Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns were a significant R&B act and part of the New Orleans music scene for quite some time in the 50's and 60's, both as session musicians and as a recording artist in their own right, and left us with two very memorable songs of their own.
Huey Smith was born in New Orleans in 1934. He learned to play the piano in a style that was influenced by Professor Longhair, and by the age of 15 he was sessioning with his partner, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones. He spent some time working with Earl King, and for three years beginning in 1951 he recorded with Jones' band, though not yet out of his teens. Smith worked as a session musician through much of the 50's, particularly with artists such as Smiley Lewis (I Hear You Knocking), Lloyd Price, and Little Richard among others who recorded in the music studios in New Orleans.
In 1957 Huey formed his own band, the Clowns, with both Lee Allen and Red Tyler on sax, and Charles Williams on drums. Lead vocals were handled by flamboyant New Orleans singer Bobby Marchan. The group recorded a few songs. One that Huey put together on the piano was called Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu. Writing credits for the song went to Huey Smith and Johnny Vincent, his producer at Ace Records. Originally intended to be and recorded as an instrumental, some words were added and recorded on the second side of the record, and it was this version that made it to the R&B top ten, and number 52 on the pop chart. In early 1958, Huey Smith and the Clowns had their biggest hit with Don't You Just Know It, a top ten hit on both charts. With High Blood Pressure on the reverse side, it sold more than two million records. Another hit was Don't You Know Yockomo. In 1960 Curley Moore replaced Marchan as lead vocalist; Gerri Hall also handled vocals for some time (and she later sang with Ray Charles' Raelets). The group switched to Imperial Records then returned to Ace. Its final chart entry was Pop-Eye in 1962, which contained some of their old material overdubbed with singing voices.
Along the way Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns worked with some other well-known acts from Louisiana, including Jimmy Clanton. They were the backing band on Frankie Ford's 1959 hit Sea Cruise. They acquired a well-deserved reputation as an excellent stage act. They toured successfully and were at their best when performing live in their native New Orleans. In time the music scene changed and their popularity faded. The band continued to perform for a number of years, under several different names. Huey Smith later joined Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns have been acknowledged as a strong influence on the music coming from New Orleans in the 50's and 60's. Their two biggest hit records done on their own, Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu and Don't You Just Know It, were covered by others as the years went on, most notably when Johnny Rivers brought Rockin' Pneumonia back and all the way to the top ten late in 1972.
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