Don't You Just Know It

Since that 'young man's rhythm got a hold on me too' (when I was a kid and, like, every day since), I often find myself reaching for a slab of vinyl with Huey Smith's name on it. 'Baby, don't believe I wear two left shoes,' 'cause Huey and his fun-loving Clowns help me stay trippingly rhythmic, even if it's usually behind closed doors. New Orleans' infectious party band rocked so stringently they had to provide names for the various illnesses suffered as a result. Smith (middle name: Piano?) is responsible for painful pleasantries like pneumonia (the rocking kind) and blood pressure issues ('my heart gets to jumpin'!'). Wait a sec...hold on...don't you just know it? All this at-home, speakers-on-high activity has reduced me to babbling 'Gooba, gooba, gooba, gooba...'

A fan of Roy "Professor Longhair" Byrd's piano style (of which his own approach ultimately bore little resemblance), Crescent City native son Huey Pierce Smith started playing in his early teens and cut a single, "You Made Me Cry" (as Huey Smith), for Savoy Records in 1953. Just 19 at the time, he got in the back door at Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio and spent the next few years as a regular session musician; it's said he received his "Piano" nickname from Guitar Slim (real name: Eddie Jones), who identified band members by their instruments. In '54, after contributing to hits by Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis and others, Huey met Johnny Vincent, an A&R man for Specialty Records of Los Angeles, a label that regularly recorded at Cosimo's; Vincent produced Slim's R&B chart-topper "The Things I Used to Do," then started his own Ace label in 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi, not far from his home town of Hattiesburg. The first hit for Ace came immediately: "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" was recorded by Earl Johnson as Earl King at the Trumpet studio in Jackson with Smith and other New Orleans-based musicians.

Huey's piano playing was heavy, precise and immediate; he knew all the standard honky-tonk chord progressions and the rock and roll mindset came naturally. Vincent signed him to a contract with Ace before year's end. Musicians recruited for his band shared his humorous approach; several members came and went in those early months while four vocalists stood out. "Scarface" John Williams was a member of an Indian tribe called the Apache Hunters that participated each year in Mardi Gras festivities. Roosevelt Wright specialized in deep bass interjections. Youngstown, Ohio-born Bobby Marchan, a noted female impersonator, had performed in drag for years on the nightclub circuit; he'd cut a disc for Aladdin Records ("Have Mercy" in 1953) and another for Dot ("Just a Little Ol Wine" in '54) as well as one of the first Ace singles under the name Bobby Fields. The band's omnipresent female vocalist, Gerri Hall, worked as a waitress at the Dew Drop Inn on La Salle Street, where exposure to the city's jazz and R&B elite resulted in session work and eventually a spot in Huey's group. Most recordings took place at J&M; backing came from many of the city's top players, including saxophonists Alvin "Red" Tyler and Lee Allen.

"Everybody's Whalin'" (not a sea shanty, just an odd spelling), with no standout lead vocalist, was the band's debut Ace platter in late 1956, credited to Huey Smith and his Rhythm Aces. In the spring of '57, "Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" (the first to credit the Clowns) became a hit (top ten rhythm and blues, mid-chart pop), a rollicking number with a lead vocal by Scarface that pointed out physical drawbacks ('I wanna kiss her but the gal's too tall!') and unlikely symptoms ('I would be runnin' but my feet's too slow!'). Fleet-fingered Huey usually took a back seat to his vocalists. He began getting label billing for contributions to other artists' records; the summer '57 ballad "Just For You and I" by male group The Supremes listed Huey on piano just below the act's name. "Just a Lonely Clown," an obviously gimmicky Smith-Clowns follow-up with spoken laments by Gerri, utilized the same basic beat and chord structure as "Rocking Pneumonia" and failed to connect.

The new year led off with "Don't You Just Know It," a tune based on an exclamation often used by singer and future adult comedian Rudy Ray Moore (at that time the band's bus driver) as a reaction to everyday occurrences. An infectious 'ha-ha-ha-ha' sing-along with a lead by Marchan and solo lines by Hall, the single went top ten on both R&B and pop charts in April '58. "High Blood Pressure," its initial A side and another "medical problem" song, received its own share of radio airplay. The "ailment" gimmick became a recurring theme on songs like "Would You Believe It (I Have a Cold)," "Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues" and "Heart Trouble." Sometimes they reversed the illness routine: "Havin a Good Time" was all about '...feelin' fine!'

