The Day

Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, New Orleans rock ’n’ roll pianist, dies at 89


Huey “Piano” Smith, a New Orleans boogie-woogie pianist who wrote and recorded the 1950s rock ’n’ roll standards “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Sea Cruise” and who influenced many later rock and pop performers, died Feb. 13 at his home in Baton Rouge. He was 89.

His daughter Acquelyn Donsereaux confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Smith’s group, the Clowns, lived up to its name by combining the pianist’s infectious rhythms with lyrics rooted in nursery rhymes, children’s songs, Mardi Gras chants and vernacular Crescent City slang and delivering the tunes in a broadly comic style. Singer Bobby Marchan, known for his booty-shaking dance moves, performed in drag while the group’s female vocalist, Gerri Hall, frequently wore a suit and tie.

Though well-rehearsed, the Clowns’ raucous vocals often sounded like a talented street gang, with each member trying to out-sing the other. The catchy refrain of a song like “Don’t You Just Know It,” with nonsensica­l phrases like “gooba gooba gooba,” practicall­y begged the listener to join in. Their rollicking records transporte­d a generation of teenagers, many of whom had never set foot in New Orleans, to the Mardi Gras.

Smith’s syncopated keyboard style reflected the influence of his early idol, Professor Longhair, who combined boogie-woogie with habanera and rumba rhythms. Like Ray Charles, Smith used a Wurlitzer electric piano. He played it loudly, often telling people that he intended to fill the room with sound like Bo Diddley’s guitar.

The lineup of the Clowns often changed, and he eventually added falsetto tenor Marchan, the nasal-voiced Curley Moore, bass singer Roosevelt Wright, and Hall, to the group. Rudy Ray Moore, later a raunchy comedian who starred in the 1975 exploitati­on film “Dolemite,” was Smith’s driver.

The group performed on national rock-and-roll revues and even toured Jamaica in 1959, where their music influenced the nascent ska style.

“Each individual was at liberty to decide what he would do to act foolish,” Smith told author John Wirt for the biography “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues.” “That’s what tickled the people so much. We had the songs down so each member of the group would break out and go to clowning.”

In addition to mentoring fellow pianists Allen Toussaint and James Booker, Smith recorded with Mac Rebennack on guitar before Rebennack assumed his rock-and-roll stage persona, Dr. John.

“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,” Dr. John told Wirt.

The Clowns’ popularity extended to Canada. Guitarist Robbie Robertson of The Band recalled that his first profession­al group in Toronto specialize­d in Huey Smith songs. And in New York, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ onful said that his song “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” was an attempt to write in the style of Smith and the Clowns.

“Rocking Pneumonia” (co-credited to Ace record label owner Johnny Vincent) reached No. 52 on Billboard’s pop chart and No. 5 on the rhythm-and-blues chart. Fifteen years later, a cover by Johnny Rivers with Dr. John on piano reached No. 6 on the pop charts. With the passing decades, the song has become a rock standard with versions by Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Lee Lewis among others.

The Clowns’ other hits of the late-1950s included “High Blood Pressure,” “Don’t You Just Know It” (both credited to Huey and Jerry), “Well I’ll Be John Brown” and “Don’t You Know Yockomo.”

Smith’s keyboard also graced some of the Crescent City’s most fondly remembered recordings of the mid1950s, including Smiley Lewis’s “I Hear You Knocking,” Little Richard’s “Just a Lonely Guy” and Earl King’s swamp pop ballad, “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.”

Smith also recorded a

Though wellrehear­sed, the Clowns’ raucous vocals often sounded like a talented street gang, with each member trying to out-sing the other.

Christmas album, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (1962). While Christmas records by rock performers are common today, the one by Smith was removed from stores after a local TV commentato­r called the Clowns’ version of “Silent Night” sacrilegio­us.

Smith said he was cheated out of his biggest claim to fame, singer Frankie Ford’s 1959 hit “Sea Cruise.” Smith had written the song and recorded a backing track when Ace owner Vincent chose to scrub the group’s vocal for one by Ford, an Italian American singer marketed as a teen idol.

The B side, “Roberta,” also a hit, was also originally slated for Ford, and featured the driving sound of Smith and James Booker double-heading the piano.

“Sea Cruise” and “Roberta” caused consternat­ion for Smith, but he retained a collegial attitude toward Ford and played on many of his recordings. He even took the young singer to a process shop to get Ford’s curly hair straighten­ed and dyed red for a photo shoot.

“My hair didn’t turn red, it turned fuchsia,” Ford recalled to Wirt. “I was in bed for three days with fever from the lye and everything. I was lucky not to lose it. So, it was so funny because Huey was so laid back. He said, ‘Well, we ain’t never done a white boy’s hair before but we want to try.’”

Huey Pierce Smith was born in New Orleans on Jan. 26, 1934. His father was a roofer, and his mother was a laundress. While still in his teens, he formed a duo with Eddie Jones who performed and recorded as Guitar Slim.

His first marriage, to Dorothea Ford, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Margrette Riley; four children from his first marriage; three daughters from his second marriage; a daughter from his relationsh­ip with Brenda Brandon; 18 grandchild­ren; and 47 great-grandchild­ren.

A son from his first marriage and a son from Brandon preceded him in death.

In 1982, Smith hired Artists Rights Enforcemen­t Corp. to help collect back royalties. Two years later, he fired them. The company sued him for breach of contract and won a 50 percent share of his income from four songs, including “Rocking Pneumonia.”

The case dragged on for years with Smith declaring bankruptcy in 1997. When the four songs were sold for $1 million to the publisher Cotillion Music in 2000, Smith received less than $100,000 and retained only the rights to his foreign royalties.

Smith stopped playing regularly in the 1980s but gave a performanc­e in New York when he received a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 2000.

“You play what you feel,” he once said. “If something sounds good to you, you go to try to play it.”

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