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In the annals of Nineteen Fifties rock there are certain broad categories when it comes to slotting artists.

You have your unquestioned superstars… Domino, Little Richard, Presley, Berry, The Everly Brothers… and your second tier stars ranging from Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers to Bill Haley And The Comets.

But as you go down the groupings, as welcoming or exclusive as you want to make them, certain names stand out… not so much for their talents or accomplishments, but rather for their luck, or lack thereof.

You know that someone like Carl Perkins will forever be rated higher than his achievements warrant because of his good fortune to appear on a label that has unlimited cache and the fact that a few big names down the road were so open in their praise for him. You also realize that others will forever be undervalued by the masses because their skills didn’t result in enduring hits.

The one artist however who seems to have parlayed that lack of success into a verifiable long term reputation, precisely for missing out on stardom ironically, was Smiley Lewis, who still doesn’t quite reach the upper levels of 50’s acts, but who has plenty of people willing to vouch for him.


I Can’t Figure Out What In The World Is Wrong With Me
He was called “Hard Luck Smiley” for his lack of a sustained success during nearly a decade of stellar output. Though he was consistently popular around his hometown of New Orleans, scoring plenty of regional hits, he failed to make the grade on a national level for any extended stretch.

He had a few hits here and there, even a song or two that had some lasting notoriety among more casual fans, but he never became a household name, never was viewed as a headliner as rock’s multi-artist tours got underway and though his name remains more recognizable today than most acts who made records that “just missed”, that recognition invariably comes with the tagline – “he deserved better”.

Imperial Records had no shortage of big sellers which means you can’t necessarily blame them for not knowing what they were doing when it came to selling an artist. You also can’t claim he was undercut by his producer or backing musicians who just happened to be Dave Bartholomew and his band of Crescent City session aces who more than likely played on a greater number of hits collectively than any set of studio musicians in the entire decade.

So why did audiences who otherwise were receptive to this kind of music played by many of these same musicians recording under the auspices of the same producer in the same studio for the same record label fail to connect on a widespread basis with Smiley Lewis?

Surely SOME fault must be found in the man himself, right? Maybe his themes were trite or his storytelling was muddled or his voice was weak… but no, none of those excuses hold up. There may have been some who found something about him particularly grating, but there was no glaring flaw found in any of the areas that tend to turn off wide swaths of listeners.

So maybe it was the nameless, faceless masses… the Dirty People he put his faith in appealing to only to see them turn their collective backs on him. Yet even this position has its drawbacks, for while his slightly more mature tone of voice might’ve scared off the white kids from the suburbs who made up a greater share of the mid 50’s market, the same can’t be said for the slightly older, less naïve black rock fans that ruled during the early 1950’s when Lewis released much of his greatest work… such as this.


Tell Me What Are You Going To Do
Just the title alone should be enough to draw your curiosity if you’re a rock fan in 1950 peering at the titles on a jukebox.

Who wouldn’t want to hear what a record called Dirty People was about? It wasn’t very likely it’d be describing people with an aversion to soap or vacuum cleaners, so chances are the dirtiness was referring to their actions, be it sexual or social behavior that was viewed as outside the accepted boundaries of the community.

If ever there was a topic fit for rock ‘n’ roll this was surely it!

And if ever there was a band fit to play on such a record it’s surely the guys backing Smiley Lewis who make up the core of the greatest studio band until Motown’s Funk Brothers came along a decade later. That these guys never had a name assigned to them – even posthumously like the Funk Brothers or Los Angeles’s Wrecking Crew – means they’ve lost out on a good deal of glory for their work, but it’s that work which helped to define rock ‘n’ roll from the beginning.

The song starts off with someone who was NOT a member of the sessionists, as Smiley’s own pianist at the time, Tuts Washington, one of the best who ever lived on that instrument, takes the into before the horns – including Bartholomew’s trumpet and the saxes of Lee Allen, Clarence Hall (one or both) and Joe Harris are riffing up a storm, rising and falling in a bouncy yet seductive cadence that is almost the definition of herky-jerky sounding which pulls you in without much resistance.

