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As the famous saying goes: If at first you don’t succeed… try and get Dave Bartholomew’s help.

Or something like that.

That bit of advice might not work in other walks of life, nor even in music outside of the Crescent City, but for a New Orleans rock act at the midway point of the Twentieth Century like Smiley Lewis who was still struggling to get a break, the best chance for success you’d have is to align yourself with the greatest producer of rock’s first dozen years.

But far from being merely the beneficiary of Bartholomew’s guiding hand in the studio – something at risk for being viewed as an act of patronage from an old friend at best, a charity case at worse – Smiley Lewis had every appearance of being a potential sleeping giant in rock who was just waiting for someone to present those talents to the world at large.


Six Months Ain’t No Sentence And One Year Ain’t No Time
Two record labels in early rock built their brand on the back of New Orleans’ music. DeLuxe Records kicked things off by releasing the first rock record as Roy Brown officially launched the genre to the unsuspecting world in 1947.

In fact DeLuxe had already shown interest in New Orleans earlier that year scoring a hit with Paul Gayten and Annie Laurie before Brown even got signed, albeit their initial efforts had been more in a pop realm, and with the immediate commercial returns on all three acts they wasted little time in hunting down other promising artists from the region… among them none other than Dave Bartholomew and Smiley Lewis.

At the time however Bartholomew wasn’t producing, just playing and singing, and he was a novice in the studio even in those roles so it’s not surprising his initial offerings from late 1947 fell flat, both commercially and creatively.

The same couldn’t be said for Lewis however, for while his only release, the biographical Here Comes Smiley, also failed to stir interest in the marketplace, the artistic promise in both sides (the other being Turn On Your Volume, Baby, a song filled with delightfully clever – yet somewhat subtle – sexual euphemisms) seemed fairly obvious… at least to everyone but DeLuxe who canceled a planned follow-up release and subsequently dropped him from the roster.

It took two and a half years but the beneficiary of that shortsightedness will turn out to be Imperial Records, the second of the labels that set their sights on New Orleans’s fertile talent pool the past few months. The key to their upward mobility as a company lay squarely with the signing of that other DeLuxe castaway, Bartholomew, who in addition to cutting his own records is now being paid to produce them for others in the fold, most of whom he recruited to the label himself which is how Smiley Lewis came to get a much deserved second chance as the Nineteen Fifties dawned.

Reelin’ And Rockin’
Bartholomew and Lewis had grown up near each other, though Smiley was a couple years older, and with Imperial owner Lew Chudd pushing Bartholomew to find more local acts now that they’d scored big with both Jewel King and Fats Domino it was only natural Dave turned to Lewis whose distinctive voice had filled the neighborhood singing from his front porch when they were kids.

In the two years since he last entered a studio Lewis and his stellar band had been subsisting entirely on club work where they proved to be a formidable outfit anchored by Tuts Washington on piano, as talented a musician as you could hope to find. Because of this there was no need to overhaul their sound, nor replace them with studio ringers, and so for their first sessions Bartholomew merely supplemented the group with his own horn section to give them an even punchier sound.

Lewis and company had worked themselves up a pretty good repertoire of material in that time highlighted by a notorious prison anthem called Tee Nah Nah which Washington had resurrected and re-crafted for Lewis’s declarative baritone that could cut through the clamor of any drunken mob. Of course it stood to reason that such revelers were also apt to know precisely where the song had come from and what it meant which further helped to make it a distinctive crowd pleaser in a city known for its debauchery. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that when they got the chance this would be what they’d choose to try and re-launch their recording career.

It wasn’t likely that anyone in the listening audience, nor anyone at the trade papers or record company offices, knew the origins of the song or that it was possibly a scatological slur but even if they had caught wind of the meaning the sheer power of Lewis’s performance might still have been strong enough to overcome even the most strenuous objections one could raise in the name of decorum.

You’ve Heard My Story
The record kicks off with Washington’s slinky piano, an alluring mixture of what might be called “anxious hesitancy”, as if he’s fully aware something intriguing is awaiting you but he’s not in any rush to spring it on you just yet.

