Though only briefly a national presence with a few hits to his credit, Smiley Lewis was a mainstay of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll throughout the 1950’s and the originator of a handful of classic songs that went on to greater notoriety when done by more established legends.

Lewis was born Overton Amos Lemons in 1913 in Union, Louisiana and following his mother’s death while still a youth he found his way to New Orleans where he was taken in by a white woman in the Irish section of town. He became proficient on guitar and was the frontman of a solid band who worked the city following World War Two, anchored by pianist Tuts Washington, a local legend on the keys.

Signed to the DeLuxe label in 1947 following their success with fellow New Orleans artists Paul Gayten, Annie Laurie and Roy Brown, the group made their debut on wax in the fall before King Records acquired control of the label and shelved the other record scheduled for release. For two years Lewis had to sit idle watching as one singer after another from The Crescent City got their chance on record, many of them scoring hits while he was forced to do manual labor jobs to make ends meet while singing at clubs hoping for another break.

He finally got one when Imperial Records, who’d moved in to corner the market on New Orleans artists following DeLuxe’s abdication, signed Lewis in 1950 at the behest of former neighbor Dave Bartholomew who was now heading up their A&R in the city.

Despite Bartholomew’s golden touch and some great material they recorded over the years Lewis remained mostly a local seller, even as more and more New Orleans artists were breaking nationally and in fact dominating the rock scene of the fifties. Lewis by contrast had just four hits during that time, all while seeing other artists such as pop singer Gale Storm cover his biggest seller for the pop market, taking sales away from him. Elvis Presley and Fats Domino both waited until his originals had run their course before cutting some of his best songs, but unlike Smiley they had no problem bringing those songs into the Pop Top Ten.

Even the groundbreaking use of one of his songs in Baby Doll, a mainstream movie directed by the legendary Elia Kazan in 1956, just the second example of a rock song being used by Hollywood for a non-music related picture, couldn’t break him open, though years later Aerosmith would gain notice for covering the song and by the 1958 his window of opportunity for mainstream stardom had shut.

Some of the problem may have been that his echo-laden metallic voice was too harsh sounding for an increasingly middle-American audience that began to control more of the rock market in the mid-50’s, or that his songs reflected a more adult perspective that was difficult for teen listeners to relate to, though the success of his material for others probably refutes that argument. Whatever the reason though his failure to succeed at the same level as his competitors, despite using the same top-notch studio band with the same producer on the same label earned him the nickname “Hard Luck Smiley”.

By the start of the 1960’s the changing market led Imperial to cut him loose and soon after Lewis was diagnosed with cancer. Always a popular performer around New Orleans a benefit was held to raise money for his treatment but Lewis – just 53 years old – passed away before it took place, epitomizing his hard luck to the end.
SMILEY LEWIS DISCOGRAPHY (Reviews To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
(DeLuxe 1099; October, 1947)
Stellar debut with Lewis’s winsome vocal charms presenting a disarming autobiographical character study highlighted by pianist Tuts Washington’s deft work on the keyboards… sublime all around. (7)

(DeLuxe 1099; October, 1947)
Mildly suggestive content, appealing even without the connotations of the radio/sex euphemisms, thanks to the interplay between Lewis’s vocals and Washington’s piano workout. (6)

(DeLuxe 1108; unreleased)
Another solid offering with a nice veiled sexual component completely unrelated to the supposed theme with good piano by Washington and while the melody is too reminiscent of his other sides at the time, the lyrics and Lewis’s delivery add enough character to make it work. (6)

(Imperial 5067; March, 1950)
An endlessly engaging song crafted out of a notorious jailhouse ditty featuring Lewis’s confident bellhorn vocals, his tight band keeping things simple and Dave Bartholomew adding the polish to mark Smiley’s welcome return to the active ranks after two and a half years. (7)

(Imperial 5067; March, 1950)
Though Smiley continues to impress with his vocals, the song’s not quite strong enough to prop up a rather ambiguous story and Dave Bartholomew’s rare missteps as a producer which include featuring his own trumpet too much. (5)

(Imperial 5072; May, 1950)
A downhearted composition which keeps Smiley in low-gear to begin with and then saddles him with mismatched musical elements which clash with one another and Lewis himself, overwhelming both the singer and song in the process. (2)

(Imperial 5072; May, 1950)
A deceptively simple song with an arrangement carried by Tuts Washington’s expressive piano perfectly complimenting Lewis’s subtly shifting vocals, a strong reminder of just why that partnership was so effective and needed little else to put across the material. (6)

(Imperial 5102; October, 1950)
A clever and colorful song with a dual meaning in which Smiley’s appealing lead might not match the downcast lyrics but it doesn’t matter because of how he sells it backed by his core band and Dave Bartholomew’s session aces, all of whom work in tandem flawlessly to put this over. (8)

(Imperial 5124; May, 1951)
A good song with an atypical arrangement featuring a trombone solo as its centerpiece making this more quirky than galvanizing and though its experimental nature is admirable in theory, it also makes it harder to score hits with something that’s not as easily accessible. (6)

(Imperial 5124; May, 1951)
A mixed bag from Lewis whose story is a bit confusing and the lyrics get garbled at times while the alto solo isn’t powerful enough, but the overall drive of the record and Ernest McLean’s guitar solo are points in its favor. (5)

(Imperial 5194; June, 1952)
An infectious hit which marked Dave Bartholomew’s return to Imperial as producer and Lewis’s first record in more than a year features a soon-to-be familiar melody and lyrics which present contradictions galore, making this a colorful and charming record in every way.

(Imperial 5194; June, 1952)
Despite not being much of an actual song since it has few lyrics and little music, there’s an infectious sing-along vibe to this highlighted by the spirited vocals of Lewis which doesn’t even correspond with the overall sad vibe but transcends it somehow all the same. (7)

(Imperial 5208; October, 1952)
Many fans’ favorite Smiley record, this is really good but you can see why it was only a regional hit as the great groove drops out of focus as Lewis’s engaging vocals take over but without a strong melodic hook… everything works well but no one thing rivets your attention. (7)

(Imperial 5208; October, 1952)
A bad idea remaking his minor hit “Tee Nah Nah” but one that turns out really well thanks to an entirely new and much improved story, Lewis’s infectious lullaby vocal qualities, a languid sax solo and the fact the unchanged melody itself remains so hard to resist. (7)