out for the album named in the previous para – a generous 2xCD set no less – which, when it arrived, I found fully satisfied (a) and partially satisfied (b). I say “partially” because the identity of the lead female singer is sometimes challenged elsewhere – and most of the tracks on CD1 had a female lead. When in doubt I’ve gone with the album notes since Bob Fisher does acknowledge assistance from Jeff Hannusch, John Broven, Cliff White, Neil Slaven and others, which I thought lent his writing considerable authority. Consequently, much of what follows in the rest of this section, apart from the opinions which are mine, is informed by those sleeve notes.

Huey and Carlton recorded a second single but rather than release it on Carlton’s label, used it as an entrée to Joe Banashak, co-founder and manager of Instant Records. Joe liked it and them, and signed Huey to a contract. He stayed at Instant until 1970 and his first record for the label was the Huey/Carlton single, It Do Me Good which was released as a two parter, credited to the Pitter Pats. Quite why the identity change was deemed necessary I know not but both Bob Fisher and John Broven concur that the vocalists were Gloria Franklin, Alex Scott and Huey himself: see solitary picture of the trio below. More importantly, was the record good? Not an unqualified success is my answer. The idea was sound and I love aspects of it like the wordless singing from, I presume, Gloria, plus the sharing of lines with Alex. What prevents it from fully working is the atonal jarring of the saxes against the melody line which is at its worst the second time they come in. How this was allowed to stay I don’t know.

Huey Smith photo 2

There were to be only three other released Pitter Pats singles (with the last being “Huey Smith And The Pitter Pats”). Only two have found their way onto YouTube and none of them are on Spotify. Would you believe that my two big favourites from this bunch, Baby You Hurt Me and I’ll Never Forget, which would have been challenging each other for a spot in The Ten, are among the ones not on YT so, in my view, there’s little point in nominating either.

However, Huey did a bit of moonlighting in 1967. In the same year those Pitter Pats singles were released, a record called Blues ’67 Pt.1 & Pt.2 appeared, credited to Huey (Piano) Smith And The Clowns. Yes indeedie! Someone must have liked that name and that someone just might have been Cosimo Matassa, on whose label – White Cliffs – the record appeared. And it was good. Featuring Pearl Edwards, who had appeared on record with Huey and the band back in the days at Ace, and was one of the Clowns for a spell according to John Broven, the record was a hardcore take-no-prisoners groover with soul, blues, dance, funk, you name it, it’s all in there somewhere. Go Pearl go!

Back on Instant, the Pitter Pats were followed by the Hueys followed by Huey himself sometimes with the Clowns – according to those record labels – sometimes without. Funk workouts like You Got Too and Twowaypockaway with that New Orleans second line thing going on, became the order of the day.

July ’69 (acc. to 45cat) saw the release of the first of a loose thematic pairing of Smith releases (with You Got Too in between) which would turn out to be the final singles from Huey of any significance (and by that I mean apart from revisits to old numbers or rereleases of records from his heyday). Epitaph Of Uncle Tom (or “Bye Tom” as Huey’s troupe merrily sing) was a statement of the new celebration of black existence with the appeasing and subservient figure from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel now gone at last (but definitely not forgotten). The fact that James Brown’s Say It Loud-I’m Black And I’m Proud had been released less than a year earlier is unlikely to be entirely coincidental but I wouldn’t take anything away from Huey and co’s record.

They say he was a good man ‘cos he tipped his hat

1970’s Ballad Of A Blackman was a more positive declaration of black existence, starting with W.C. Handy and then moving forward in time with figures like Booker T. Washington and Ray Charles taking their turn in the spotlight. The very deliberate near rap lead was delivered by Huey’s common-law wife, Brenda Brandon, to a slowish funk rhythm embellished with snakey wah-wah guitar and Gloria Franklin’s unearthly wordless singing. I have to confess that I virtually dismissed this track on first hearing but it grew on me strongly with repeated listens.

I’ve mentioned reissues and reinterpretations. The former isn’t of interest other than to tell us that record companies were still trying and, I suspect, managing (judging by the volume) to sell copies of those key Ace singles. On the more interesting topic of reinterpretations, Joe Banashak agreed a project with Atlantic in 1970 which called for him to deliver updated interpretations from Huey of some of his early classics which Atlantic would then release as an LP. Unfortunately, the only hard evidence we have of this is a version of Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu which appeared in December 1971 on the Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion Records. This is it (and I should warn that it took a lot of searching out).

