They Heard Him Knockin’ But They Wouldn’t Let Him In
Who was the all time greatest New Orleans blues singer? Take a straw poll of R&B aficionados and local veteran musicians, and more often than not, Smiley Lewis will get the nod.
Depending on the situation, Smiley possessed a voice that could shake the shot glasses off a South Rampart Street bar or lullaby a baby to sleep. One of New Orleans’ most prolific artists, between 1947 and 1965 Lewis recorded some of the most enjoyable and consistent R&B put on wax.
“Smiley sang from the heart,” said Milton Batiste, who played with Lewis in the 1950s. “When he grabbed the microphone, everybody stopped what they were doing and listened.”
“Smiley had one of the best voices we had around,” said Dave Bartholomew, who wrote and produced most of Lewis’ best sides. “But it didn’t pay
What Bartholomew is referring to is Lewis’ curious lack of commercial success. Despite recording the original and superior versions of such classics as “Blue Monday,” “I Hear You Knocking” and “One Night,” and leaving an enviable body of work, the times and the quirks of the record business held his career back.
“When Smiley would get a hit it would do say 100,000,” continued Bartholomew. “After he would get to 100,000, it would level off. We always serviced 4,000 disc jockeys at the time. Everywhere Fats Domino’s records went, Smiley’s went, but we just couldn’t break him nation wide. It was hard for me to believe because he made some “good records.”
“He should have gotten an award for being the most covered artist,” said Cosimo Matassa, who engineered nearly every side Lewis recorded. “He was victimized by the fact that other people would cover his material.”
But Smiley’s records still endure. Earlier this year, EMI Records released the greatest hits compilation The Best of Smiley Lewis. By year’s end, the German label Bear Family will release a four-CD set containing all of Lewis’ classic Imperial, Dot, and Loma sides, everything in his catalog except for his first four cuts.
Smiley’s real name was Overton Amos Lemons and he was born July 5, 1913 in DeQuincy, Louisiana, a rural town not far from the Texas border. Smiley was the second of three sons born to Jeffrey and Lillie Mae Lemons.
Although she died when he was a child, Smiley was particularly close to his mother, naming a song and his automobiles after her.
According to Smiley’s second wife, Dorthy Ester Lemons, when Smiley was a teenager, he hopped a freight train in DeQuincy with some of his friends. His friends jumped off the freight when it began to pick up speed, but Smiley was afraid to. The freight eventually stopped in New Orleans and that’s how he wound up in the Crescent City.
Smiley’s first wife, Leona Kelly Robinson, recalled that once Smiley got to New Orleans, he was taken in by a white family in the Irish Channel. Quite possibly the family’s name was Lewis.
By the time he was 20, Smiley was an all-around entertainer, a comic, singer and guitarist. In the mld-1930s, he joined trumpeter Thomas Jefferson’s dixieland band, which Included Isadore
“Tuts. Washington on piano and “Noon” Johnson on bazooka horn (an Instrument made from a bed post!). Smiley played guitar and sang with the group at several nighteries, including the more upscale French Quarter clubs, as well as “Tan” bars that lined Orleans and Claiborne Avenues.
“Lewis was always a great entertainer,” recalled the late Tuts Washington. “He sang the blues and all them sentimental numbers. He had a voice so strong he could sing over the band, and that was before they had microphones.”
After the jefferson band dissolved, Smiley “freelanced,” going from club to club, singing for tips. According to Leona Kelly Robinson, Smiley often came home with “a guitar full of change. ”
Leona, who met and married Smiley in 1938, recalled that Smiley got his nickname because he had no front teeth, but later got a bridge when his records started to sell. Initially, they set up housekeeping at Leona’s mother’s house, but moved to South Tonti Street when they started having children. .
Smiley supported his family by working a variety of day jobs and singing at night when he could make a dollar doing so. He renewed his friendship with Tuts Washington right after World War II started — Smiley was shoeing horses at the time and not drafted because he had a family to support — and the pianist arranged for him to be hired by a group he was working with, the Kid Ernest Mollier band. The war had closed several New Orleans saloons, so for the better part of 1942 and 1943, the group entertained soldiers In Bunkie, Louisiana, at the Boogie Woogle Club, which was located near Fort Polk.
When the War ended, Lewis and Washington picked up drummer Herman Seale and formed the Smiley Lewis trio, a more blues-oriented group.
In August of 1947, the Louisiana Weekly reported “Smiling Lewis to Headline New Dew Drop Floor Show.” According to the story, the whole audience was in a dither over such renditions as “Piney Brown Blues” and “My Gal’s a jockey.”
“Nobody could touch us,” bragged Washington. “We played all through the French Quarter and down Bourbon Street.” In addition to singing and playing the guitar, Smiley had other inventive ways to entertain the audience.
“Lewis could do something with a guitar that I never saw before in my life,” said Washington. “When It came time for him to take a solo, he would put if. pick under the strings, lay the guitar up next to the amplifier and It would keep playing. Then he’d get off the bandstand and grab some gal and start dancing. Some nights he’d do that for 15 minutes before he came back and started playing again.”
