Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues
8th July 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wykcoff
Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues
By John Wirt
(Louisiana State University Press)
For many fans and scholars of New Orleans’ rhythm and blues heydays of the 1950s and ‘60s, every newly published quote, story or insight provided by the music’s purveyors becomes a jewel. John Wirt’s biography of the great Huey “Piano” Smith offers a treasure chest of such precious gifts not only furnished by the book’s worthy subject but by those who surrounded the legendary pianist/vocalist/composer who created such gems as “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Don’t You Just Know It.”
Huey tells that the idea for the song, which was released in 1958, climbed the charts and sold a million copies, came by his driver’s, Rudy Ray Moore, constant use of the phrase. No matter what the question or statement – be it observing a fine woman or discussing traffic issues — Moore’s response would be, “Don’t You Just Know It.” It stood as classic Huey with its rollicking call-and-response of “Ha, ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey-ey, oh…”
The flip side of the hit was another wonder, “High Blood Pressure,” that like his 1957 hit, “Rocking Pneumonia” referenced physical ailments. Graciously, Smith reminds us that he didn’t start the trend. “We don’t want to forget that Little Willie John had ‘Fever’ all over the United States. That was one before mine’s, so it opened the door to whatever I wanted to come up with.”
Huey was a teenaged student at Walter L. Cohen High School when he began performing professionally with none other than the flamboyant and hugely talented Guitar Slim. It was the guitarist and vocalist, whose given name was Eddie Lee Jones, who inserted the “Piano” in Huey Smith’s name. Wirt, who interviewed Smith extensively, relates that Guitar Slim “had a habit of naming musicians after their instruments.” Huey’s just happened to stick and he used it throughout his career.
The early chapters of the book really sets the New Orleans music scene of the era with Huey and friends as the guides. Remembrances of the now-legendary Dew Drop and the live music hotspot the Club Tijuana abound. Intrinsic to the setting are musicians like vocalist/female impersonator Bobby Marchan, a pivotal character in Smith’s life and an essential member of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, guitarist Earl King who recorded with Smith and here adds his perceptive views on any number of topics, then-guitarist Mac Reb-benack (Dr. John) and vocalist Gerri Hall among many others.
As was the case of way too many artists of the time, Huey was continually screwed out of royalties and composing credits by unscrupulous record labels and producers. He even had his song, “Sea Cruise,” that he had already laid down, snatched out from under him and given to vocalist Frankie Ford who made it a huge hit with no cash or recognition for Huey. Most of Smith’s troubles came from record producer Johnny Vincent, who founded Ace Records, the label on which the pianist and vocalist’s big hits appeared. Instances of Smith being cheated out of his due pop up in a natural fashion throughout the book. However, quite a lot of ink is spent on legal matters in chapters that can be justifiably scanned rather than read.
The details are what makes “Huey Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues” special and a suitable companion to John Broven’s essential “Walking to New Orleans: The Story of Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans” that was re-published as “Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans.” The image of a performance at the Municipal Auditorium with Huey, Bobby Marchan and the rest of the Clowns wearing tuxedos with the pants cut down to Bermuda short length is hysterical.
Huey “Piano” Smith, who at 80 presently lives in Baton Rouge and is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, has long been noted for shunning any interviews. Well, don’t you just know it, he thankfully changed his mind to the benefit of music lovers around the world. “Ha, ha, ha, ha!…
Nighttime Is the Right Time
Some fine music at some cool spots this week with the Bridge Trio – drummer Joe Dyson, bassist Max Moran and pianist Conun Pappas – starting things off at the Prime Example on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. These talented guys, all still in their 20s, who first grabbed attention as saxophone great Donald Harrison’s rhythm section, have gone on to achieve recognition on their own and individually. The Bridge Trio’s 2012, self-titled, debut CD really burned. Dyson, the cousin of pianist/vocalist Davell Crawford, has also been working regularly with the great organist Dr. Lonnie Smith.
On Thursday, July 10, Adonis Rose takes over the Prime Example’s stage. Born in New Orleans, a city known for its drummers, Rose stands as one of the best. He began playing at the tender of age of two and hasn’t put the drumsticks down since. He is particularly recognized for his time playing and recording with trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The showtime for both of these performances is 8 p.m.
Canal Street’s Chickie Wah Wah presents a special show on Saturday night, July 12, that’s dubbed June Squared. The name comes from the 25-year reunion of guitarists June Yamagishi and June Victory both of whom have long associations with Mardi Gras Indians – the Wild Magnolias and the Bayou Renegades, respectively. The great conga player Alfred “Uganda” Williams, who performed with the late great Professor Longhair, and Big Chief David Montana will also be onboard. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.
This article originally published in the July 7, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.