Jump forward to 1978 – with the ‘absent’ years denoting a long spell when Huey didn’t set foot in a recording studio – when he was tempted back by Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint of Sansu Records. Ten tracks were cut but none of them saw release until they appeared on a Charly album in 1981, and they form the final tracks on CD2 of the It Do Me Good set. Broadly, these tracks bridge the Ace style with touches that were presumably felt to be more user-friendly. A good example is the updated I Think You’re Jiving Me one of the better tracks, which grooves along nicely but loses some of the boy/girl innocence of the Ace original. There’s another version of “Rockin’ Pneumonia” but I guess that was inevitable, and I have to add that I don’t dislike it. In the right mood it’s as good as the first take.

And that seems as good a way as any to close this section.

 

Huey Smith poster 2

 

INFLUENCE

“I’d personally dip Huey Smith in bronze and erect him in my back garden if he’d just written Lloyd Price’s “Where You At” and left it there. Throw in playing alongside Little Richard and Guitar Slim, creating the piano intro to Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking”, rolling around the ‘88’s behind “Sea Cruise” and a host of other good-natured gumbo groovers and virtually defining whatever the Ace sound is, and deification is only a tinkle away.” (Source: Mark Lamarr in the sleeve notes to the 1998 Westside CD ‘Ace Is Wild’)

“When his original cast of pranksters augmented his congenial chops and expert groove, piano maestro Smith had as much rock and roll in him as Fats Domino or Bo Diddley.” (Source: Robert Christgau in his review of the 2012 compilation ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu’)

“Though never as celebrated as his fellow New Orleans native Fats Domino, Smith is just as important a figure in the development of R&B and its metamorphosis into rock’n’roll. His was a less streamlined sound, closer to the grit of the Crescent City’s urban night spots than the radio-friendly 45s tailored to a wider – and decidedly white – audience.” (Source: Record Collector review of 2012 compilation ‘It Do Me Good’.)

“I credit Huey with opening the door for funk, basically as we know it, in some ridiculously hip way, and putting it in the mainstream of the world’s music.” (Source: Dr. John quoted by writer John Wirt in the closing paragraph in the Introduction to his book “Huey “Piano” Smith And The Rocking Pneumonia Blues“ published in 2014)

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Jimmy Clanton (who’s still alive) was a white kid born by Bayou Lafourche but raised in Baton Rouge who Johnny Vincent took on board nursing a vague hope of breaking into the teen pop market. That the pair of them managed to do just that via the flip side of Jim’s second single was remarkable. The song which was written by Jimmy’s manager Cosimo Matassa and Jimmy himself was a swamp pop ditty called Just A Dream on which he was backed by Ace stalwarts including Huey on piano, Earl King on guitar and Lee Allen & Red Tyler, saxes. The record made the #4 spot in the national pop chart and was the first swamp pop record to achieve a Top Ten placing. Jimmy was gradually eased to more typical teen pop material and managed to hit the Ten again with Go Jimmy Go in 1959 and Venus In Blue Jeans in 1962. And that was about it.

2. In the UK, comedian Charlie Drake covered Sea Cruise but it didn’t chart for him, unlike his recording debut, a cover of the Bobby Darin’s Splish Splash, which hit the #7 spot in 1958.

3. The title of Don’t You Just Know It came from an expression used regularly by Rudy Ray Moore, one of the band’s bus drivers; he used to say “don’t you know it honey, don’t you just know it”. The song itself was concocted round those words while they were travelling between Baltimore and Washington D.C. (source: the John Broven book). The story of the origins of Don’t You Just Know It can also be found in the delightful interview with Gerri Hall conducted by Rick Coleman which can be seen in the clip below from the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp History Conference. The first few minutes alone from the interview are well worth catching with Gerri gradually drawing us into the song.

4. Bobby Marchan was born in Ohio in 1930 but travelled to New Orleans where he performed in night clubs in a drag troupe. He also sang and cut his first record Have Mercy for Aladdin in 1954. From 1957 to 1959 he was a member of Huey’s Clowns and when performing live was often perceived as group leader since Huey was near the back on piano, or not present at all with James Booker taking his place. Bobby was there on the majority of the classic records during Smith’s first period with Ace. He left to pursue a solo career in ’59 and had his biggest hit – #1 in the R&B Chart and #31 in the Pop Chart – on the Fire record label with a cover of Big Jay McNeely/Little Sonny Warner’s There’s Something On Your Mind. This is Bobby’s version. The song had become a two parter in his hands with the inclusion of not one but two recitations. A later claim to some form of fame by Bobby was writing and performing the original Get Down With It in 1965 which was later cut by Little Richard.