As one single followed another, it became obvious the label credit never seemed to be the same. Throughout Smith's entire tenure with Ace, no two consecutive releases had the same billing. Sometimes it was Huey Smith and the Clowns, other times his Clowns, sometimes his (Piano) nickname was in parentheses or it had quotes - "Piano" - or was abbreviated as Huey P. Smith; there were singles with no mention of the Clowns and others under completely different names, such as "Little Chickee Wah Wah" by Huey and Jerry ("Jerry" was Gerri) on Vincent's Vin label. Studio sessions continued, a significant one in the case of Baton Rouge singer Jimmy Clanton, Vincent's attempt at finding a white "teen idol." "Just a Dream" (co-written by Clanton and Matassa) became a top ten hit for Jimmy in August, just before his 20th birthday; Huey manned the piano on the recording, which featured other Cosimo regulars billed as the Rockets.

Huey (Piano) Smith

Smith and his Clowns were back on the charts in early '59 with "Don't You Know Yockomo," a variation on their biggest hit with an added touch of local lore. This was followed immediately by a huge hit...that wasn't theirs. Smith's recording of his original composition "Sea Cruise" was passed over for release when Johnny Vincent dubbed Frankie Ford's voice over the original Clowns backing track. Huey complained but Vincent didn't give him much slack, having Huey "Piano" Smith and Orch. printed under Ford's name. The B side, "Roberta," which he'd also written and recorded first, became well-known as one of Ford's signature songs as did the next single, "Alimony," featuring the "Orch." credit once again.

Singers began bailing out starting with Williams, who dropped "Scarface" from his name and started a group called The Tic Tocs. Marchan left soon afterwards and signed a deal with Bobby Robinson's New York-based Fire label, scoring in the summer of 1960 with a wild spoken/sung production, "There's Something on Your Mind," a number one R&B smash that also reached the pop top 40. He was replaced by Curley Moore, a 17-year-old singer from New Orleans whose style fit well with Smith's method for madness. Frankie Ford left Ace in 1960 for a chance to work with Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records; Huey and the Clowns followed him there with their basic style intact...and ran out of steam within a year. Meanwhile, Vincent issued an earlier Ace track (with lyrics overdubbed by Hall and Moore to make it more timely); "Pop-Eye" became the first chart hit in a series of related dance songs presumably inspired by the comic strip and cartoon character Popeye (The Mar-Keys, Chubby Checker, The Sherrys and others kept the trend going for the next couple of years).

Working regularly in New Orleans, Smith and the Clowns made records as opportunities arose; "Lumumba" on the Spinett label and "He's Back Again" on Constellation are examples. Vincent persisted with more Ace 45s including "At the Mardi Gras," a generic Fat Tuesday festival tune under the names Huey and Curley. Smith made many non-Clowns records for the remainder of the decade as he evolved with the times, taking on a more soulful sound. Joining Joe Banashak's Instant label in 1966, he formed a partnership (romantically and business-wise) with singer-songwriter Brenda Brandon and nearly every song through 1970 was penned by the pair. There were four singles under the name The Pitter-Pats, which featured vocalists Gloria Franklin and Alex Scott. And look out for The Hueys and Shin-Dig Smith and the Soul Shakers!

Gerri later put in time with Ray Charles' Raelets and Ike Turner's Ikettes. In 1971, Banashak produced Huey and some new Clowns on an updated version of "Rocking Pneumonia" for Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records; a year later, Johnny Rivers remade the song and had a top ten hit with it. At about that time, Huey quit the music business and became a member of Jehovah's Witnesses. He spent (or wasted?) many years in courts pursuing royalty payments he felt were owed to him by Johnny Vincent, with little to show for his efforts. In 1978 he made several recordings for Allen Toussaint of Sansu Records that spent a few years on the shelf. Then on May 5, 1979, a joyous reunion occurred: Huey, Bobby Marchan, Gerri Hall, Roosevelt Wright and Curley Moore gave one final performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival...a rare treat for anyone lucky enough to be there. Since then, Huey (Piano) Smith has led a quieter life, though occasionally fans come sniffing around his home, hoping for a chance to meet one of rock and roll's 88-key legends.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Don't You Just Know It I Didn't Do It