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Devotees of jazz and blues piano throw around terms like ‘gutbucket’ (bluntly unrefined, usually in a good way) and ‘barrelhouse’ (raw, freewheeling). Both of these terms capture the simple performance style of Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, born in New Orleans in 1934 and still surviving, if not exactly thriving. He’s remembered for his 1957 Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, a humorous novelty song transfigured by a churning, driving boogie-woogie piano performance. Among New Orleans pianists, Smith is best likened to the plain and direct Fats Domino, compared with whom others such as Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint were positively Debussyian in Impressionist refinement. Wirt, an entertainment journalist, has a diffuse, digressive approach and gets bogged down in accounts of bankruptcy hearings, but captures the grimly raffi sh lives of the African-American musicians of Smith’s heyday, especially his favoured vocalist Bobby Marchan, also a noted Louisiana female impersonator. Having first learned the piano at around age eight by focusing on blues and hymns, Smith compensated in an early trio formation for the lack of a bass player: ‘I put a bass player in our band with my left hand.’ Rocking Pneumonia contained, as Wirt describes it, ‘repeating piano bass notes that let everyone know the party has started’, following a ‘rippling, often imitated piano riff in Huey’s right hand’. Though he liked to let the good times roll, Smith was nonetheless prudent about the dangers for an African- American pianist in a racist region where rapacious record companies and graft-hungry policemen kept performers impoverished.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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