After working hard for many years, Jon Wirt has finished writing the biography Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. It is published by LSU Press. In this excerpt, we learn about the making of “Sea Cruise.”
Just as Huey knew “High Blood Pressure” was a great record, he knew that “Sea Cruise,” with its contagious groove, sparkling lyrics, and driving horn chart, was destined for success.
Old man rhythm gets in my shoes
No use to sittin’ and singing the blues
So be my guest, you got nothing to lose.
Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?
“I was always able to tell a hit before it came out. Evidently, someone else also could tell.” That someone was Joe Caronna. A hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Italian, Caronna like to brag about his heart condition. “I got half a fucking heart!” he boasted. Johnny Vincent’s partner in the New Orleans-based record distribution business, Record Sales, Inc., Caronna had moved into artist management. He told Huey the day after “Sea Cruise” was recorded that Frank Guzzo, a young white singer from nearby Gretna, would cut a new vocal track for the song. Caronna believed that this big-voiced eighteen-year-old, a performer since childhood, would be America’s next teen idol. “Johnny Vincent agreed that if you can sell a million on this record, Frankie can sell ten million,” he told Huey. The song’s creator begged Caronna not to take “Sea Cruise” from him, but the die was cast. “That’s the way it’s gonna be, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it,” Caronna said.
“I was crying as he said that,” Huey remembered. “I had been drinking a little bit. It hurt me to my heart when he told me he was taking that. Cosmo let him listen at it. They went in Cosmo’s studio late at night, behind closed doors. We had never heard of Frankie Ford. Joe Caronna substituted that voice in there, him and Cosmo, and sent that thing up to the pressing plant. Johnny Vincent had never even heard my “Sea Cruise.” He was in Jackson, Mississippi. But Johnny went along with it, all right.” On the “Sea Cruise” record label, Guzzo’s stage name, Frankie Ford, appears in large letters while “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and Orch.” appears in tiny letters below.
Billboard’s December 22, 1958, issue predicted success for “Sea Cruise.” The magazine placed the Frankie Ford—credited “Sea Cruise” and “Roberta,” formerly known as “Loberta,” among its “spotlight winners.” “‘Sea Cruise,’” the review states, “is a rocking blues on which the artist is backed by a driving, colorful arrangement.” ‘Roberta’ is also a blues that gets an authentic shout.”
James Rivers, the young saxophonist who’d been so badly hurt in the automobile accident that Huey and his band experienced in Florida, had been thrilled to be on the “Sea Cruise” session. “We were just so happy to get in the studio,” he said. “I used to like to say, ‘Oh, I’m on that record. That’s me playing, right there.’” After the “Sea Cruise” session, Rivers assumed Bobby Marchan would add his vocals to the music later. “Bobby wasn’t there when we did the session, but he was singing with the band at that time,” Rivers said. “Man, about a month later, I’m hearing ‘Sea Cruise’ [on the radio]. I say, ‘That’s not Bobby Marchan!’ We was shocked when we was coming down the road hearing something that we had put the music behind and the disc jockey said, ‘That was Frankie Ford!’ ‘Frankie Ford? Who the hell is that?!’ Man, we didn’t even know no Frankie Ford. Huey wrote the songs and, of course, he wrote it for Huey Smith and the Clowns.”
Saxophonist Robert Parker, another “Sea Cruise” and “Roberta” session musician, was shocked too. “The business part of it, I don’t know whether they took the song or what,” Parker said. “I do know Frankie Ford is getting all the credit for it.”
“A lot of heavy-duty stuff went on,” Dr. John said. “I mean, that whole scene with Johnny and Joe Caronna, and him just taking the ‘Sea Cruise,’ Huey’s big follow up to “Don’t You Just Know It,’ it’s so crazy. Look, Joe Caronna, Johnny Vincent, naw. It’s like no respect for Huey. It’s like here was the guy making ’em all the money they made and what do they do? Listen, it had to have shattered a lot of stuff in Huey, in anybody.” Despite the financial disappointments and social hardships Huey and his Clowns faced, Dr. John added, they didn’t lose sight of the job at hand. “They had a good time making the people have a good time, no matter what they went through to get to do that. If you go down the line of what wasn’t cool, by the time you got to what was cool, it was them.”
Huey and Frankie Ford’s versions of events surrounding “Sea Cruise” and “Loberta” are as different as black and white. Huey read Ford’s multiple explanations for the switch in a succession of interview through the years. “Of course,” Ford said “‘Sea Cruise’ was cut to be the follow-up of ‘Don’t You Just Know It,’ the Huey ‘Piano’ Smith song. And then when they heard me, and Huey didn’t need a song at that time, they put it out on me… Huey taught it to me. Somewhere I have the original chart with his handwritten remarks.”
“That’s stupid,” Huey countered. “Well, why didn’t I write the words to the other side, ‘Loberta’? See, that’s proof of it. You’re singing the wrong words. We, the background voices, still singing ‘Loo-berta.’ You hollering, ‘Roberta!’ Roberta is a white girl’s name. Loo-berta was a black gal. Believe it or not, I don’t even write. I scribble, I scratch. I never wrote nothing. And you claim you was a member of the Clowns. You just now realized that that was against the law*? You are white, aren’t you? How could you have been a member of the Clowns? Let’s tell it like it is.”