His piano playing incorporated theboogie styles of Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Albert Ammons, the jazzstyle of Jelly Roll Morton and the rhythm-and-blues style of Fats Domino. Steve Huey of AllMusic noted that “At the peak of his game, Smith epitomized New Orleans R&B at its most infectious and rollicking, as showcased on his classic signature tune, ‘Don’t You Just Know It.”
Smith was born in the Central Cityneighborhood of New Orleans. He was influenced by the innovative work ofProfessor Longhair. He became known for his shuffling right-handed break on the piano that influenced other Southern players.
Smith wrote his first song “Robertson Street Boogie”, named after the street where he lived, on the piano, when he was eight years old. He performed the tune with a friend, with the two billing themselves as Slick and Dark. Smith attended McDowell High School andXavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.
When Smith was fifteen, he began working in clubs and recording with his flamboyant partner, Eddie Jones, who rose to fame as Guitar Slim. When Smith was eighteen, in 1952, he signed arecording contract with Savoy Records, which released his first known single, “You Made Me Cry”. In 1953 Smith recorded with Earl King.
In 1955, Smith became the piano player with Little Richard’s first band in sessions for Specialty Records.The same year he also played piano on several studio sessions for other artists, such as Lloyd Price.Two of the sessions resulted in hits for Earl King (“Those Lonely Lonely Nights”) andSmiley Lewis (“I Hear You Knocking”).
In 1957, he formed a band, Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns, with Bobby Marchan, and signed a long-term contract with Ace Records, represented by former Specialty record producer Johnny Vincent. They hit the Billboardcharts with several singles in succession, including “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”.
The record was issued as “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 1” on the A-side, lyrics by John Vincent, and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu Part 2”, aninstrumental, on the flip side. The recordsold over one million copies, achievinggold disc status.
In 1958, Vin Records, a subsidiary of Ace Records, released a popular single, “Little Chickee Wah Wah”, with Clowns singer Gerri Hall, under the billing of Huey and Jerry. (This song is sometimes confused with the similarly titled 1956 single “Chickie Wah Wah”, by Bobby Marchan, which has entirely different lyrics, tempo, chord structure and melody; the Vincent-Smith composition is built around the melody of the old black children’s play song “Little Sally Walker.”)
Meanwhile, Ace Records released several more singles by Huey “Piano” Smith and His Clowns, including “We Like Birdland”, “Well I’ll Be John Brown”, and “Don’t You Know Yockomo” (a cover version of which, recorded by the New Zealand artist Dinah Lee, reached number 1 in both New Zealand and Australia in 1964).
The Clowns’ most famous single, released in 1958, was “Don’t You Just Know It” backed with “High Blood Pressure.” This hit number 9 on the Billboard Pop chart and number 4 on the Rhythm and Blues chart. It was their second million seller.
In 1959, Ace Records erased Smith’s vocal track from “Sea Cruise”, the now-classic single Smith had composed,arranged and performed, and replaced it with a vocal track by the white singerFrankie Ford. The song was a hit for Ford.