Tonight we will look at a great New Orleans piano player from the mid 1950’s who wrote and recorded a number of songs that are significant today, but only one placed in the Top 40. Yes, being black was a problem in the fifties. This man recorded for and with the greats ( Little Richard Lloyd Price, Smiley Lewis and so on), but at the end he eventually converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and left the music industry permanently.
Huey “Piano” Smith and The Clowns
All of Huey’s recordings that I have where recorded for Ace Records. I will give you the original “Sea Cruise” and then the one with “White” Frankie Ford’s voice in there, same recording.
1. Rocking Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu/ Ace/ July 57
2A. Don’t You Just Know It/ Ace 545/ 3/31/58/ # 9 Billboard
2B. High Blood Pressure/ B side
3. Don’t You Know Yockomo/ Huey Smith, December/58
4. Pop-Eye/ February 62
In 1959, Ace Records erased Huey Smith’s vocal from the now classic single that Smith composed, arranged, and performed, entitled “Sea Cruise”. Then they replaced it with a more energetic vocal track by white singer Frankie Ford. The tune was a huge hit for Ford.
5. Sea Cruise/ Huey Smith and the Clowns
5. Sea Cruise/ Frankie Ford & the Thunderbird’s (really Huey Smith & the Clowns)
Huey Smith was born in New Orleans on January 26, 1934, and began playing the piano at age 15. At the dawn of the ’50s, Smith backed New Orleans guitar legends Earl King and Guitar Slim, and quickly became a popular session pianist, playing on records by the cream of the New Orleans R&B scene: Smiley Lewis (the classic “I Hear You Knockin’”), Lloyd Price, and Little Richard.
During the mid-’50s, Smith began leading his own band, The Clowns, which usually featured popular local blues singer and female impersonator Bobby Marchan on lead vocals.
Smith & the Clowns signed with the Ace label and scored a breakout Top Five R&B hit in 1957 with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” which despite becoming a classic rock & roll standard didn’t even make the pop Top 40, thanks to reticent white radio programmers.
The following year, Smith scored his biggest hit with the double-sided smash “Don’t You Just Know It”/”High Blood Pressure,” which reached the pop Top Ten and the R&B Top Five.
In 1959, Smith cut the original tune “Sea Cruise,” and seeking pop radio airplay, Ace had white teenage R&B singer Frankie Ford overdub his own vocal onto Smith’s backing track; the result became a nationwide hit.
Smith cut a few novelty numbers in an attempt to duplicate the success of “Rockin’ Pneumonia”; some even using the same type of illness joke (“Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues,” for example). It didn’t work, and Marchan left the Clowns after scoring a solo hit with “There Is Something on Your Mind” in 1960; he was replaced by female singer Gerry Hall and male vocalist Curley Moore.
Smith switched briefly to the Imperial label, then returned to Ace for one last chart single in 1962, “Pop Eye.” Smith spent part of the ’60s recording for Instant and touring not only with The Clowns, but alternate groups The Hueys and The Pitter Pats as well. Unable to return to the charts, he eventually converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and left the music industry permanently.