5. John “Scarface” Williams was “chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Apache Hunters, which he formed out of the Vikings tribe that he helped start in the 1950’s”. That piece of information comes from the John Broven book. John B also quotes from an interview with Williams’ daughter Deborah: “He (Huey) told me how my dad became the primary voice on Rockin’ Pneumonia. While they were singing, he liked the way my dad sounded and told him, ‘Get closer to the microphone, John. I’m trying to get a hit out of this’”.

6. John Brown, sometimes referred to as “the abolitionist John Brown”, was a major figure in American history who was celebrated in the traditional marching song John Brown’s Body aka The Battle Hymn Of The Republic. See Wiki for a lengthy article about Brown. The same person’s name also crops up in the expression, “I’ll be John Brown” or “I’ll be John Browned” which saw usage in some of the southern states of the USA. I found this article of help in attempting derive a meaning for the phrase and the closest I can get is “I’ll be damned” or “I’ll be hanged”. I also looked up “for crying out loud” and there seems to be semi-general agreement that it derives from the oath, “for Christ’s sake” and, as such, is known as a minced oath. There’s less agreement on whether we transported it to the US or whether it was invented there and they exported it to us.

7. I can’t let the Huey Imperial period pass on by without mention of The Little Moron, his first disc for the label. It’s a little groover if not quite mind-blowing and we never learn what the lead character has done to be given this ‘title’. I guess it’s the sheer gall of Smith to name a record in such a manner that appeals to me.

8. Joe Banashak was born in 1923 in Atlanta, Georgia. He served in World War II, then married a Texan lady and moved to Houston. He worked in record distribution moving to a major role in New Orleans. In 1959, he started the Minit record label along with disc jockey Larry McKinley. He took Allen Toussaint on board as house producer. This proved to be a shrewd move as the hits followed from Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and more. However, in 1963, with the early flow of chart placings reducing to a trickle and Allen T on his military service stint, Joe sold Minit to Imperial Records but retained control of Instant, another label he’d founded (in 1961) along with new partner Irving Smith. Allen returned to work with Joe again and their most successful artist was Chris Kenner. Instant was wound up in 1978.

9. I stated that Pearl Edwards had featured on record during Huey’s Ace days. Her solitary single released in 1964, coupled It Do Me Good (not present on YT) and I’ll Never Forget, both songs which were revived by Huey in Pitter Pats guise. John Broven states that Pearl was a member of the Pitter Pats, without attributing any particular tracks to her. Bob Fisher doesn’t say the same but does give Pearl credit for Blues ’67. To complete the known tracks cut by Ms Edwards, she also cut another one at Ace called It Was A Thrill which eventually emerged on one of the Huey Westside albums, That’ll Get It (Even More Of The Best) but it’s not on YT.

10. Until Bob Fisher’s sleeve notes identified Brenda Brandon as the lead vocalist on Ballad Of A Blackman, she was a rather mysterious background figure to me. She had appeared consistently as a co-writer in lyrics to Huey tracks from Through Fooling Around onwards, though whether this was real or was a device added by Huey to ensure she got royalties from his records, I don’t know and would suspect the latter given his feelings on any issues to do with copyright. However, her eventual appearance – and she delivers the message strongly – does confirm musical ability.

11. Huey’s position at Instant was enlarged by Joe Bashanak to cover more of an A&R role and he produced or supervised records from Lee Bates, Larry Darnell, Skip Easterling, ex-Clown Curley Moore and others. White soul man Easterling did very well in the New Orleans area with Huey’s funk production of Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man.

12. One number, We Like Mambo, illustrates a couple of aspects of the Huey Smith story: Johnny Vincent’s somewhat careless attitudes to his artists, and Huey’s liking for reinterpreting his old songs. In 1955, Vincent needed a flipside to an Eddie Bo number and he had a rough unreleased track on his hands from Huey called We Like Mambo so he happily reattributed it and it became the B-side to Eddie’s I’m So Tired. Years later when Huey was at Instant, he recut the number under his own name and it sits with the previously unreleased tracks on It Do Me Good. I wish I could include it here but it’s not on YT.

