The Enduring Legacy of Musician Huey “Piano” Smith

As one journalist who covered Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues wrote, people may not have heard of Huey, a rock ’n’ roll pioneer and classic rhythm-and-blues artist from New Orleans, yet they certainly have heard his songs.

Those songs include Huey’s 1958 hit “Don’t You Just Know It,” recently featured in a pair of TV commercials, one for an athletic shoe and another for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game. Transcending the decades, Huey’s music stays fun, joyful, infectious. And he’s been a major influence upon generations of songwriters and musicians.

In 2011, Paul Simon told the U.K.’s RadioTimes about the love he developed for music from Louisiana during his youth in New York City. “I didn’t know it was from Louisiana,” Simon said. “But I loved Fats Domino. I loved Huey ‘Piano’ Smith. I liked Frankie Ford.”

Art Garfunkel, Simon’s partner in the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel, loved Huey’s music, too. In a 2014 story that appeared on the U.S.-based MusicRadar website, Garfunkel listed Huey’s “Sea Cruise” at No. 5 among the 10 songs that changed his life. “‘Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?’” Garfunkel quoted. “Nothing rocked quite like this record. For me, it was the door opening to rock ’n’ roll. … I also love Huey ‘Piano’ Smith’s ‘Don’t You Just Know.’ It makes you wanna get up and dance.”

In 2011, punk-rock pioneer Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist with the New York Dolls, told the U.K’s The Observer newspaper much the same about “Don’t You Just Know It”: “This is the one I remember knocking me sideways as a little kid,” Sylvain said. “That rocking piano, the dance beat, the audience participation. I was just hooked.”

In 1999, following The Lovin’ Spoonful’s nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John Sebastian, front man for that 1960s vocal group from New York City, told MTV that he and his Spoonful bandmates were “students” of such rock ’n’ roll pioneers as Fats Domino and Phil Spector, both of whom are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Huey Smith, who is not in the Hall of Fame. Sebastian referred to all three men as “the professors.”

In 1992, Robbie Robertson of The Band — that quintessential roots-rock music band that also featured Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel — spoke of his fascination for New Orleans music to then-Crescent City resident John Sinclair for a story in Bomb magazine. Robertson’s lifelong interest in New Orleans music began when he was a 14-year-old novice musician in Toronto, playing in a Huey “Piano” Smith wannabe band called Little Caesar and the Consuls. The leader of the group wanted to be Huey Smith, Robertson recalled. “We played this music,” Robertson remembered, “that made me think, wait a minute, there’s something going on here — there is something about this whole thing that’s different and unique. There’s this mystery, there’s this fun, there is this thing you can’t quite put a finger on.”

John Wirt is the author of the first biography of Smith, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues.

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