A Commander of an intergalactic Starship looking at the map of our Solar System would probable observe that there was one major Planet – Jupiter – accompanied by 7 minor ones.
Jupiter is immense.
The Earth would fit into Jupiter some three hundred times.
And, while we delight in a single Moon to light our nights Jupiter holds over 60 Moons in thrall.
Now some of the Moons of Jupiter, though small in comparison to their parent Planet, are fascinating worlds in their own right.
Galileo discovered the four major Moons of Jupiter in 1610 and ever since we have yearned to know more about Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
The satellites of a Planet as important as Jupiter merit close attention and analysis.
As in Astronomy so in Musicology!
In New Orleans in the 1950s there was one giant presence dominating the musical universe – Antoine Fats Domino!
Fats was universally loved.
While he was the Pharoah of his Hometown scene he was also musical royalty from Alaska to Albuquerque from Lima to Liverpool.
In his 1950s heyday he sold records not just in the millions but in the tens of millions.
While Fats’ sound conquered the known world back home in New Orleans a series of lesser lights, satellite talents, made their own distinctive and impressive contributions to the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Preeminent, to my mind, amongst these Moons to Fats’ Jupiter, was Overton Amos Lemons known to the wide world as Smiley Lewis.
Smiley, who got his monicker due to two missing front teeth, was born near Lake Charles Louisina in 1913.
As a teenager he hopped a freight train and made his way to the Crescent City where he knew all the action was for someone ambitious to make a career in Music.
Smiley knew he could really play the guitar and he just knew that put before a microphone he had a voice that could seduce, serenade and stir an audience until they screamed for more!
Serving an apprenticeship with Tuts Washington he honed his performing skills in the clubs of the French Quarter.
With Tuts he played in the House Band at the Boogie Woogie Club for WW2 troops stationed at Fort Polk.
When the War ended Smiley, Tuts and drummer Herman Seals formed a trio that went down a storm in New Orleans.
Starting out with Deluxe records Smiley found his recording stride when he hooked up in 1950 with the multi talented Kingpin of New Orleans music – Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records.
From then on throughout the decade Smiley Smiley produced a series of influential, superbly sung and played Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n Roll records.
While he never sold more than 100,00 copies on any any of these fine records he was listened to closely by Fats himself as well as Elvis Presley and the sharp eared Rock ‘n’ Roll fanatics in Britain like Paul McCartney and Dave Edmunds.
Smiley made a lot of records everyone should know.
At a minimum everyone should know his, ‘Tee-Nah-Nah’, ‘Bells Are Ringing’, ‘One Night (Of Sin)’ and ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’.
But, he made only one record that Everyone Knows.
From 1955 The Immortal, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.
The terrific triplet piano comes courtesy of another Fats Domino satellite – Huey Smith.
Dave Bartholomew claimed the writing credit and supplied production smarts and the studio band.
Get ready to sing a long … ‘You went away and left me long time ago ..’
The one and only Smiley Lewis!
Confession – I’ve been known to pump fistfuls of coins into a Jukebox to ensure this plays 10 times in a row so everybody, everybody, knows how great Smiley Lewis was!
I love the stately tempo here and the supreme relaxed authority of Smiley’s vocal which seems to draw us after him like tugboats in the wake of a mighty steamer.
The Rhythm Section and the Horns mesh perfectly with Huey’s stellar piano and provide the perfect platform for Smiley to glide over.
This record sounded glorious in 1955 and it will always do so.
Fifteen years after Smiley recorded it another true Rocker, Dave Edmunds, was casting about for a classic from the 50s that he could turbo charge with his blistering guitar and scintillating production skills.
His first thought was Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Work Together but he found himself beaten to the shellac by Canned Heat.
Then a bell rang – surely, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ had the same rhythm and making guitar the featured instrument instead of piano might make for an incendiary sound!
Once the idea hit home it was ‘just’ a matter of Dave putting in the hours playing all the instruments, piping his vocal down a telephone line and compressing the sound at his home from home Welsh studio – Rockfield – and Voila you have an unstoppable hit.
Let’s Do It!
Its very common for musicians to cover the classic works of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Forefathers like Smiley Lewis but the electric soul thrilling wonder of those records is very rarely captured decades later.
Dave Edmunds take on ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is the exception that proves the rule.
Having made such a record with evident love and devotion Dave had every right to namecheck Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Chuck Berry and Smiley Lewis and consider himself part of their lineage.
Don’t just take my word for it.
John Lennon was a Rocker to the tips of his Bootheels.
When he heard Dave Edmunds version he said, ‘I always liked simple Rock. There’s a great one in England now, ‘I Hear You Knocking’.
And, Praise Be! such a great song still finds a ready audience in musicians who have had that epiphany experience of truly encountering the treasures laid down by the 50s Pioneers.
I’m closing out with Jukebox favourites, The Strypes, who seem to have a direct line to the spirit of those Pioneers.
I hear you knocking … I hear you knocking ….
There are numerous compilations of Smiley Lewis’ hits.
As usual the best set for deep divers like myself is provided by Bear Family. Their superb, 4CD ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ is pure treasure.
Jeff Hannusch is a deeply knowledgeable writer on Smiley and the New Orleans scene. His book, ‘I Hear You Knocking’ is highly recommended.
As is John Broven’s ‘Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans’.