Huey Pierce Smith, known as “Piano Smith”, was born in 1934 in Depression-era New Orleans, Louisiana. A rhythm and blues (R&B) pianist, whose sound epitomised the infectiously rollicking New Orleans, Professor Longhair-influenced R&B of the 1950s, he is considered to have been influential in the development of rock n roll. In 1957, he formed the band, Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns, with Bobby Marchan, signing a long-term contract with Ace Records. They had several chart hits in succession, including his most famous song, Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, (a Top 5 R&B hit), and his biggest hit, Don’t You Just Know It / High Blood Pressure, (which reached the pop Top 10). As a black musician from the Southern States, Smith’s career was nonetheless typically difficult and challenging. This included difficult tours of the segregated Southern States, and (the sadly common story of) unpaid royalties. In addition, his sound was probably too un-commercial to maintain a long, chart-successful music career, lacking the pop-crossover appeal of artists such as Fats Domino or The Coasters. The hits duly began to dry up, and when Marchan left the band in 1960, this signalled the beginning of the end of The Clowns. After a very brief period on Imperial Records, Smith returned for one, last hit on Ace, Pop Eye, in 1962. He spent the next few years touring with The Clowns, as well as the other groups that he formed, The Pitter Pats and The Hueys, but further success eluded him. He gave up the music industry after becoming a Jehova’s Witness.
Free, Single and Disengaged is a typical, if less well-known, Smith song. It was the B-side to Just a Lonely Clown released on Ace Records in 1957. As well as being a great example of the New Orleans R&B sound of the time, marked by humour and nonsensical lyrics, an interesting thing to note is that it sounds very like an early Bo Diddley track, (e.g. the song, Bo Diddley), albeit with a significantly different arrangement. Was Bo listening to Huey’s songs prior to the release of his first album in 1958? Probably.
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