“Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues” by John Wirt. LSU Press, 2014. $25.95.
One of my favorite books about music is “Mitchell & Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz,” William Zinsser’s account of a 1981 visit to China by the American pianist Dwike Mitchell and his musical partner, bassist and French horn player Willie Ruff.
Zinsser is best known for “On Writing Well,” a popular manual for aspiring wordsmiths that stresses the value of simplicity in crafting a narrative. “Trust your material,” Zinsser tells his students. “The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.”
“Mitchell & Ruff” is a prime example of the “trust your material” principle that makes Zinsser such a great writer, allowing the story to convey its own power, without adornment or artifice. “I realized that the material itself was so rich that any attempt to explain it would be patronizing,” Zinsser said of the book.
I thought about Zinsser while reading “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues,” John Wirt’s new book about Smith, a New Orleans rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll legend whose musical legacy stands with that of Dr. John, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe and Allen Toussaint. Like Zinsser, Wirt inhabits this story as a reporter, not a participant, letting the real star, Huey Smith, emerge in all his brilliance and complexity.
Area readers know Wirt as The Advocate’s longtime film and music critic. The guilty pleasure — and the abiding complication — of arts criticism is that the writing can become a form of theater in itself, creating a text in which the commentator overshadows his subject. But in “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith,” as in his newspaper reviews, Wirt is a quiet presence — so quiet, in fact, that he’s able to hear and convey realities that others might miss.
Distilling exhaustive research and countless hours of interviews with Smith and many others, Wirt walks us through Smith’s Depression-era childhood, his younger years as a pianist for bluesman Guitar Slim, and his popular success in the 1950s and ’60s with such iconic hits as “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t You Just Know It,” “High Blood Pressure” and “Sea Cruise.”
Smith, we learn from Wirt’s book, is an artist who’s not only played the blues but lived them, his life complicated by creative disputes, financial troubles and legal wrangling over the profits from his work. But there’s humor here, too — an inevitability, perhaps, given the campy lyricism of Smith’s music. Here, Wirt explains the origins of Smith’s medically inspired titles:
“‘High Blood Pressure,’ like ‘Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu’ before it, is one of Huey’s numerous ailment songs. ‘We don’t want to forget Little Willie John had ‘Fever’ all over the United States,’ the songwriter explained. ‘That was one before mine’s, so it opened the door for whatever I want to come with. So I’m going to do some more of these, what people like. So I got to be sick!’”
Wirt’s lucid style always gravitates, like a compass needle pointing north, toward the telling detail. Listen as he charts out a piece of regional music history:
“Like the blues, New Orleans’s keyboard tradition grew in part from social and economic deprivation. Weekend nights in Louisiana, people of all colors kept roofs over their heads and food on their tables by opening their homes and selling fish and chicken dinners. Upright pianos in the tiny houses provided entertainment. Necessity spurred invention among the pianists who played these house parties. Having no drummer, they exploited the keyboard’s percussive nature.”
Smith, who now lives in Baton Rouge, is worth remembering because he’s an original artist in the truest sense of the word — a writer and musician whose work is deeply connected to the origins of his musical tradition. In that way, his songs have been wellsprings for his contemporaries and subsequent generations, a reminder that the most basic elements of the music can also be the most eloquent.
“To me he was the man that got more out of simplicity than anybody in New Orleans,” drummer Earl Palmer notes. “And everything Huey did was just wrapped in New Orleans. We used to always say he sounds like those downtown piano players down in Tremé, where I came up. I hope he can come out of his shell enough to perform some more. Because he can get heard by some more people, man, and they can find out who really instigated a lot of that music.”
Put “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues” on your summer reading list. It’s both a chronicle of the soaring possibilities of craft — and an inspiring example of it.