Huey “Piano” Smith, the R&B pianist and composer whose 1950s hits “Don’t You Just Know It” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu” added New Orleans spice to the early rock and roll recipe, died Feb. 13 at his home in Baton Rouge. He was 89.
His death was announced by his Acquelyn Donsereaux. A cause was not specified.
A New Orleans native who launched his career as a session pianist while still in his teens, eventually working with Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis (“I Hear You Knocking”), Smith formed his band Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns in 1957 and soon had a hit with “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu,” a song the would return to the charts in cover versions over the decades.
The following year brought another hit, “Don’t You Just Know It,” a catchy song featuring a call-and-response chorus of nonsense words and shouted outbursts.
But perhaps the most widely known song composed by Smith and the Clowns caused the musician his greatest professional heartbreak: “Sea Cruise,” with its now-classic refrain “Oo-ee, oo-ee baby/Won’t ya let me take you on a sea cruise?”, was composed and recorded by Smith’s band, but his label, Ace Records, added the vocals of white singer Frankie Ford. Smith later told a biographer that the label owner reasoned if Smith could “sell a million on this record, Frankie can sell 10 million.”
The record, credited to Ford, became a million seller and one of the most recognizable and widely covered hits of the pre-Beatles rock and roll era. It has been used in scores of TV and film soundtracks.
Smith would be engulfed in litigation for decades over royalties and credits for “Sea Cruise.” While his New Orleans R&B stylings would be cited by subsequent generations of rock musicians – “Rockin’ Pneumonia” wold be covered by a long list of artists including Johnny Rivers, Aerosmith and Deep Purple – Smith struggled financially for years, declaring bankruptcy in 1997. He later recovered at least some portion of royalties through numerous lawsuits.
He largely retired from performing in the 1980s.
Smith is survived by wife Margrette Riley, 10 children, 18 grandchildren and 47 great grandchildren, his daughter Acquelyn Donsereaux told the Associated Press.