Maybe the most surprising thing about this April session however was who wasn’t playing on it. The legendary Earl Palmer wouldn’t appear on a Lewis session until the next go-round but when you hear the solid beat and crisp fills of Herman Seale he’s hardly missed. Seale was a stocky kid who was built like a tree stump who made up one third of Lewis’s original band along with Washington, showing that they’d have been plenty capable of stirring up some excitement even without the horn section sitting in.

But even with the horns added – plus guitar and bass – to give it much more sonic depth, the arrangement itself is decidedly simple and straightforward, there’s little of Bartholomew’s whimsical ideas or fancy changes in the mix. What you get instead is a lively sound, one constantly churning in place, spiraling up and then winding back down before starting over, giving this a treadmill effect that works great as it follows Smiley’s vocal lead.

But for all of the solid work behind him, where this record makes its mark is with the guy at center stage, whose charm, power and command are never at odds with one another, but rather work hand in glove to put this over.

Caught That Boy Coming Out The Front Door
The song starts off with Smiley warning listeners about a guy outside with a machine gun – surely a first in rock ‘n’ roll, to say nothing of other styles of music where such a sight would be even more out of place – and as it unfolds it alternates between self-critique over his own failures with women while also presenting a rogue’s gallery of criminal elements who may or may not be a distraction for his more personal musings or the subjects he’s laying blame upon.

In other words Dirty People clearly has a dual meaning and if he’s equating deceptive women with out and out gangsters then it’s a pretty clever twist, but even so it doesn’t matter all that much because of how catchy it all sounds.

The lyrics might not make a lot sense, at least they don’t add up to a full story with plot and character development, but they’re colorful enough that you never mind the fact it’s hard to keep score. Nobody’s shot as far as we know, but then again maybe when the bullets started flying Lewis was wondering why his girlfriend up and left him and failed notice the corpses at his feet.

The real story contained within is how he’s selling all of this. His delivery is perfectly suited to the slightly more uptempo pace, yet his mood is somewhat downcast which makes for a nice contrast that hardly seems at odds with one another thanks to how it’s framed. He’s clearly got issues with multiple folks here, but it’s not anger or despair that is weighing him down, but rather confused wonderment, as if he’s trying to come to grips with all of this himself as he sings.

He never pauses for a breath either, rattling off five scenarios without so much as a single instrumental break, something which might cause some concern for those who understandably would prefer to hear this band cut loose for awhile. But because the transitions from one stanza to the next come with Seale’s rat-a-tat-tat drumming and Smiley’s added urgency each time through to match the slight rise in tempo, you hardly notice there’s no solos to be found.

Furthermore, for somebody who seems intent on raising questions and laying blame in the lyrics, it all sounds remarkably inviting. Smiley’s case might be picked apart by a good trial lawyer – or a more disciplined songwriter – but you can’t fault the total package when it sounds so appealing.


Public Enemy, Public Enemy
At this point in his career, despite an unwelcome recording sabbatical that persisted for far too long after his initial 1947 sides on DeLuxe met with no takers, Lewis had actually seen some solid returns for his work on Imperial.

Granted they weren’t national hits but Tee-Nah-Nah had charted all across the South in Cash Box and as far north as Chicago and as far west as Los Angeles, topping the New Orleans listings along the way, so the fact it DIDN’T make Billboard’s more historically respected national charts probably has more to do with who they were polling – more conservative stores and radio – than anything.

His follow up, Growing Old, though not as wide of a seller as his first Imperial side, soared up the New Orleans charts as well, and Dirty People would follow suit, topping the local chart the first week of December.

So maybe he wasn’t referring to the record buyers and listeners at the time for not giving him a fair shake after all, though it’s telling that the scope of his sales had already coalesced around the Gulf Coast and after this release he’d spend more than a year without any significant action whatsoever.

Any way you slice it though this was his best record to date and it still fell short of widespread acclaim, so shame on all of you dirty, dirty people for ignoring poor Smiley Lewis just as he was hitting his stride.


(Visit the Artist page of Smiley Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)