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This single might best encapsulate the entire story of Smiley Lewis, as it is widely considered among his fans to be perhaps his greatest record, yet it made little impact at the time and didn’t belatedly become one of those “must have” records whose reputation grew immensely in the years to come.

Because of that dichotomy, this review is going to be a little different than most because it’s genuinely trying to figure out the reasons for that disconnect, be it fans vs. casual listeners or subjective opinion vs. objective historical evaluation.

As always neither side is right or wrong, they just have different perspectives, but since history as a whole generally is written to reflect the dominant perspective, that means something like this tends to get left behind.

So here we’ll try and parse BOTH perspectives to see why that split exists on one of the defining records of Lewis’s career.


Walking Up And Down Rampart Street
The longstanding commercial indifference to Smiley Lewis on a national scale is one of those things that tends to overwhelm his actual accomplishments by sticking a “but” in the first paragraph of his capsule biographies… as in “He was a great artist BUT he should’ve been more popular”.

While that’s a common statement regarding Lewis, the truth of the matter isn’t so cut and dried. Or at least all of the reasons generally given don’t quite pan out when you take a closer look at them.

For starters he was working with the best local musicians and producer to bring out all of the nuances of his songs. He himself was a good writer – and when he didn’t write his own tunes, as with Gumbo Blues, then Dave Bartholomew (who was even better) did – and nobody, friend or foe alike, ever questioned the power of Lewis’ voice even if his tonal qualities were a bit unusual to some.

So what was the trouble with breaking him through to a wider audience? It couldn’t have been Imperial’s lack of distribution, promotion or connections, the usual target to place blame for underwhelming sales, as they were one of the top independent labels in rock who specialized in New Orleans artists.

Some people suggest that it was a slightly more mature worldview which was increasingly out of place in an ever younger realm of rock ‘n’ roll, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either, as most of his songs were not that much different in terms of subject and perspective than a lot of the biggest acts out there.

Was he too regional in his style, something that would be especially apparent on a song like this whose lyrics are focused on the uniqueness of New Orleans as a culture all of its own? Well, even if that explained THIS record failure to meet with wider acceptance, that wouldn’t account for the relative commercial failure of his other singles with more universal themes.

That means it has to be something else that kept him from taking a spot in the upper pantheon of early 50’s rock stars despite fairly prolific output which was consistently good and so this is an attempt to figure out what it was that caused him to always seem to come up short.


Grab Your Fast Train
First thing’s first… you can forget the idea that this record is “too New Orleans” based to be relatable to people in Cleveland or Seattle or New York.

Though the lyrics are an ode to New Orleans, the music is not leaning heavily on the famed New Orleans sound. For one thing the guitar has a bigger role with stinging licks filling most of the cracks, while the usually dominant horns are playing a more generic riff common in New Orleans but not exclusively patented by the Crescent City. In fact the instrumental break doesn’t even feature horns other than in a supporting role, as the soloing is taken by a rather weak barrelhouse piano.

A horn does get a bigger spot as a responsory instrument in the bridge but that’s not unique to the city’s sound either. In other words, there’s no Dixieland influence or Mardi Gras carnival vibe to be found on Gumbo Blues, thereby eliminating that explanation entirely.

The lyrics are another story, but I don’t think that’s keeping northerners or people west of the Rocky Mountains from relating to it. In fact, the lyrics are a colorful snapshot of a unique culture told by someone eminently familiar with it, yet it’s not necessary for you to have ever stepped foot in the city to enjoy what he’s telling you, any more than someone saying you needed to have had your picture taken at The Eiffel Tower to truly appreciate I Love Paris, or looked out over the River Thames in London to enjoy Waterloo Sunset.

Interestingly this song is really about missing a girl and rather than tell her outright, he’s hoping to make her homesick with the little scenes he sketches when talking to her long-distance, including such colorful impressions as the street sweeper being blocked (or being distracted), by all the beautiful women strolling along Rampart Street (maybe even trying to make her jealous in a subtle way). It’s a clever act of misdirection on his part to get her longing for the city, knowing that if she returns he’ll get another shot at her. I think that’s pretty relatable no matter where you’re from.

So what we get with Gumbo Blues is a song that is about a place but the place itself isn’t overwhelming the song.

Now… how about what we get instead?

For starters Dave Bartholomew’s arrangement has a churning groove with a dominant walking bassline underpinning the entire song. We love songs with a great groove to them, but here that groove – while very good – doesn’t get a chance to fully lock you in because Smiley’s vocals naturally draw your attention away from that component.

Lewis is singing with a whimsical bent to his voice – dig the way he stretches out the word “low-oh-oh” in the first stanza – and it’s always nice to see someone’s personality shine through, even getting in a little spoken aside heading into the break. He still has that slightly nasal strident tone that might not be warmly inviting, but as always it’s exuberant, loud and strong with a tone as clear as a bell.

With the emphasis on the groove, and topped by Lewis’s bobbing and weaving vocals, the song is not focusing nearly as much on melody, meaning the thing most likely to stick in your head after a record finishes playing (be it a great hook in the chorus or a catchy rise and fall of the verses) is somewhat lacking here. If you’re looking for another reason as to why this may have only been appreciated in a fleeting sort of way to those who heard it at the time, that’s a pretty good bet as well.

In other words, everything here is good, there’s not a single major flaw – other than it could’ve used a more heavy handed piano break – but there’s also not one dominant thing that rivets your attention. You tend to need that to connect with the broader public on first or second listen because like it or not, that’s what makes hits.


Feelin’ Kinda Low
The reasons laid out probably explain the reaction at the time, but were those listeners right in their appraisal of it, or is this the lost classic that Lewis’s biggest fans claim?

In this case, I think the general consensus was right. Had there been a national Top Twenty R&B Chart at the time, rather than just ten spots, it surely would’ve cracked the 20-15 range and maybe spent a week or two a few spots higher, making it a legitimate hit – the Solid Smash! that Imperial optimistically claimed – which would help dilute the persistent thinking in the years since that Smiley Lewis was somehow cursed.

But going by what the wider public gravitates towards, it’s equally clear that Gumbo Blues doesn’t quite meet their needs. It’s a groove-based song where the groove soon takes a back seat, so it’s not grabbing you that way. It’s a colorful watercolor painting of a city but not a three dimensional image that gets you fully immersed in it. Smiley’s joyous and infectious delivery is as appealing as ever… but if you find the voice itself a little harsh for some reason, it won’t change that opinion in the least.

It’s still a really good record and it was never in doubt of getting a green number at the end of the review, but as a fan of his work I still think he had much better records… both before and after this.

Then again maybe the ultimate reason for him not consistently breaking through was he was just an acquired taste, which is hardly a crime. As consistently good as Smiley Lewis was in every facet of his music he never seemed to find what you’d call a “infectious” sound… something that transcends locale, gender, race and even to some degree age, and just draws everybody in, time and time again.

Maybe that’s their loss… I tend to think it is at least. Then again, most people are merely looking for songs that grab them right away and one like this, good enough to be enjoyed but not indelible enough to leave a lasting impression on most, is sort of what Smiley Lewis specialized in.

It isn’t a character flaw of either artist or audience, just a potential explanation as to why he was forever known as “hard-luck Smiley”.


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