Born Overton Amos Lemon(s), 5 July 1914, Westlake, Louisiana
Like Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis recorded prolifically for the Imperial label all through the 1950s. Both artists worked under the guidance of producer / songwriter Dave Bartholomew and were accompanied in the studio by more or less the same superb New Orleans musicians. But while Domino scored one million seller after another, Smiley Lewis was no closer to crossing over to the pop charts than pure bluesmen like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. His vocal stylings were probably too Negroid, too blues based for a mass audience.
Overton Lemons (his real name) was born in s small Louisiana town near the Texan border and moved to the Crescent City in 1931. By that time he had taught himself to play the guitar. Hustling whatever change he could pick up, Smiley became a street singer on Canal and Bourbon Street. This early experience helped mould his audience-pleasing style which served him so well throughout his career. In 1935 he met Isidore 'Tuts' Washington, one of the most renowned boogie pianists in New Orleans. Smiley joined Tuts in the Thomas Jefferson Jazz Band and toured throughout Louisiana and the southern Gulf Coast region. At this time, Smiley also held down a day job to help support a growing family. During World War II he was able to avoid the draft because he had such a large family.
After the war the rhythm and blues explosion was about to occur, and Smiley was one of the first to jump on the bandwagon. He got together with his old friend Tuts Washington, and with Herman Seale on drums, they formed a successful trio. They cut their first record in September 1947, for Deluxe Records out of Linden, New Jersey. "Turn Up Your Volume" (a double entendre inscrutable to non-radio repairmen) was coupled with "Here Comes Smiley" for Smiley's debut single. It is quite different from all his other recordings, due to the absence of wind instruments, giving Tuts's piano the opportunity to shine. 'Smiling' Lewis (as he was billed then) took short guitar solos on both sides, showing him to be an average guitarist at best. Singing was his forte. Like his principal influence, Joe Turner, Smiley had such a powerful voice that he didn't need a microphone.
Early in 1950 he signed with Imperial Records, owned by Lew Chudd in Los Angeles. Smiley's first single, "Tee Nah Nah", was a regional hit, but a cover by Vann Walls on Atlantic stole much of its thunder in the North. During 1950-1952 Smiley recorded almost exclusively compositions from his own pen, but all his melodies tended to sound the same and starting October 1952, Dave Bartholomew was the main source of his material. "The Bells Are Ringing" spent two weeks on the R&B charts in September 1952, peaking at # 10. In spite of many great R&B releases over the next three years (for instance "Play Girl", "Down the Road", the original version of "Blue Monday" and "Real Gone Lover"), Lewis had to wait until the autumn of 1955 for his next chart entry. "I Hear You Knocking" was by far his biggest hit, reaching # 2 R&B during an 18-week run. But though Lewis was knocking on the door of the pop charts, he couldn't come in. A bland cover by actress Gale Storm on Dot went to # 2 on Billboard's pop charts. (Dave Edmunds would hit the top of the UK charts in 1970 with a revival of "I Hear You Knocking", also # 4 in the USA). Likewise, two other songs of which Smiley recorded the original version went on to yield Top 10 hits for others : "Blue Monday" for Fats Domino (early 1957) and "One Night" (with cleaned up lyrics) by Elvis Presley in late 1958/early 1959). The Lewis version of "One Night (Of Sin)" had stalled at # 11 R&B in April 1956.
"He had to be frustrated" said Smiley's daughter Hazel Lemons Bell in an interview with Jeff Hannusch. "I couldn't understand how Fats could make a hit out of 'Blue Monday' and my father couldn't. He had some bad things to say about Dave, but him and Fats were friends. I remember going to Fats' house where Fats had a bar that was covered with hundreds of silver dollars and we were living in the Lafitte Projects." After "I Hear You Knocking", Dave Bartholomew recorded Lewis with more rhythm and less blues, but rock n roll proved insurmountable for Smiley. "Please Listen To Me" was his last chart entry (# 9 R&B) in June 1956. "Shame, Shame, Shame", his most rocking number, was featured in the movie "Baby Doll" (directed by Elia Kazan) later in 1956, but it got very little airplay and sank without making a ripple. At the instigation of Lew Chudd, Smiley tried a few poppish songs like "Sweeter Words" and "You Are My Sunshine" in January 1957, but all to no avail. There was only one session in 1958-59 and two final sessions for Imperial in 1960. Lewis was down on his luck in the 1960s. He no longer carried a band, as most of his work consisted of spot jobs around New Orleans. There were further recordings for OKeh (1961), Dot (1964) and Loma (1965), but nothing sold. The many years of hard living, including heavy drinking and smoking, were catching up with Smiley. He died from cancer of the stomach in October 1966, aged 53.
Smiley Lewis was primarily a blues shouter, but his R&B records hold much appeal for rock n roll fans and continue to delight today.
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Acknowledgements : Rick Coleman, Jeff Hannusch, Terry Pattison.
Dik, September 2011
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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