Books: Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues, by John Wirt (2014)

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Despite his sweeping influence — not to mention rollicking classics like the song that inspired this book title – Huey “Piano” Smith remains this endlessly enigmatic figure. An excerpt from John Wirt’s new comprehensive, first-ever biography, courtesy of LSU Press, takes us inside the moment when “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” caught fire.

huey piano smith bookRecorded in 1957, it is, perhaps, Smith’s best-known song — but, by no means, the only one to have helped defined the New Orleans music culture. Songs like 1958’s comic call-and-response “Don’t You Just Know It” and 1959’s equally infectious “Sea Cruise,” also perennial local favorites, helped pave the way for a grittier incarnation of R&B, as well.

“I credit Huey with opening the door for funk, basically as we know it, in some ridiculously hip way,” Dr. John says, “and putting it in the mainstream of the world’s music.”

Smith’s songs have been recorded and performed by a list of stars as deep as it is wide, from Aerosmith and the Grateful Dead to Paul Simon and the Beach Boys, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Chubby Checker to John Fogerty and Jimmy Buffett. And, yet, Smith — something of an introvert in a city known for outsized personalities like Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino — never got the credit he so richly deserves.

Wirt’s book begins with Smith’s Depression-era childhood and continues through to his late-period struggles to receive royalties for the songs that should have made him far more famous. Here’s a peek into one of the key moments …

In early 1957, Huey recorded the song with which he’s most identified. Guitarist Earl King, saxophonists Lee Allen and Alvin “Red” Tyler, drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams, and bassist Frank Fields joined him along with singers Sidney Rayfield (Huey’s barber) and eighteen-year-old “Scarface” John Williams. An infectious example of pre-funk, “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” opens with a rippling, often imitated piano riff in Huey’s right hand, immediately followed by repeating piano bass notes that let everybody know the party has started.

I wanna jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall.
I wanna holler but the joint’s too small.
Young man rhythm’s got a hold on me, too,
I got a rocking pneumonia and a boogie woogie flu.

Existing songs, everyday phrases, and an off-color joke are among the inspirations for the “Rocking Pneumonia” lyrics: “When I was a kid a gentleman used to tell me dirty jokes,” Huey said before repeating the lines and audibly bleeping the bad words. “‘I got the tuberculosis and the Germany flu. I gotta stoppa in my beep and I can’t beep-beep.’” Huey had also heard Chuck Berry sing “I got the rocking pneumonia, I need a shot of rhythm-and-blues” in the singer- guitarist’s 1956 pop and rhythm-and-blues hit “Roll Over Beethoven.” “So, I got the rocking pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu,” Huey explained. And “Old Man River,” from the musical Show Boat, became “young man rhythm.” He based another line on something local singer and emcee Bobby Marchan overheard in a club. Bobby told him that a homosexual sitting at a table said, “I wanna holla but the joint’s too small!” “Ooh, Bobby,” Huey responded, “now you know I had nothing like that on my mind.”

During the “Rocking Pneumonia” session, Huey kept moving away from the microphone even though the engineer repeatedly told him to move closer to it. Not caring for the sound of his own voice, Huey instructed John Williams to move nearer to the mic. “Get in closer, John,” he said. “I’m trying to get a hit out of this.”

“Rocking Pneumonia” and countless more New Orleans recordings of the late 1950s feature an extraordinary musician who, following Earl Palmer’s move to Los Angeles in February 1957, became the studio drummer of choice in New Orleans. One year younger than Huey, the twenty-two-year-old, left-handed Charles “Hungry” Williams had worked as Fats Domino’s valet in the early 1950s. He came to idolize Domino’s drummer, Cornelius “Tenoo” Coleman, and practiced on Coleman’s drums on the sly. After a stint as a poker dealer on Rampart Street, Williams began sitting in with the Club Tiajuana house band, which included Huey, Robert Parker, and Billy Tate. He soon became the group’s regular drummer. Also during those Tiajuana days, Williams engaged in percussion contests with Ricardo Lopez, a Cuban expat who played congas and bongos.

Williams’s innovative, multilayered drumming evolved from a gumbo of influences, including Latin rhythms, marches, country and western music, and the drumming he’d heard as a teenager in a spiritual church. He emphasized the snare, used very little cymbals, and played a double beat on the bass drum. Williams named his bass-drum technique “double-clutchin’.” “I’d take all this and hook it up and make a jambalaya out of it, and it’d come out like this funky thing,” Williams said. Fats Domino was among the recording artists using the in-demand Williams. “Before I knew it, man, they weren’t using anybody else,” the drummer said. “Sometimes, man, I was in the studio six and seven days a week.”

