In Memoriam: Huey "Piano" Smith

Published on: February 14th, 2023

906 Huey P. Smith at Tipitina's © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.2.326. Photo by Michael P. Smith.

Huey P. Smith at Tipitina's © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.2.326. Photo by Michael P. Smith.
Huey P. Smith at Tipitina's © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.2.326. Photo by Michael P. Smith.

Huey "Piano" Smith, one of the hitmakers of early rock'n'roll and major contributor to the infectious New Orleans R&B sound, died February 13, 2023 in Baton Rouge. His oldest daughter, Acquelyn Donsereaux, confirmed his death and good spirits till the end to Smith's biographer, John Wirt, and earlier today. 

Smith was born January 26, 1934 and grew up near the Dew Drop Inn. He learned to play piano from a neighbor and his uncle, bluesman Leroy Carr. Other influences included Professor Longhair, Louis Jordan, and Hank Williams. 

Smith's biggest hit, 'Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu,' was first released in 1957. The song hit #5 on the Billboard R&B chart and would go on to be recorded by many other artists, including the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Buffett, KC & the Sunshine Band, Patti LaBelle, Johnny Rivers, and Chubby Checker. He found follow-up success with 'Sea Cruise,' a song that was later overdubbed with the vocals of a white heartthrob, Frankie Ford, without proper credit to Smith. Smith has also been covered by Allen Toussaint, John Boutte, Art Neville, The Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair.

Smith cut his teeth as a teenager supporting other musicians in clubs around New Orleans. In the summer of 1949, when he was 15 years old, Smith hit the stage at one of Hayes' Chicken Shack's weekly talent shows. Imperial Records artist, producer, and talent scout Dave Bartholomew was at the bar. This wasn't the night that Bartholomew warmed to Smith but the crowd liked him well enough as he earned second place via the applause-o-meter. Later, Bartholomew and Smith would end up working together on a number of hits with Cosimo Matassa as part of the session musician roster for J&M Recording Studio. There, Smith played for recordings by Smiley Lewis, Earl King, Lloyd Price, Little Richard, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and many others.

In the early 1950s, Smith regularly performed with Guitar Slim at Foster's Hotel (2932 LaSalle St.), Club Tiajuana, the Dew Drop Inn, and more. When he was 16 years old, his mother barged into the Rainbow Room at the hotel one night to bring him home, reportedly not wanting her son to hang around the barroom where owner George Foster had recently shot and killed a customer. Smith refused to leave so his mother locked him out of the house that night. He then moved in with his father. In 1957, singer Bobby Marchan joined forces with Huey Smith for The Clowns. Smith would later welcome other vocalists to front The Clowns, as well. In the 1960s, Smith recorded for Imperial Records and Instant Records. Some of these releases became local and regional hits. 

Smith was an influential force in the careers of many other notable musicians, including Dr. John, who credited him "with opening the door to funk, basically as we know it, in some ridiculously hip way, and putting it in the mainstream of the world's music." Allen Toussaint, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and John Sebastian also all counted him as a major influence on their songwriting.

In the 1970s, Smith turned to working as a gardener and became a Jehovah's Witness. He returned to music briefly for performances at Jazz Fest in 1979 and 1981 but stopped again after moving to Baton Rouge in 1981. His final return to the stage was at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards gala in New York in 2000.

WWOZ sends our best wishes to his family and friends at this difficult time. 

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