New Orleans has always been home to a rich musical heritage, with a history of influence on almost every kind of music, especially jazz and R&B. Among the performers in the latter genre have been an almost endless parade of locally-grown artists, many of whom went on to major stardom. Names like Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and others have become familiar to us by now, but some of their lesser-known contemporaries had their own stories.
Huey ‘Piano’ Smith grew up in the Crescent City too and he had the piano-playing and singing talent to fit right in with the rest of the local guys who were transforming early rock and roll, but his career took a different route. He began conventionally enough, playing piano for local legends like Guitar Slim and Little Richard, but eventually formed his own group, the Clowns, which also featured singer Bobby Marchan.
The group was a popular local draw with their brand of music, which often featured a lot of comedic touches, and soon signed a recording deal with Ace Records. That led in 1957 to a top-ten R&B hit, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu.” It not only helped make the group a success, but it also set a theme that they would return to more than once — performing rollicking tongue-in-cheek songs about various sicknesses.
Unfortunately, at that time R&B songs weren’t widely played by mainstream radio stations, and the song didn’t translate to big national record sales. An even bigger success – but just on the R&B charts – was the group’s follow-up, “Don’t You Just Know It,” which featured another ‘sickness’ song, “High Blood Pressure,” on the flip side.
For a while, Huey and the group continued to perform and record with modest success, including some songs that they hoped would duplicate their earlier big sellers. One of those was “Would You Believe It (I Have a Cold),” and another was “Tu-Ber-Cu-Lucas and the Sinus Blues.”
However, the group began to lose popularity, and after Marchan left to go solo they began going through some changes that eventually led to disbanding. Huey continued performing for a number of years, either solo or in various groups, but he finally left the music business and devoted himself to Jehovah’s Witnesses — although some say he’s still got his eye on a comeback.