It was Huey, Williams said, who named him “Hungry.” “I’d order a double-order every time I’d eat. I’d have a plate of beans stacked that high, beans and rice. I’d be walking around looking like a Baptist mule.” It was the Dew Drop Cafe cook, Huey recalled, who noticed Williams’s habit of ordering double portions and subsequently described the drummer as “hungry.” Billy Tate and other musicians followed the cook’s lead, and Charles Williams became Hungry Williams.

The musicians’ union slapped fines on the “Rocking Pneumonia” session players for working nonunion. “I got fined five hundred bucks,” Earl King complained. “The only guy didn’t get fined was the guy who turned union evidence.” Despite Earl’s dislike for the musicians’ union, union sessions paid better than the cut-rate clandestine sessions Johnny Vincent booked. “Say, like Johnny called a union session,” Huey explained. “He pays the union and the musicians go to the union office and get their checks. The bandleader got $82 and the sidemen got $41. That was the union scale for recording sessions. But Johnny started not letting the union know. It would be basically four hours. The musi- cians stay there half the day and Johnny gave them $25 apiece. They needed the money and they would do it.”

All the while, New Orleans musicians, singers, and songwriters, including saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, never imagined they were making an enduring contribution to the city’s already-rich musical legacy and American music in general. “We didn’t know that it was gonna be big hits,” Tyler said. “We were just having fun, getting a few bucks. It won’t no big thing.”

On tour with Shirley and Lee, Huey was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when he learned during a phone call home that “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” was taking off. After Shirley and Lee’s agency offered to book rising star Huey, he decided to form his own group. He used the classy early rhythm-and-blues vocal group Billy Ward and His Dominoes as his model. Ward and Huey were both songwriters with an ear for talent who hired singers to work under their banner. Ward’s Dominoes included future solo stars Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. “Like Little Esther and Johnny Otis,” Huey said of his concept for a group. “She was singing, but that was Johnny Otis’s record, Johnny Otis’s shows. So I’m going to have Huey Smith and the Clowns.”

He invited twenty-seven-year-old Bobby Marchan, a natural entertainer with a piercing voice and crowd-thrilling stage presence, to join his new group. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Bobby arrived in New Orleans circa 1954 leading a troupe of female impersonators called the Powder Box Revue. The group earned an extended engagement at Club Tiajuana. “They stayed week after week, so they almost lived there,” Huey remembered. Huey’s oldest sister, Oddress, was among the many young women who swooned over Bobby. “Woo,” she gushed, “Bobby is some cute!”

Years before “Rocking Pneumonia” and the formation of the Clowns, Huey tried to use Bobby’s popularity for a purpose other than music. “When I first met Bobby, when he came to the Tiajuana, some sisters were living across the street,” he said. “I wanted to take one of them out. Her sister told me, ‘Well, you tell Bobby to take me out and we’ll all go out together.’ I told Bobby. He said, ‘No, no!’ I said, ‘Please, Bobby, go out with her.’ He said, ‘Let me tell you something. See, when I was born my mother wanted a girl. I’m sorry, but you tell her all she can do for me is get her brother!’”

Marchan’s relationship with Ace Records began in 1955 with a blues single released under a pseudonym, Bobby Fields, because he still was contracted to Aladdin Records. Session players Huey, Hungry Williams, Frank Fields, Edgar Blanchard, Lee Allen, and Robert Parker backed Bobby for “Helping Hand” and “Pity Poor Me.” Huey composed Bobby’s superior follow-up, “Chickee Wah-Wah,” and recorded it with him, too. It’s a comic, rocking number in which a re- luctant young man wails about being confronted by a sexually aggressive female. I didn’t know what it was all about, so I stood right back and began to shout, “Chickee Waaaah . . .”

A story in the March 30, 1957, edition of the Chicago Defender, datelined New Orleans, reported that Bob Astor of New York’s Gale booking agency witnessed Bobby’s “torrid” rendition of “Chickee Wah-Wah” during a visit to the Dew Drop. The Gale agency leased the song from Johnny Vincent and re-released it through Gale Records. The agency began booking Bobby, too, including a high-profile spot on Alan Freed’s Easter show at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre. Just two days before Astor caught his act, the Defender reported, Bobby, thinking he’d never make it as a singer, had told his associates that he was ready to quit show business and become a playground supervisor.