Washington also recalled that Lewis could Imitate Amos and Andy so well that, “you had to look twice to make sure It was him and not the radio playing.”
The group’s popularity was such that in 1947, David Braun Invited them to record for Deluxe Records. The first “indie” label to tap the bottomless pit of New Orleans talent, Deluxe had success with their first Crescent City waxing, “Since I Fell for You,” by Annie Laurie and Paul Gayten, and soon after with Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight..
For Deluxe, Smiley cut “Here Comes Smiley” b/w the double entendre “Turn On Your Volume,” which became a local jukebox favorite. Two other sides were also recorded but they were never released. Deluxe requested no more material.
Smiley caught a break in March of 1950 when, through the intervention of producer/talent scout Dave Bartholomew, he was signed to an Imperial Records contract.
“I grew up In the same neighborhood as Smiley,” said Bartholomew, recalling the “Silver City” section of New Orleans. “He used to sing on the front porch of his house and I used to say to myself, ‘If I could ever help him I will.’ I got In the position to record Smiley with Imperial and I did. He was a real good blues singer. In those days, that’s what was selling.”
Smiley’s Initial Imperial release was “Tee Nah Nah,” with the trio being augmented by Bartholomew’s horn section. It quickly became a New Orleans favorite, thanks primarily to the city’s first black deejay, Dr. Daddy-O, who recorded and aired a version of the song that predated the Imperial version.
“That’s a song the boys used to sing In the penitentiary,” said Washington. “But Lewis was the first one to put It out,”
“Tee Nah Nah” made Smiley an instant sensation around New Orleans and In other areas. A May 1950 Issl!e of the Louisiana Weekly reported: “That ‘Te-Na-Na Man’ Smiley Lewis, whose recent recording of ‘Te-Na-Na’ has caused a fervor on local jukeboxes, returns from a three week run of Texas and Mississippi nighterles, May 30 at the Lincoln Theatre.”
Even though “Tee Nah Nah” missed the national charts, Bartholomew and Imperial were eager to get Smiley back In the studio and build off their initial success. In May of 1950, Smiley cut the low-down “Dirty People,” a song written by Washington but credited to “0. Lemons.” Smiley only entered the studio once in 1951, recording the bouncy “Bea’s Boogie,” but he did cut a commercial for Jax Beer that aired in black theaters.
The following year, Smiley’s expectations were realized when the pleading “The Bells Are Ringing” snuck into the national R&B charts In September. “The Bells Are Ringing” is a good example of the pattern Bartholomew set for Lewis’ sessions.
“On Smiley I wanted to get a different sound and I used Seals,” said Bartholomew. “He wasn’t a great drummer but he had a big old bass drum. I loved that big drum, that’s why I got that sound from that.”
Although many have praised Smiley’s guitar style, except for early recordings, Bartholomew rarely let him play on his own sessions, opting instead for the fuller sounds of Ernest McLean or Justin Adams. Unfortunately, Smiley split with Washington and Seals parted after a series of arguments. After “The Bells Are Ringing,” Bartholomew used his usual studio musicians on Smiley’s sessions.
With “The Bell Are Ringing” selling briskly, Smiley was back in the studio to cut the New Orleans tribute “Gumbo Blues” and the warhorse “Ain’t Gonna Do It.” Between 1952 and 1954, Smiley had an outstanding sequence of releases-“Lillie Mae,” Big Mamou,” “You’re Not the One,” “Caledonia’s Party,” “Lost Weekend,” “Jailbird” and “Blue Monday.” A working man’s lament, “Blue Monday” — later covered by labelmate Fats Domino — was especially memorable. In fact, Bartholomew considers “Blue Monday~ perhaps the best song he ever wrote.
However, as Bartholomew pointed out, Smiley’s releases were following a frustrating pattern. Just when it looked like Smiley was going to break a record nationally, sales would level out and then disappear.
Smiley’s luck did change for one brief moment in 1955, with the release of the unforgettable “I Hear You Knockin’.” A Dave Bartholomew composition inspired by a black vaudeville skit, it was penned in the back of Fats’ Domino’s Cadillac when they were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
At the time, R&B records were starting to infiltrate the pop music charts. Many white teenagers were tuning in to black radio stations and buying R&B records with great frequency. R&B artists like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and even Joe Turner were “crossing over” into the pop charts, selling records in previously unheard of numbers. With the No.2 R&B record in the country, Smiley seemed ready to join their ranks. However, despite waxing the biggest seller of his career, it wasn’t to be.
“The late Smiley Lewis had ‘I Hear You Knockin’ and Gale Storm recorded it and killed Smiley’s record completely,” explained Dave Bartholomew, referring to Gale Storm’s No. 2 pop hit. “Because I wrote the song, I wasn’t too disappointed because I did fine money-wise. But I could also see that Smiley wasn’t going to make it because a white girl had cut him out completely. I felt bad for him.”
