Listen to this track by 88-fingered New Orleans R&B icon Huey “Piano” Smith. It’s his 1958 hit “Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu”, his smash signature hit that sold over a million copies when it was released as a single, and eventually featured on the compilation LP Having a Good Time.
In the end, it’s this type of fun loving, light-spirited playing that nearly everyone associates with the sound of New Orleans R&B, and with the city itself. This song, and Smith as a musician, influenced a legion of players both contemporary of him, as well as the musical acolytes that followed him.
In the ’50s, Smith was an active songwriter, sessioner, and recording artist, knocking out a number of singles in quick succession for himself as well as for other artists including Guitar Slim, Earl King, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, and Smiley Lewis, among others. In 1957, he formed his own band, the Clowns and began a career which would finish the decade, and then into the ’60s too, with hits on the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. But, this one would be his trademark; a joyous, life-affirming thing, brimming with glee and sexiness.
This song describes ineffable feelings that grab a hold when we’re at our happiest. As such, it’s the perfect party tune, driven by Smith’s dexterous piano, vocalist Bobby Marchan’s double-tracked vocals, and accompanied by honking saxes of Lee Allen and Red Tyler, and Charles Williams behind the kit. This is the sound of classic R&B that influenced the development of what would become known as rock ‘n’ roll, but in its purest form. This song was initially an instrumental, with lyrics added by Johnny Vincent. The single featured two versions; the one with Marchan’s vocals, and a ‘pt 2’ which was an instrumental version.
Among other projects, the band was responsible for another big hit; “Sea Cruise”, which eventually featured the vocals of one Frankie Ford, the singer now permanently associated with it. But Smith and the Clowns play on the track. Despite their anonymity as a band playing on a famous tune, they would continue to have success as a unit on their own. They would craft a number of hits on the R&B charts in “Don’t You Just Know It“, “High Blood Pressure”, and “Don’t You Know Yockomo”.
But, by the ’60s, broad demand for pure, piano-and-sax driven R&B was waning in favour of girl-groups, and guitar bands. Much like Little Richard, religion began to eclipse Smith’s interest by this time anyway, joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses and leaving his music career behind him. Yet, his influence would be felt in the work of Johnny Rivers (who covered this song in the early ’70s), Dr. John, and the Band, the latter of whom regularly performed this song when they reformed in the early ’80s.
The real significance of this song, and Smith, is how the regional sound of New Orleans R&B is consolidated, influenced in turn by fellow R&B icon Professor Longhair, and helping to continue that unique New Orleans sound in the work of Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, and Bobby Charles, among others.
For more information about Huey “Piano” Smith, check out the Huey “Piano” Smith biography on AllMusic.