Tee Nah Nah : The Story of Smiley Lewis ©2002JCMarion
Smiley Lewis was born Overton Lemon in St. James Parish in Louisiana in 1920. He became interested in music at an early age and as a teenager, jumped a slow moving freight train and wound up in New Orleans. He was given a room to live in by a White family named Lewis and so young Overton adopted their surname as his own. In his mid twenties he was given the nickname "Smiley" or "Smiling" because of his lack of front teeth. He met up with a local musician named Isidore "Tuts" Washington, and they often worked in local clubs together. During the years of the Second World War, Lewis and Washington were part of the band of Ernest "Kid" Molliere, and played many dates at the army base at Fort Polk. They also did dates at night spots in the French Quarter. After the war, the trio of Lewis, Washington, and Herman Seals on drums, became a local favorite. Smiley was a guitar player and blues vocalist, and soon he made his first recordings in 1947 for the then New Jersey based DeLuxe Record label. The tunes were "Here Comes Smiley" and "Turn On Your Volume".

In late 1949 he had his first hit record, now recording for Imperial Records - "Tee Nah Nah" was the big side, and the reverse was the tune "Lowdown" on #5067. His trio was backed up by the famous house band of J & M recording studios in New Orleans led by Dave Bartholomew. In April the record sells big on the West Coast, and a month later was selling big in Chicago and Detroit, despite a cover version by Van Walls on Atlantic Records. In June Smiley followed Fats Domino into the recording studio and the result was Imperial #5072 - "Slide Me Down" and "Growing Old". The recording of "Growing Old" takes off in Smiley's adopted town of New Orleans. Late in the year "Dirty People" and "If You Ever Loved A Woman" was released on Imperial #5102. Once again New Orleans is a buyer's market for records by Lewis who is as identified with the city as Fats Domino and Lloyd Price. "Dirty People" continues to do well across the South in early 1951, and by the time sales start to fall off for the tune, the new release is ready - "Bea's Boogie" and "My Baby Was Right" on #5124.

Lewis plays area night spots for the rest of the year, and in early 1952, "The Bells Are Ringing" and "Lillie Mae" is released on Imperial #5194. Smiley plays a number of New Orleans dates fronting the band of Dave Bartholomew, New Orleans favorites. "Lillie Mae" is showing good sales in Texas and Southern California. Later in the year it seems that Imperial Records is exploiting their one-two punch of Fats Domino and Smiley Lewis. Lewis records "Gumbo Blues" and "It's So Peaceful In The Country" on #5208. Surprisingly "The Bells Are Ringing" is still selling in parts of the country, and winds up being a decent hit for Smiley..

In the Spring of 1953 Smiley does "Big Mamou", written by Link Davis, and a pop music hit for Pete Handley, and "Playgirl" on Imperial #5234. Almost immediately, "Playgirl" takes off in the Washington D.C. - Baltimore - and Richmond areas. After a decent run Imperial readies the next record by Lewis on #5241 - "Caldonia's Party" and "Oh Baby". Smiley continues to be a good draw in night clubs especially in his adopted home town of New Orleans. In late September of the year "Little Fernandez" and "Ituary of 1954 Smiley records "Blue Monday" and "Down The Road" on #5268. New Orleans and Chicago take to the new recording. "Blue Monday" was written by Dave Bartholomew (as many of Smiley's tunes were) and would prove to be a monster hit for Fats Domino two years later. In April Smiley gives his version of the tune "I Love You For Sentimental Reasons" and "The Rocks" on #5279 for Imperial Records. In May with "Blue Monday" still selling, and "The Rocks" taking off, Smiley is a big draw at Chicago's premiere showcase of Black talent, the Club Delisa. Lewis also has personal appearance dates in Gary, Indiana, Cleveland, and Louisville. In October, Imperial #531's Music" is released on #5252. He also continues to try and move out from the shadows of Imperial's big gun, Fats Domino.

In Febr6 is released - "Too Many Drivers At The Wheel" and "Ooh La La".

Smiley Lewis opens up 1955 with a January release on Imperial #5325 - "Jailbird" and "Farewell". In July of the year "I Hear You Knocking" and "Bumpity Bump" are released on #5356. By August it is clear that "I Hear You Knocking" is going to be a monster hit record featuring great piano work by Huey "Piano" Smith. It is being played on many pop stations and is the first national hit for Smiley. All through the fall "Knocking" is everywhere and it finally gives Lewis the music breakthrough needed to become one of the top performers in the New Orleans R & B field. It is obvious that the record has national sales implications when the tune is covered by Gale Storm for Dot Records. At year's end "Queen Of Hearts" and "Come On" are released on Imperial #5372.

In early 1956 "One Night" is released by Imperial on #5380. The flip side is "Ain't Gonna Do It". The bluesy "One Night" is another big hit for Lewis and of course, would be covered (with abridged lyrics) by Elvis for RCA. After a good run the followup is out in late April. "She Got Me Hook Line And Sinker" and "Please Listen To Me" are released on Imperial #5389. Late in the summer "Someday You'll Want Me" and "Down Yonder We Go Ballin" are out on #5404. Smiley goes on a tour of one nighters through the South with Joe Jones & his orchestra. In November, "No No" and "Shame Shame Shame" on Imperial #5418 is released. The tune "Shame" will be used on the soundtrack of the Warner Brothers motion picture "Baby Doll". The tune is also covered by Billy Williams for Coral Records.

In March of 1957 Smiley does the old country music standard "You Are My Sunshine" and "Sweeter Words" for Imperial on #5431. In June Smiley sitgns on with the Shaw Organization's big travelling road show "The Fantabulous Rock & Roll Show of 1957" . The six week tour also features Bo Diddley, Ruth Brown, The Coasters, Schoolboys, 5 Satins, Paul Williams Orchestra and others. Late in July Imperial releases #5460 which features the songs "Go On Fool" and "Gonna Jump And Shout". That November Imperial Records releases #5478 - "Bad Luck Blues" and "School Days Are Back Again". By late 1957, it seems as though Smiley Lewis has been side tracked as many of the founding R & B performers are as straight forward rock 'n roll dominates the airwaves with teen idols and rock-a-billy Elvis wannabees. Smiley Lewis hangs in and in March of 1958 "Rootin Tootin" and "I Can't Believe It" are released on Imperial #5470. In 1959 he was dropped by Imperial after a decade, and early in the year recorded for the small Knight label with the tunes "Baby Please" and "I Shall Not Be Moved" on #2007. a few lackluster records surfaced in the early 60's on labels such as Loma, Okeh, and even Dot. By the middle of the decade, Lewis was seriously ill, and passed away from the effects of cancer on October 7, 1966 just days before a benefit concert was planned in his honor.

The music of Smiley Lewis is preserved on two CDs that are available. The first is called "I Hear You Knocking : The Best Of Smiley Lewis" on Collectables, and the always complete and authoritative set from Bear Family - a four CD set called : "Smiley Lewis : Shame Shame Shame" with all of his recorded output. Smiley Lewis, a giant of New Orleans R & B and giving us a decade of great American musical treasures will always be remembered.

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