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Smiley Lewis: In the Spotlight

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Smiley Lewis: In the Spotlight

Smiley Lewis in the mid-50s

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Born:

Overton Amos Lemons, July 5, 1913, DeQuincy, LA; died October 7, 1966, New Orleans, LA

Styles:

New Orleans Soul, R&B

Instruments:

Vocals, guitar

Claims to fame:

  • One of the most influential of the classic New Orleans R&B artists of the 1950s
  • His hits "One Night of Sin" and "I Hear You Knocking" became hits for several pop artists
  • One of the first hard R&B artists to demonstrate the genre's crossover potential
  • One of the city's most powerful R&B vocalists

Early years:

Though New Orleans is generally known as a piano or horn town, Smiley Lewis is one of a few local artists to choose blues guitar as his primary instrument. That may have to do with his early upbringing near the Texas border; at the age of 15, he hopped a freight as a lark with a couple of friends and, with his mother having died at an early age, decided to stay on it anyway and see where the train took him. He wound up in New Orleans, where he found a white family in the famed Irish Channel section of town who took him in as their own. Adopting their last name, he began to play on the streets of the French Quarter, and eventually formed a group with another famous New Orleanian, pianist "Tuts" Washington.

Success:

Though he'd attracted enough attention to get a single recorded on DeLuxe, it went nowhere, and Overton, now Smiley, didn't find success until Dave Bartholomew, then mentoring a young Fats Domino, decided to take him on as a rawer, bluesier version of his more famous collaborator. Bartholomew began writing songs for Lewis and got him a deal with Fats' label, Imperial. "Tee-Nah-Nah" got some notice, and "The Bells Are Ringing" established him on the national R&B charts, but it wasn't until 1955 that he hit with what would become his signature song, "I Hear You Knocking." Unfortunately, a bland, cutesy cover version by Gale Storm beat it to the pop charts.

Later years:

Too earthy for the direction rock was headed in, yet too bluesy for soul, Smiley floundered in the early '60s, despite recording for established labels such as OKeh and Dot, and despite the fact that one of his best songs, "Shame Shame Shame," was featured in the hit Elia Kazan film Baby Doll. He was beloved on the local scene, but national success eluded him ever after, even though songs he'd recorded first had become smashes for others: Elvis cleaned up "One Night (of Sin)" and Fats recut Bartholomew's "Blue Monday" and took it to the top. By 1965, Smiley had drunk himself into a stomach ulcer, which developed into cancer the following year. He died just three days before a local all-star benefit that would have begun to give him, along with money for his medical care, the proper recognition he deserved.

Smiley Lewis facts and trivia:

  • Was originally known as "Smiling" Lewis
  • His nickname ironically came about because his front teeth were missing
  • Never sold more than 100,000 copies of any song, leading to Dave Bartholomew's famous description of him as a "hard luck singer"
  • His booming voice was so powerful it often didn't need to be miked
  • Huey "Piano" Smith plays on Smiley's version of "I Hear You Knocking"
  • Dave Edmunds' hit 1970 version of "I Hear You Knocking" pays tribute to Smiley by name

Smiley Lewis hit songs and albums:

Top 10 hits:
R&B:
  • "The Bells Are Ringing" (1952)
  • "I Hear You Knocking" (1955)
  • "Please Listen to Me" (1956)

Other notable Smiley Lewis recordings:

"One Night (of Sin)," "Down Yonder (We Go Ballin')," "Down the Road," "Shame, Shame, Shame," "(She's Got Me) Hook, Line & Sinker," "Tee-Nah-Nah," "Dirty People," "Bee's Boogie," "Lillie Mae," "Gumbo Blues," "Ain't Gonna Do It," "Caldonia's Party," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," "Big Mamou," "Growing Old," "My Baby Was Right," "Playgirl," "Lying Woman," "Can't Stop Loving You," "Ooh La La," "Jailbird," "Real Gone Lover," "I Can't Believe It," "No Letter Today," "Mama Don't Like It," "Bumpity Bump," "Queen of Hearts," "Come On," "Nothing But the Blues," "Rootin' and Tootin'"

Covered by: Elvis Presley, Gale Storm, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Aerosmith, Fats Domino, Connie Francis, Ringo Starr, Big Joe Turner, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Gary Glitter, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Chris Isaak, The Merseybeats, Marc Almond, Roomful of Blues, Corinne Bailey Rae, Alvin Lee, Willy DeVille, Billy Swan

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