NEW YORK — Huey “Piano” Smith, a beloved New Orleans session man who backed Little Richard, Lloyd Price and other early rock stars and with his own group made the party favorites “Don’t You Just Know It” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu,” has died. He was 89.
His daughter, Acquelyn Donsereaux, told The Associated Press that he died in his sleep Feb. 13 at his home in Baton Rouge. She did not cite a specific cause.
A New Orleans native who performed nationwide but always returned to Louisiana, Smith was one of the last survivors of an extraordinary scene of musicians and songwriters who helped make New Orleans a fundamental influence on rock ‘n’ roll. He was just 15 when he began playing professionally and in his 20s helped out on numerous ‘50s hits, including Price’s “Where You At?”, Earl King’s “Those Lonely Lonely Nights” and Smiley Lewis’ “I Hear You Knocking.” Little Richard, Fats Domino and David Bartholemew were among the many other artists he worked with.
In 1957, he formed Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns and reached the top 10 with “Rockin’ Pneumonia,” a mid-tempo stomp which featured the vocals of John Marchin and Smith’s buoyant keyboard playing, and the equally rowdy and good-natured “Don’t You Just Know It.” The Clowns also were known for “We Like Birdland”, “Well I’ll Be John Brown” and “High Blood Pressure.”
One Smith production became a major hit and rock standard, for another performer. Smith and his group wrote, arranged and recorded “Sea Cruise,” but Ace Records thought the song would have more success with a white singer — as Smith learned bluntly from local record distributor Joe Caronna — and replaced the Clowns’ vocals with those of Frankie Ford, whose version became a million seller.
“I was crying as he (Caronna) said that,” Smith told biographer John Wirt, whose “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues” came out in 2014. “I had been drinking a little bit. It hurt me to my heart when he told me he was taking that.”
Artists covering “Sea Cruise” and other Smith songs included John Fogerty, the Beach Boys, Aerosmith and Jerry Garcia. In 2005, Ford would deny “stealing” the song, alleging that he had written the words. “Huey sorta went through a period and ‘forgot’ a lot of things,” Ford told Offbeat Magazine.
Smith’s popularity faded after the Beatles arrived and by 1980 he had quit the business, settled in Baton Rouge with his wife, Margrette, and become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like many rock musicians from the ‘50s, he fought to be paid and credited for “Sea Cruise” and other hits and spent decades in legal battles and financial trouble. Local musicians, meanwhile, continued to cite him as an inspiration.
“To me he was the man who got more out of simplicity than anybody in New Orleans,” drummer Earl Palmer told Wirt.
In 2000, Smith received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and he was honored a year later by the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame. Admirers would cite him as one of the most vital performers not to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He is survived by his wife, 10 children, 18 grandchildren and 47 great grandchildren, his daughter told the AP.
Smith grew up in the Uptown section New Orleans, his father a roofer, his mother a laundry worker. As a boy, Smith took up piano, learning by watching his uncle play, and he soon mastered the eight-bar progression that anchored countless blues songs. He played obsessively, sometimes to the annoyance of his neighbors, and in high school he helped start the band the Joy Jumpers.
He was still in his teens when he met another young New Orleans musician, Eddie Lee Jones, who as “Guitar Slim” influenced countless musicians and gave Smith his “Piano” nickname. Lewis’ own work initially drew upon the blues-boogie woogie of Professor Longhair. But he would eventually absorb a wide range of styles, whether the jazz of Jelly Roll Martin or the rock-rhythm and blues of Fats Domino.
“I took up to tryin’ a variety of music other than just one individual style,” he told Wirt. “I like my own style, but my own style is completely different than rhythm-and-blues, or calypso or any of that. It’s just deep down funk.”