Smiley did see some return for “I Hear You Knockin’.” With his first royalty check he purchased a brand new Cadillac (“Lillie Mae”) with his name and the title of several of his songs painted on the side. Smiley was known as “a car man” around New Orleans. Everyone that knew him recalls it was a general rule that you couldn’t eat, drink or smoke upon entering his car.
Despite the disappointment surrounding “I Hear You Knockin’: his bookings increased and he and Bartholomew kept plugging in the studio. Before 1955 was history, Smiley waxed such classics as “Queen of Hearts,” “Bumpily, Bump,” and “One Night: a song particularly significant to our man.
“One Night” — another Bartholomew classic-strongly hinted at an adulterous evening resulting in Smiley losing “his sweet helping hand.” At the time, Smiley had abandoned his first wife and family and had set up housekeeping on Ferret Street with Dorthy Ester, who would become his second wife. Throughout the performance, Smiley sounds guilty as sin and on the verge of tears.
Again, “One Night” typified Smiley’s luck.
“One Night’ was on the shelf when Elvis Presley picked it up,” said Bartholomew. “He just changed the break. Instead of saying ‘one night of sin,’ he said ‘one night with you.’ I think that had something to do with the times, to make it appreciated in the pop field.”
Once again, Smiley got the shaft as Presley’s record’ went to No.4 in 1958. Some people have speculated that Smiley perhaps sounded too black and too bluesy to impress the rock & roll record buyers. However, in retrospect, many of the themes Of Smiley’s songs — drinking, gambling, womanizing — were palatable for mass consumption.
“We just couldn’t get Smiley started,” summed up Bartholomew. “He always had the best material. His records would always sell around New Orleans, but we just couldn’t break him nationally. It was a frustrating situation.”
Smiley kept at it and in 1957 “Shame, Shame, Shame!” was used in the B-movie epic Baby Doll, which starred sex kitten Carol Baker. The movie bombed, but supposedly Warner Brothers paid everyone well.
It was also during 1957 that, at the insistence of Imperial prexy Lew Chudd, Bartholomew began recording Smiley singing pop standards and hillbilly fare. Most of these sides were substandard, but there were some gems in Smiley’s late 1950s “Imperial catalog (some of which were pulled from the vaults), including “Go On Fool,” “Ain’t Going There No More,” and the ultimate rhythm and booze classic, “Lost Weekend.” Work remained plentiful until the end of the decade, as Smiley worked around New Orleans and on tours on the strength of his past glories.
By the late 1950s, Lew Chudd had reevaluated Imperial’s position in the market place. Chudd had signed teen idol Ricky Nelson, who became the label’s best selling artist. Of his New Orleans artists, only Fats Domino was still selling in sufficient quantities to justify his interest in the city’s music. To Imperial’s credit, it did release a Smiley Lewis album, I Hear You Knockin’ (in 1959) but after 1957, Smiley’s sessions grew farther apart. In 1960, after a decade of giving Imperial some of the greatest R&B sides ever committed to wax, Smiley was given his walking papers.
Most recall that Smiley was pretty much down on his luck throughout the 1960s, He no longer carried a band, as most of his work consisted of spot jobs opening for up-and-comers like Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Irma Thomas. “Lillie Mae” was gone too, as he was forced to ride the Public Service bus to some of his gigs.
On the recording front, he had isolated singles on Dot, Okeh, Loma. The Okeh single “Looking For My Woman” was memorable, but the other sides couldn’t recapture the power of his Imperial classics.
Now in his 50s, the years of struggling and hard living began to catch up With him. In 1965, he was a very sick man.
“He started losing weight and he stayed hoarse all the time,” recalled Dorthy Ester Lemons. “I put him in the hospital. They said he had an ulcer. When they operated on him they found he had cancer.”
“They had a benefit for him up at the hospital so they could get some blood for him,” recalled Washington. “Smiley called me and asked me to playa party so people could donate blood the day before the operation. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, but I could see that cancer was eating him up. He tried to play with us but he could barely hold the guitar.”
The Louisiana Weekly revealed Smiley’s plight and asked his friends to visit and “drop by some of that green stuff.” A benefit was organized by Dave Bartholomew, but Smiley succumbed to stomach cancer at home on October 7, 1966, three days before it was to take place. Smiley died in the arms of Dorthy Ester Lemons, whom he had married six months before.
A well-attended funeral was held at the Dennis Mortuary on Louisiana Avenue and he was buried in his wife’s family vault behind the St. James A.M.E. Church in Union, Louisiana. Today, New Orleans’ greatest blues singer lies in an unmarked grave, a stone’s throw from a pea patch and a stand of sugar cane.
In terms of quality of songs and music, Smiley compared With Fats Domino, Joe Turner and Roy Brown. One wonders why he didn’t enjoy their success. For a proud man like Smiley, surely this disappointment was as painful as the cancer which eventually felled him.
“Smiley’s situation was just one of those great cosmic mysteries we’ll never know about,” said New Orleans guitarist Earl King, who also recorded for Imperial. “He just didn’t get the breaks. But if he were alive today, he’d still be out there, even if there wasn’t a dime in it for him. That’s the kind of guy Smiley was.”