Born Overton Amos Lemons in Louisiana in 1913, Smiley Lewis to give him his professional name moved to New Orleans in his mid-teens and by 1947 had garnered a loyal local support as a vocalist and guitarist. His nickname of Smiley naturally came from his outwardly happy demeanour and was featured on the very first single, a 78 to be precise, ‘Here comes Smiley’. While that initial recording is not included here, this wonderful and complete selection of 45s on the Imperial label is for casual and specialist listener alike the best overarching anthology of Smiley’s work. It surpasses the twenty-four song Capitol CD from the early 1990s which was a fair representation of his work, but is outgunned by this sixty-one song extravaganza. Only the multi-disc Bear Family offering outdoes this new double CD and it is frankly questionable whether anyone really needs more than this, the very best recordings that Smiley Lewis made and in the premier recording studio of Cosimo’s in New Orleans with the cream of the Crescent City’s musicians.
What is important to recognise is that just as the New Orleans sound evolved, so did that of Smiley Lewis and thus the period chronicled, from 1950 to 1961, is illustrative of the history of R & B. Indeed, the early rocking sound of, ‘Lillie man’, is testimony to how the early instrumentation came across once he signed for Imperial records in 1950. Opening up the first CD is his debut 45 for Imperial, ‘Tee-nah-nah’. His first US national hit, ‘Lillie man’, came just years later in 1952 and no less an authority on New Orleans music than the great producer (of Smiley’s own work) Dave Bartholomew indicated that moniker Smiley acquired of, ‘The bad luck singer’, gives a false impression of what Lewis achieved in practice. The individual singles that Smiley Lewis released on Imperial regularly sold over 100,000 copies which is both respectable and indeed impressive by any standards, but particularly so for an emerging music form in a regional city down in the south, with no dilution of the earthy New Orleans blues.
Among Smiley’s own musical influences was that of Big Joe Turner and that is clearly heard on the novelty song, ‘Bumpity bump’. The racier side to Smiley Lewis’ repertoire is represented here by, ‘One night’, which has suggestive lyrics that a young Elvis Presley cleaned up with alternative words and made a hit single himself out of. In an uptempo vein, the storming, ‘Sham, sham, sham’, is heard here in both of its parts, and formed part of the film soundtrack to, ‘Baby doll’ (1957). Several of his songs were successfully covered by other singers at a later juncture and that included, ‘I hear you knocking’, which Gale Storm enjoyed a pop hit with in the 1970s and Dave Edmunds recorded a separate version early in his career. Smiley Lewis’ spell at Imperial ended at the beginning of the new decade just as R & B was slowly morphing into soul music and he moved to OKeh in 1961 where he recorded one single only before a break from recording duties until a one-off 45 for Dot records. In 1964 he reprised, ‘The bells are ringing’, produced this time round by Allen Toussaint for Loma records. That preceded his death from stomach cancer in 1966 by just a year.