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Though clearly they weren’t the only company who had stumbled upon – and quickly exploited – rock ‘n’ roll in mid-1947, DeLuxe Records by virtue of not only releasing the first unquestioned rock single in history but also in their cornering the market on artists from the music’s birthplace in New Orleans, deserve a lot of credit for allowing this music to reach the public over its first few months of existence.

But in retrospect they also deserve some blame for not taking greater advantage of it and capitalizing on the talented artists they had under contract as evidenced by their shoddy treatment of Smiley Lewis, a singer who was utterly distinctive and ultimately very prolific over the next decade, yet who would have to wait years before getting another opportunity to make a record after DeLuxe rudely showed him the door after just one release.


‘Til I Gave Away
Virtually any type of business comes down to trying to extract as much profit out of as little expense as possible.

No matter how good the product you make may be if the income it generates does not exceed the costs it takes to produce it, you’ll quickly go out of business.

Unlike unchanging products such as tuna fish and tennis balls where sales expectations could be reasonably assessed beforehand, the record industry never knew from one week to the next what might pique a listener’s interest and so there was a tendency to become overly cautious hoping to mitigate their risks.

Yet small independent labels like DeLuxe Records had virtually no chance of ever signing the kind of established artists who had built-in fan bases to ensure steady sales and so they had to seek out acts the major companies ignored which is what led them to rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.

It’d pay off when a few of those names, Roy Brown, Paul Gayten, Annie Laurie and Dave Bartholomew would become consistent sellers, yet it’d also result in missed opportunities when future stars such as Smiley Lewis had just half of his only session for the label see the light of day for reasons that remain unclear.

You could argue that because his first release hadn’t burned up the charts there was less incentive to release a follow-up, but that hadn’t hurt Bartholomew who took two years before scoring a hit.

Would Lewis’s Swimming Blues been a candidate to break through? Maybe not nationally, but it could’ve certainly gotten some spins around the Gulf Coast which would be more than enough to justify its costs and since you’d already cut the song and had it scheduled for release there seemed to no sense in holding it back.

But then again, record companies are notorious for having no sense when it comes to music.

Let’s Go Ridin’
As with the other sides Smiley Lewis cut at the time, this is as much a chance for pianist Tuts Washington to shine as it is for Lewis. The two of them complimented each other so effortlessly that hearing them perform almost anything is bound to be engaging.

The proposed flip side of this aborted single, Love Is A Gamble, probably has better lyrics, or at least deeper lyrics, as Smiley explores the risks of falling in love, posing an existential question that humans haven’t yet figured out as evidenced by the rate of failure involved when it comes to romance.

It’s a good song in a slower vein featuring some quirky piano fills by Tuts and a brief bluesy guitar solo by Smiley himself, though the real allure is hearing Lewis put so much stock in what the local soothsayer Madame Walker tells him about the girl he’s got an interest in, all of which he seems to take as gospel.

But while it’s a solid performance it’s also pretty simple and so the commercial appeal might have been limited unless of course you feel the underlying subject matter might tip the scales in its favor.

In truth you might miss that altogether if you focus on its catchy piano lead and Lewis’s good-natured vocals but Swimming Blues actually manages to present a pretty unambiguous sexual scorecard where “swimming” is only mentioned in the opening line – and even then he tells us he CAN’T swim and so wouldn’t it be better to ride each other each other instead – which might explain why DeLuxe decided to shelve it at the last minute.

Yet in spite of any fears over violating community standards there’s nothing really salacious about it. He’s stating this all without leering, without any explicit euphemisms and even Washington’s piano is more spry than suggestive.

Lewis’s guitar solo – one of the few times we get to hear him on the instrument, as once he joined Imperial that role was filled by a string of more skilled session musicians – is brief but effective and contrasts nicely with the otherwise bouncy rhythm he sings with, giving the record some different textures to appreciate as it goes along.

You can say that the melody and his vocal cadences are more or less the same as he used on Here Comes Smiley, but the transformation from club musician playing what an audience wants to hear and being a recording artist who needs to come up with much more varied original material hasn’t yet sunk in. In time Lewis would prove to be more than capable of meeting those goals and the story here is more than different enough from the other song to suffice.

At the very least this is definitely good enough to want to hear more from them but unfortunately it would be the first of many instances where outside forces curtailed Lewis’s progress leading to his being called “Hard Luck Smiley” due to how unfortunate he always seemed to be.


I Can’t Even Swim
So why didn’t it get released? Why sign an artist who was drawing interest around New Orleans – the single most musical city in the entire country no less – and then not see what he was capable of delivering?

Isn’t that self-defeating?

Of course it is, which is why it’s such a miracle that rock ‘n’ roll had enough opportunity to break through when the companies that stood to profit from it were so skittish in releasing the sides they’d already stockpiled.

Swimming Blues might not reveal anything about Smiley Lewis that we didn’t already know from his first – and only – DeLuxe record, but it DID confirm that he was somebody whose music was catchy, distinctive and full of musical and vocal charm… qualities that you can’t always teach.

You could argue that after the recording ban lifted a year from now DeLuxe had more pressing matters than tracking down a singer whose only release for you hadn’t done much, but the point isn’t what they might’ve gotten out of continuing their association with Lewis and Washington down the line, but rather what they already had that they failed to take advantage of.

It took more than a half century for this to finally be heard and while it’s not a revelation or anything, it’s also not something that should’ve sat on a shelf collecting dust either.

As always, you deserved better, Smiley.


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