“That’s what Bobby made and it was half-way hitting,” Huey recalled of “Chickee Wah-Wah.” “That’s why he was in the Apollo as a single artist. And I know Bobby was a good showman. I’ve seen him turn around to the audience, make one [butt] cheek tremble and then the other. It makes the house come down. Well, that’s where the clowning aspect comes from. With the hit record, ‘Rocking Pneumonia,’ and Bobby on the front line with the group, we were go- ing to be successful. Bobby was aware of that, too.”

“I was on the show and Huey Smith was the piano player for Shirley and Lee,” Bobby recalled. “So Huey said, ‘Bobby, I ain’t making no money here.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m doing real good off the record you wrote for me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I ain’t making no money. Let’s go back to New Orleans and see if we can’t put a group together.’ And that’s what we did.”

Huey gave Shirley Goodman two weeks’ notice. She paid him $100 for the two uniform jackets he wore on stage with the band. She also balled a $50 bill up and pressed it into his hand. Huey’s replacement, Allen Toussaint, dropped out of New Orleans’s Booker T. Washington High School to join the tour. Huey and Bobby caught a train home from Baltimore.

Road manager Billy Diamond — who’d been Fats Domino’s road manager till the star’s drinking, tardiness, and missed shows helped ignite riots that led Diamond to fear for his life — and others in Shirley and Lee’s troupe doubted that Huey would really form his own group. “He was so quiet, we didn’t think he was gonna do it,” Diamond said. But upon returning to New Orleans, Huey recruited “Scarface” John Williams and Sidney Rayfield, the singers with whom he’d recorded “Rocking Pneumonia,” to join him and Bobby in the new group. Huey Smith and the Clowns made their debut just outside of New Orleans at a small club in the Jefferson Parish community of Shrewsbury. “They made placards of some old picture they had of me looking like Ed Sullivan,” Huey said with a laugh.

The fledgling Clowns performed Huey’s songs as well as material by other groups, such as the Coasters’ “Searchin’” and “Young Blood.” During the latter song, Roosevelt Wright, a tall young man in the audience who frequented Club Tiajuana, filled in the bass vocal part. “He was deeper than the Coasters’ bass,” Huey marveled. “The people were screaming. So I say, ‘Hey, Bobby, get him.’ From then on, Roosevelt was in the group.”

Huey “Piano” Smith and his Clowns, featuring Bobby Marchan, performed Sunday, June 9, 1957, at New Orleans’s Labor Union Hall, a venue that played host to such national stars as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Admission was $1.50 at the door. Professor Longhair was the opening act. The following Sunday, Dew Drop Cafe owner Frank Painia booked a show billed as Huey Smith and His Orchestra at the Sans Souci Ballroom.

On June 17, 1957, Billboard featured “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” in its “This Week’s R&B Best Buys” column. The record’s A-side, identified on the label as Part 1, features vocals, while the B-side, Part 2, is mostly instrumental. “Smith chalks up a strong selling job on a medium-beat blues,” the review states. “Part one is a low-down vocal with a gutbucket piano and baritone sax moaning in the background.” The magazine spotlighted “Rocking Pneumonia” again in its July 8 edition. “The platter heads the list on the New Orleans best-selling chart and it is a very strong southern favorite. It also has caught on in the other top markets and figures to be a big one.”

Billboard’s “R&B Territorial Best Sellers” Top 5 for New Orleans listed “Rocking Pneumonia” above Larry Williams’s “Short Fat Fannie,” Fats Domino’s “Valley of Tears,” Chuck Willis’s “C. C. Rider,” and the Coasters’ “Searchin.’”

“Rocking Pneumonia” debuted on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart on July 15, 1957. Johnny Vincent pumped up the publicity in the trade magazines: “The hottest R&B, pop, & rock-a-billy record of 1957. “A Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” by Huey Smith and his Clowns. 10,000 sold in 8 days in New Orleans—7000 in Philla.—6000 in Memphis—and spreading everywhere.”

On an oppressively hot Louisiana summer day, Huey and Sidney Rayfield drove to Lincoln Beach, the carnival-like amusement park for blacks on Lake Pontchartrain. They heard “Rocking Pneumonia” playing everywhere, over and over again. “It’s hitting, taking off, and that’s all they played,” Huey said. “You get tired of anything, but we didn’t get tired of ‘Rocking Pneumonia.’ And then when we left Lincoln Beach, the first place we passed we heard it again. And then we heard it on the radio while we’re riding. Yeah, that’s all they played all day long. That’s how we know we was in.”

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