The Mississippi River is a wonder of nature. From its source in Lake Itasca Minnesota it flows 2320 miles all the way to Plaquemines (love the sound of that name!) Parish Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.
On its epic journey it courses through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The citizens of Minneapolis, St Paul, St Cloud, La Crosse, Dubuque, St Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans can gaze in awe as it majestically passes them by.
Songs and stories, tall tales and twisted tunes have always been an essential part of the freight and traffic carried by the mighty Mississippi.
No city (with all respect to Memphis) has contributed as much to the creative ecology of the river than New Orleans. Especially when it comes to players of the 88 keys of the piano.
With a roll call of keyboard saints and sinners including Jelly Roll Morton, Tuts Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr John, the lately departed Alan Toussaint and the piano man I’m featuring today, Huey Piano Smith, it’s obvious that New Orleans wears the laurel wreath when it comes to piano stylists. I feel a ‘New Orleans Piano Masters’ series coming on!
Now, each of the great musicians above has their own personal touch and tone: their own rhythmic fingerprint to charm our senses. What they share from their New Orleans heritage is profound immersion in the traditions of gospel, blues and jazz (not forgetting the concert music of the salon).
Sitting down at the keyboard a New Orleans Master can slide and shimmy through an encyclopaedia of piano styles calling up the distinctive rhythms of ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie as required.
The left hand lays down earthing bass lines while the right adds the melodic decoration. Listen closely and you will hear the interplay of rhythms from West Africa and Cuba giving what Jelly Roll Morton called a, ‘Spanish Tinge’ to the music.
And, all this is done with unhurried authority. New Orleans piano has marinated flavour. Tunes, at all tempos, swing. Each player their own River Boat Captain announcing their arrival in Town with proper swagger.
With all that dutiful history and exposition in mind let’s just glory in the absolute delight of Huey Smith’s ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu’ from 1957.
No system can resist this musical virus!
Johnny Vincent is credited with the novelty lyric (I have to admit that whenever anyone asks me do I have a cold I always answer, ‘No, but I do have the Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu!).
The record sold over a million copies and became a Jukebox favourite in any self respecting Honky-tonk.
The irresistible vocal is by Bobby Marchan. Commanding the keys Huey plays with gorgeous fluidity adding flashing filigree flourishes to the rock solid bass line. His years spent listening to Albert Ammons, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino all summoned up into 135 seconds of piano paradise.
Huey is a New Orleans native whose musical apprenticeship included several years as a teenager working with the superb showman Guitar Slim (see earlier Jukebox post). Specialty Records recognised his piano prowess and he was soon playing sessions for Earl King, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis.
It was 1957 when Huey formed, ‘Huey Piano Smith and His Clowns’ and signed a record deal with Johnny Vincent at Ace Records. Bobby Marchan, a flamboyant female impersonator with show-stopping vocal chops took the centre stage role.
Together in 1958 they made one of the most infectious records of all time with a lyric which defies certain transcription (I’ve had numerous arguments, on licensed premises, as to how the lyric should be reproduced phonetically!).
However you spell out the lyric you won’t be able to resist singing along to, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’.
Now that I think about it the song may well be founded and draw its immense energy from memories of childhood skipping games and adult excluding nonsense rhymes. Sometimes, nothing makes more sense or is more satisfying than to chant with all your heart:
… Ah, ha, ha, ha, hey, eh, ho, Dooba, Dooba, Dooba! Dooba, Dooba, Dooba!
There’s a tangled tale behind the next great record made by Huey. ‘Sea Cruise’ from 1959, the most famous song he was ever involved with, was written by Huey and recorded by him and The Clowns with Bobby Marchan (or by some accounts) Geri Hall on vocals.
There’s a fantastic paddle steamer surging tidal rhythm throughout the song that just sweeps you along before depositing you breathless and elated on the shore after three minutes of unalloyed joy.
Johnny Vincent smelled a hit. But, he thought (correctly) that the hit would be bigger and the dollars flow more freely if the track was speeded up, given some added sound effects and fronted up by a charismatic white singer.
After all Huey was a somewhat reticent figure and while Bobby Marchan’s transvestism raised few disapproving eyebrows in anything goes New Orleans it was hard to imagine them appearing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark!
Enter from stage left, Frankie Ford!
While the ethics of Johnny Vincent’s decision to superimpose Frankie on the original track are problematic to say the least it’s also undeniably true that Frankie Ford, given his shot at Major League status, hit the ball right out of the park for a huge home run!
Ooh – Wee Baby! You got nothing to lose . . Won’t you let me take you on a Sea Cruise!
Frankie was from Gretna across the river from the Crescent City. He was a campy show bizz kid who jumped at joining high school bands and entering talent competitions showcasing his piano and vocal skills.
Listening to DJs like, ‘Poppa Stoppa’ and hanging around music clubs gave him a liking and feel for rhythm and blues. One of New Orleans connected music fixers Joe Carrona took a liking to Frankie and introduced him to Johnny Vincent and thus was history made!
The final record featured here today, another fine Huey Smith composition originally titled, ‘Loberta’ was transmuted into, ‘Roberta’ when Frankie took up the mike to sing.
Notwithstanding Frankie’s heroic vocal it’s already a hit for me before he opens up because of Huey’s bravura piano intro and the immediate foot to the floor entry of the band. Beautiful New Orleans ensemble musicianship.
Huey Smith was never one to demand the spotlight.
Maybe he knew that there would always be those who would recognise and delight in a truly fine piano player and note that ‘H. Smith’ was the writing credit on some of the most cheering and enduring records of the 1950s.
Huey Smith – there are numerous collections of his 50s classics. The one on my shelves which is full of treats is, ‘Don’t You Just Know It – The Very Best of 1956-1962, Singles As and Bs’ issued by Jasmine Records. Cue up, ‘High Blood Pressure’ straight away!
Frankie Ford died in 2015 aged 76. There is a compilation on Fuel 2000, ‘Sea Cruise’ which is a fitting memorial to a real trouper.
Bobby Marchan died in 1999. In addition to his wondrous performances on ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia’ and, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’ there are a number of fine records in his later career. Chief among these is his epic take on Big Jay McNeely’s, ‘There Is Something On Your Mind’