Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, New Orleans Rock ’n’ Roll Cornerstone, Dies at 89
Huey “Piano” Smith, whose two-fisted keyboard style and rambunctious songs propelled the sound of New Orleans R&B into the pop Top 10 in the late 1950s, died on Feb. 13 at his home in Baton Rouge. He was 89.
His daughter Acquelyn Donsereaux confirmed his death.
Mr. Smith wrote songs that became cornerstones of New Orleans R&B and rock ’n’ roll perennials, notably “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t You Just Know It” and “Sea Cruise.”
As a pianist and bandleader, Mr. Smith was known for strong left-hand bass lines, splashy right hand and forceful backbeat. He didn’t take center stage; his band, the Clowns, was fronted by a group of dancing lead vocalists, among them Bobby Marchan, who often performed wearing women’s clothes.
Mr. Smith’s lyrics were full of droll wordplay and irresistible nonsense-syllable choruses. “I use slangs and things like that,” he was quoted as saying in John Wirt’s biography, “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rockin’ Pneumonia Blues” (2014), “When you put the music with words and things together, the songs just make themselves. And after you listen at it, it says something its own self, that you hadn’t planned.”
Mr. Smith’s songs have been covered by Aerosmith, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Rivers, Patti LaBelle, Deep Purple and many others. But he struggled to collect royalties through more than a decade of lawsuits, and in the 1990s he filed for bankruptcy. His song “Sea Cruise” was handed over by his label to a white singer, Frankie Ford, whose voice was overdubbed atop the backing track recorded by Mr. Smith and his band.
Huey Pierce Smith was born on Jan. 26, 1934, in New Orleans, the son of Arthur Smith, a roofer and sugar cane cutter, and Carrie Victoria (Scott) Smith, who worked at a laundry. He taught himself to play boogie-woogie piano, strongly influenced by the New Orleans master Professor Longhair, and by his teens he was performing regularly at the Dew Drop Café, a top Black club in what was still a segregated city. He formed a duo with Eddie Lee Jones, who performed and recorded as Guitar Slim and who gave him the “Piano” moniker. He also backed Lloyd Price and other New Orleans performers onstage.
Mr. Smith also became a regular session player at J&M, the recording studio owned by Cosimo Matassa, where the sound of classic New Orleans R&B was forged. His piano opens the Smiley Lewis hit “I Hear You Knocking,” and he was also heard on recordings by Earl King, Little Richard and many others.
He formed the Clowns in 1957 and had a nationwide hit that year with “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (later versions often rendered it as “Rockin’”), which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 52 on the pop chart. A medical-minded follow-up, “Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues,” didn’t fare as well.
With his new career as a bandleader thriving, Mr. Smith married Doretha Ford in 1957. They had five children before they divorced in the mid-1960s.
Mr. Smith and the Clowns reached the pop Top 10 in 1958 with the wry “Don’t You Just Know It.” The title was a phrase often used by the band’s bus driver, Rudy Ray Moore, who would go on to a career as a bawdy comedian and the star of the “Dolemite” movies.
That same year, Mr. Smith recorded “Sea Cruise.” Johnny Vincent, the owner of his label, Ace Records, was a partner in a distribution company, Record Sales Inc., with Johnny Caronna. The day after Mr. Smith recorded the music for “Sea Cruise,” planning to have the Clowns add vocals, Mr. Caronna claimed the song for a teenage singer he was managing, Frank Guzzo, professionally known as Frankie Ford.
According to Mr. Wirt’s biography, Mr. Smith was told, “Johnny Vincent agreed that if you can sell a million on this record, Frankie can sell 10 million” — and, he later recalled, “It hurt me to my heart when he told me he was taking that.”
Mr. Vincent, who died in 2000, also claimed co-writing credits on many songs Mr. Smith wrote and recorded for Ace, including his hits, although he later relinquished those credits. Mr. Smith moved to Imperial Records as the 1950s ended, but he returned to Ace to record a rollicking holiday album, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” on which he declaimed the title poem over a jaunty horn section.
With the British Invasion of the 1960s, guitar-driven rock supplanted piano-centered New Orleans R&B on the pop charts. Mr. Smith continued to record on the Pitter Pat and Instant labels through the late 1960s, under his own name and others, and he had some regional hits. He also wrote and produced songs for other performers, notably Skip Easterling, who had a hit across the South in 1970 with Mr. Smith’s funk reworking of the Muddy Waters standard “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
Mr. Smith married Margrette Riley in 1971. She survives him, along with his children, Ms. Donsereaux, Sherilyn Smith, Huey Pierce Smith Jr., Huerilyn Smith, Hugh Smith, Katherine Smith, Tanisha Smith, Tyra Smith, Glenda Bold and Huey Anthony Smith; his stepson, James L. Riley Jr.; 18 grandchildren; and 47 great-grandchildren.
Barely able to make a living from his music in the early 1970s, Mr. Smith turned to other work. He started a gardening business, Smith’s Dependable Gardening Service. He also became a Jehovah’s Witness and gave up drinking and smoking.
Meanwhile, the value of his old songs was increasing. In 1972, Johnny Rivers’s remake of “Rocking Pneumonia” reached No. 6 on the pop chart. Dr. John included a medley of Mr. Smith’s songs on his album “Dr. John’s Gumbo,” and Ace Records rereleased Mr. Smith’s songs on compilation albums.
Mr. Smith performed occasionally as the 1970s ended. At the New Orleans club Tipitina’s and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1979 and 1981, he reunited with singers from the Clowns’ peak years. At the 1981 festival, his musicians included the Meters’ rhythm section: George Porter on bass and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums.
Mr. Smith moved to Baton Rouge in 1980 and stopped performing soon after that. His catalog continued to be heard — in cover versions, on movie soundtracks, in commercials and in reissues — but bad deals deprived him of much of his royalty income.
In a series of lawsuits from 1988 to 2000, Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation — a company Mr. Smith had engaged in 1982 to help collect back royalties and then fired in 1984 — demanded and won a 50 percent share of Mr. Smith’s ongoing royalty income from four of his biggest songs, including “Rocking Pneumonia.”
Mr. Smith declared bankruptcy in 1997; by then, he had pawned his piano. When full rights to the four songs were sold for $1 million to the publisher Cotillion Music in 2000, Mr. Smith remained entitled to foreign royalties but netted less than $100,000 to escape bankruptcy.
The Rhythm & Blues Foundation gave Mr. Smith its $15,000 Pioneer Award in 2000, and he gave his last major performance at the foundation’s gala. He was inaugurated into the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame in 2001.
Mac Rebennack, the New Orleans pianist, guitarist and singer who recorded as Dr. John, received vital early songwriting guidance from Mr. Smith, according to Mr. Wirt’s biography. “Anyone who can talk can write a song,” he recalled being told. “So whatever you got to say, play good music and say it. You just put it where you need to say it.”
Mr. Smith, Mr. Rebennack said, also advised, “If you don’t have a song that’s got some kind of simple melody people can hum, sing with and roll with, it’s like, what do you got?”