13. I managed to get all the way through the main text without remarking on Huey’s piano work. That needs correcting. The following paragraph (with slight editing) came from an Amazon review that I wrote of one of Huey’s compilations; it also sits in “RocknRoll”:

Huey “Piano” Smith is invariably described in reviews as being in the tradition of the great New Orleans pianists. Indeed, Wikipedia references “… the boogie styles of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons; the jazz style of Jelly Roll Morton and the piano playing of Fats Domino”. Not to miss anyone out they also namedrop Professor Longhair as an influence slightly further down the page. While I wouldn’t dispute any of this – more informed musical brains than mine have made such contributions – I always saw Smith as a little different from the other New Orleans keyboard rattlers particularly his peers who fitted more easily in the barrelhouse tradition. His piano styling was always instantly recognisable and considerably more distinctive than most of the others though I would omit Longhair from this comparison due to his highly individual technique. I’m not a pianist myself so don’t really have the words to describe his approach but he seemed to have his own version of the New Orleans rhumba and didn’t use the same ascending and descending riffs as the others.

14. Guy Stevens not only demonstrated excellent musical taste in his efforts to bring Huey’s music to a UK audience, he also set new standards for LP sleeves by decorating Sue UK ILP 917, Rockin’ Pneumona And The Boogie Woogie Flu, his compilation of Smith material, with an image of a painting from Pieter Bruegel the Elder (dated 1566) called “The Wedding Dance In The Open Air”.

15. I’d like to record my gratitude to John Broven which is another way of saying that I finally got round to purchasing his “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans”. How I’ve lived without it up to now, I’ve no idea. It might even lead to the odd bit of touch up paint being applied to other Toppermosts in my Scenes From New Orleans series.

16. The only known recording of a performance of Huey Smith and the Clowns with Huey present is contained in the audio-only clip below from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1979. This was literally a one-off by Huey who had retired by this time. The Clowns on this occasion consisted of Bobby Marchan, Curley Moore and Roosevelt Wright and they were backed by the Lastie Brothers Band with Huey on piano. All of the better known numbers are included in the 37 minute clip.

17. Apart from the above, the only live performances by Huey’s Clowns I’ve found on YT both come from the same show in 1996 (audio and visual) with Gerri Hall and Bobby Marchan featured. The other vocal part is taken by Charles Hudson, trumpeter/vocalist from the backing band. Their rendition of High Blood Pressure comes first followed by Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu.

 

 

 

Huey ‘Piano’ Smith & His Clowns at Discogs

Huey “Piano” Smith at 45cat

Sue Records UK website

Huey “Piano” Smith biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price, #14 Dr. John, #15 Huey “Piano” Smith, #16 Roy Brown

 

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #927

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 13, 2021

    Such great music – thanks for another brilliant piece…

  2. SeanNY2
    Apr 14, 2021

    I just realized that the horn arrangement in the Clash cover of Jamaican ska song Wrong ‘Em Boyo (from London Calling) is lifted whole from Sea Cruise. As the Clash were actively seeking out ska and reggae influences, this may provide some support for your point about Sea Cruise being “one of the key records which has led to those claims of New Orleans being one of the sources of ska and reggae”.
    Also I wonder how many fans were introduced to Huey Smith (as I was) through Dr. John’s Huey Smith Medley. Such an interesting idea to make a song out of a whole series of covers, and it really works because of the consistency of Smith’s sound and perhaps also because Huey Smith songs often change tempo within the song, so the changing tempo across the various songs sounds purposeful, plus the reverent way Dr. John treats the material.

    • Dave Stephens
      Apr 16, 2021

      Good spot Sean, and I’m very pleased that your Comment is attached to the Huey Toppermost, since finding illustrations of linkage between Crescent City music from the fifties & sixties and ska and reggae isn’t as easy as essay writers who just drop such things in essays would have you suppose. With regard to discovering Huey via the medley in Dr. John’s Gumbo, I’m very pleased to hear it and am 100% sure that that was just what the good Doctor had hoped would happen as a result of him cutting all those New Orleans originated tracks. In a sense he was the only one left with real visibility (apart from Fess) who was able to continue carrying the banner. Old lags like me who were never part of it but enjoyed it vicariously just don’t count. And thanks for your kind remarks on the Dr. John Topper. I was having fun putting that together but hope that conveyance of the facts (and feelings) didn’t suffer in the process.

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