Classic New Orleans R&B was in short supply at the recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as many of the stars of that generation have passed on or rarely perform anymore.
Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups and Robert Parker were among those who performed at the Fair Grounds. But notably absent, year after year, is the great Huey “Piano” Smith, who last played the fest in 1981.
Smith wrote and recorded the classics “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t You Just Know It” and “Sea Cruise.” He retired from performing in 1981.
In his book, “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues,” John Wirt, longtime music writer for The Advocate, tells the story of how this icon of good fun disappeared from the public eye.
Smith was born during the Depression and raised Uptown on South Robertson Street. He got his nickname as a young man while backing the legendary Guitar Slim, who identified band members by their instruments.
Wirt tells the story of a charismatic young man with a knack for writing fun and often comic songs, and how that gift made his music a national sensation.
Unfortunately, as the latter part of Wirt’s book documents, Smith’s story is also a sadly common one for African-American musicians of his generation. He never received proper royalties for his songs, and Johnny Vincent, owner of Smith’s label, Ace Records, sold the publishing rights to Smith’s four biggest songs in 1972 for $20,000.
In later years, “Rocking Pneumonia,” “Don’t You Just Know It,” “High Blood Pressure” and “Sea Cruise” would be at the heart of Smith’s Chapter 7 bankruptcy and three civil suits against him.
Wirt also writes about Smith following his mother’s example and becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. He left New Orleans in 1980, moving to Baton Rouge.
In 2000, Smith performed at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Awards gala in New York City, but other than that, he has kept a low profile for the past 30 years. Wirt’s biography of him is the first.
Wirt met Smith after the Rhythm and Blues Foundation announced that he would receive its Pioneer Award. Wirt contacted the foundation to see if it could help connect the two men, who lived in the same town, and soon afterward Smith’s wife, Margrette, called him to say Huey would speak to him.
“He unleashed a torrent of information,” Wirt says of that first interview with Smith. “The meeting might have lasted three hours. I was totally blown away.”
Smith told stories that went back decades, many of which Wirt had never heard. “He had so much to say. It’s like it was pent up in him.”
Much of it had to do with the suits against him and bankruptcy proceedings, including the fact that Smith was not allowed to present witnesses in his defense during a 1992 trial in Baton Rouge.
Wirt was as compelled by Smith’s story as fans were by his songs, and he worked with particular diligence to craft one of the longest stories he’d written in his career as a newspaperman.
“This story burned inside of me,” he said, and the longer he worked on it, the more he realized that Smith would be a great subject for a book.
Wirt approached Smith with the idea. Smith agreed and the two began meeting on Thursday mornings in January 2001.
Once a week, Smith told pieces of his story. With more than a decade of financially devastating legal issues on his mind, Smith often returned to his outrage at his treatment by the courts, but by September, when the weekly meetings ended, he had also given Wirt his story and insights into the heyday of New Orleans R&B, the people associated with it and his adventures on the road with his group, the Clowns.
Because Wirt worked full-time at The Advocate, the project took 12 years. That was longer than he’d hoped, but the extra time had its benefits.
“It’s better than it would have been if it had come out six years ago,” he said, as each passing year led him to sources who could further help him understand Smith.
While interviewing Jon Cleary for a Jazz Fest story, he learned that Cleary had seen what was likely Smith’s last show at Tipitina’s in 1981.
“Jon confirmed what James Rivers and other musicians had told me about Huey on stage,” he said.
“Jon said Huey was like a member of the band. He sat in the back. He wasn’t the front man.”
That was Smith’s way throughout his career, and because of it, front man Bobby Marchan was often assumed by fans to be Smith.
Smith is now 80 and dealing with severe arthritis that impairs his ability to walk and stand for periods of time. He has outlasted many of his contemporaries, but Wirt isn’t sure if Smith appreciates his place in musical history.
“He’s not a guy who wants to bring attention or glory to himself,” Wirt said. “He gives all glory to God. He doesn’t worship the works of men.”
Wirt, on the other hand, has no reservations about assessing Smith’s significance. “When I think of Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino and Dr. John, Huey is in that number,” he said.