Born Huey Pierce Smith, 26 January 1934, New Orleans, Louisiana

Since the mid-1950s, the name of Huey 'Piano' Smith has been synonymous with good time New Orleans rock and roll. Huey was born in New Orleans where he lived on South Robertson Street in the Garden District. An aunt lived down the street and his interest in music began when as a six-year-old he listened to his uncle play the blues on the family piano. Huey's father gave him money to take piano lessons, but he never went. "I kept that music money and learned from my sister, who took piano lessons from the lady next door", he told Jeff Hannusch. As a pianist, Smith is basically self-taught.

As he grew up he listened to records by Amos Milburn, Bullmoose Jackson, Ivory Joe Hunter, Charles Brown and - his favourite - Louis Jordan. At the age of fifteen Huey started accompanying Eddie Jones aka Guitar Slim. His first visit to a recording studio took place on May 16, 1951, when he played piano behind Jones on four tracks, which were issued on two Imperial singles (5134, 5141). Huey got the chance to record a single under his own name in June 1953 ("You Made Me Cry"/"You're Down With Me", Savoy 1113), which was ignored by the record-buying public.

For a while Smith was in demand as a session pianist, playing on records by Earl King ("Those Lonely Lonely Nights"), Lloyd Price, Little Richard (the first Specialty session) and Smiley Lewis ("I Hear You Knocking"). In 1955 he was signed to Johnny Vincent's fledgling Ace label. When Vincent needed a B-side for an Eddie Bo title, "I'm So Tired", Huey wrote and recorded "We Like Mambo", with Gerri Hall singing the repetitive lyrics. He was dismayed when the single (Ace 515, late 1955) was released with Eddie Bo's name on both sides. After this false start, Huey soon had his first Ace release under his own name, billed as "Huey 'Piano' Smith and Rhythm Aces" (who included Lee Allen and Red Tyler on saxes, Earl King on guitar and Earl Palmer on drums). It coupled "Little Liza Jane" with "Everybody's Whalin'", two very infectious sides, but with minimal vocal contributions from Huey himself. "My idea was that I was lacking vocal ability", Huey admits. "So I wanted to get something together like Billy Ward and the Dominoes". This led to the formation of the Clowns vocal group. The first Clowns were comprised of Dave Dixon, Junior Gordon (real name Izzy Cougarten) and Roland Cook. But it was the addition of Bobby Marchan in 1957 that gave the Clowns its own distinctive sound. Marchan sang lead on "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu (Part 1)", the first hit for Huey and the Clowns (# 52 pop, # 5 R&B, 1957). From that point, Smith concentrated on humourous songs with nonsensical lyrics and a heavy New Orleans rhythm that was perfect for dancing. The personnel of the Clowns was very fluid (with Bobby Marchan and Gerri Hall as the constant factors), but no matter who was in the group, they almost always managed to capture the enthusiasm of the good time music that Huey Smith was putting down. And on stage they were even better. The Clowns were really something to see, pulling a series of vaudevillian stunts and generally stirring up the audience. Huey himself stopped touring around 1958, choosing to concentrate on writing and recording. James Booker replaced him on piano at gigs.

The great double-sider "Don't You Just Know It"/"High Blood Pressure" became the group's biggest hit (# 9 pop, # 4 R&B, 1958). "Don't You Know Yockomo" also did well in early 1959 (# 56 pop). Huey intended the next single to be "Sea Cruise" (vocals by Huey and Gerri Hall) c/w "Loberta" (vocals by Bobby Marchan). But Johnny Vincent decided to wipe off the original vocals (leaving the great rhythm track in tact, overdubbed with fog horns and boat bells) and replace them with vocals by white singer Frankie Ford on both sides, hoping to break into the white teenage market. "Loberta" became "Roberta" in the process. Ford scored a # 14 hit with "Sea Cruise", but Huey was very angry and left Ace as soon as his contract expired later in 1959. But Johnny Vincent had many unreleased tracks in the can by Smith and the Clowns and continued to issue their recordings for several years on singles and LP's.

Smith was signed by Imperial in 1960 and did four sessions for them in 1960-61 under the supervision of Dave Bartholomew. Each session yielded two tracks that were issued as a single and two tracks that remained in the vaults until 1983. By the early sixties the New Orleans rhythms were changing to a funkier soul sound and Huey's novelty R&B sounds went out of fashion. Good as the Imperial sides were, saleswise they were duds. Bobby Marchan had left the Clowns in 1960 to go solo and was replaced by Curley Moore as principal lead singer. Oddly enough, Huey reappeared on Ace in 1962. Johnny Vincent reclaimed him through some contractual technicality. To add to Imperial boss Lew Chudd's frustration, Huey landed a # 51 pop hit with "Pop-Eye", the first single after his return to Ace. Vincent had merely added the vocals of Johnny Williams, Billy Roosevelt and Gerri Hall to an old backing track with Lee Allen and Red Tyler, but it was enough to make the disc the biggest in the Popeye dance craze of 1962. A Christmas album ("Twas the Night Before Christmas"), with songs like "Silent Night","White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" done in best New Orleans R&B style, was withdrawn by Johnny Vincent soon after its release in 1962, due to reactions which called the rocking treatment of these sacred tunes sacrilegious. Huey continued to stick it out with Ace until the label crashed in 1964. He formed his own label (Pitter-Pat) and released some soul singles by himself and others. Next he became involved with production work, for Instant and other labels, but by any yardstick, his fortunes took a dip in the 1960s. It was all too much for him and he took up the Jehovah's Witnesses as a form of salvation. After one last frustrating experience in the music industry in 1981, he quit the business permanently. His contribution to New Orleans music has been vast.

More info :

CD's :
- The Best Of Huey Piano Smith And His Clowns (2009, 20 tracks). On the Fuel 2000 label.
- The British Westside label issued three non-overlapping 24-track CD's in 1997-99, of which only the first one (with the best known recordings) is still in print:
Having A Good Time With Huey 'Piano' Smith & His Clowns (WESM 516)
Havin' Fun With Huey Piano Smith - More Of the Best (WESM 560)
That'll Get It (Even More Of the Best) (WESM 595).
Westside also reissued "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (WESM 547). 18 tracks.
- The Imperial recordings were reissued on Night Train International 7078 in 1996 (18 tracks, including two from Pitter Patter). The liner notes by John Broven are identical to those of the vinyl reissue on Pathe-Marconi 1546731 from 1983. (Yes, I have both the LP and the CD - there's fandom for you.)

At present (November 2010) there is no satisfactory discography of Huey Smith on the web.

Acknowledgements :
John Broven, Walking To New Orleans (1974), page 120-129.
Jeff Hannusch, I Hear You Knockin' (1985), page 35-44.
Neil Slaven, Liner notes for the first two Westside CD's.

- Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Part 1 :
- Don't You Just Know It :
- High Blood Pressure :
- Little Liza Jane :
- Don't You Know Yockomo :


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