It’s a deceptively lazy sound, the type of thing heard at four in the afternoon on a summer’s day after the heat’s finally broken and you can start to relax but before you’ve settled in for the night and won’t have much desire to jump up should someone beckon you to join them for a drink or three.

That “someone” when he comes along is Smiley Lewis, his distinctive voice with its odd tin-roof reverberation piercing through your consciousness as he cries out the title line in such a way that gives no hints as to what Tee Nah Nah means, yet done with the assurance that you already know what it means without the need for subtitles or an off-screen translation.

So what DOES it mean? Well truthfully that’s open to interpretation. Dr. John long insisted it referenced the asshole, literally that is, not just some warden at Angola whom the inmates detested. Others claimed it was in reference to a girl. But it doesn’t really matter, unless I suppose the term is being directed at you, because in the song its purpose is simply melodic and the way in which Lewis drags out the first “NAHHHHHH” and then recites the ensuing use of it like the children’s taunt (”Nah, nah, nah, nahhhh-nah!”) makes it sound accessible for anybody regardless of what it might suggest.

Lewis is joined by the horns, alternately moaning alongside him and adding succinct punctuation to his lines which is where you can see the clear signs of where a song like this came from. Not only is it delivered in a sing-songy pace that would be easily remembered by non-musical prisoners who’d be able to convey the melody without the need of instrumental accompaniment, but the lyrics themselves are just loose-knit verses that are almost interchangeable by nature.

There’s no story to be found at all, just some generalized grievances and even they take a back seat to how Smiley delivers all of this, sad perhaps but resigned to his fate with him defiantly mocking the short sentence he’s been handed because others are serving ninety-nine years, a prison yard boast that was endlessly recycled in New Orleans rock for decades after this.

Lewis’s buoyant voice, his familiarity and comfort with both the material and the band, and the faintly hinted at feeling that you’re in on some vague secret just by listening all help to make this truly engaging, whether on the first listen or the hundred and first.


That’s All I Got To Say
Because there’s not much here in the way of plot, interpersonal relationships or even just insight into the human condition, it becomes all the more vital to set the right mood to make this work.

Lewis and the horns have done their part, keeping the song at a moderate pace while still managing to convey a surging effect coming out of the turns, but with such a mordant sound dominating the verses and no real rousing chorus to shift the feel, something has to break up the sound to make sure it doesn’t get redundant.

Leave that to Washington whose piano solo is simple but remarkably effective, two hands rolling in unison, emphasizing the rhythm without doing a damn thing to add any substance to the melody. It’s almost a yo-yo effect, you’re so busy watching, or listening, to how it seems to press the action before pulling back just as abruptly and then repeating that effect over and over again, that you barely notice it doesn’t take you anywhere new.

But far from feeling shortchanged you’re captivated by it. Tee Nah Nah is so rudimentary in structure that you eventually realize it’s little more than an adult’s nursery rhyme, something without much depth, but because they’re so fixated on maintaining that trance-like groove you can’t bring yourself to really find fault with any of it.

Bartholomew wisely lets the hypnotic power of it work on its own, not insisting on beefing it up with any unnecessary flourishes to show his creativity to the record company brass, but rather understanding – as probably only a native of the area could – that the bare bones song has been hooking listeners on playgrounds and bar-stools for years without needing any help from more “cultured” musical minds.

They were proven right in their assessment when the record topped the local charts even if the outside world not used to such things mostly turned a deaf ear to it. Unfortunately that type of split response would prove to be Lewis’s cross to bear over the course of his career – immensely popular locally, but virtually ignored nationally.

Yet at this point Imperial still had to be satisfied with the solid sales they got along the Gulf Coast, though even at this point it was probably evident that Lewis’s bellhorn of a voice didn’t have the potential reach of the more ebullient vocal personality of a Fats Domino. But for a record company that had been struggling to stay in business until it made its way to Louisiana, this simply gave them one more brick in the wall they were determined to build around their new musical stronghold in New Orleans.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Van “Piano Man” Walls (March, 1950)