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Sat, 07.05.1913

Smiley Lewis, Vocalist born

Smiley Lewis

Smiley Lewis was born on this date in 1913. He was a Black vocalist.

Born in DeQuincey, Louisiana, with the given name of Overton Lemons, he moved to New Orleans in his mid-teens.  Lewis was equipped with a big, booming voice and some guitar skills.   He played clubs in the French Quarter, often with pianist Tuts Washington (and sometimes billed as "Smiling" Lewis). By 1947, his following was strong enough to merit a session for DeLuxe Records, which issued his debut 78, “Here Comes Smiley.”  Then Lewis signed with Imperial in 1950, debuting with Tee-Nah-Nah and credibility began to move.

As the New Orleans R&B sound developed rapidly during the early 1950s, so did Lewis, as he rocked ever harder on “Lillie Mae,” “Ain't Gonna Do It,” and “Big Mamou.”  He had his first national hit in 1952 with “The Bells Are Ringing,” and enjoyed his biggest sales in 1955 with “I Hear You Knocking.” Other classic songs from Lewis were “Bumpity Bump,” “Down the Road,” “Lost Weekend,” “Real Gone Lover,” ”She's Got Me Hook, Line and Sinker,” and” Rootin' and Tootin'.” In front of Crescent City's hottest players, Lewis roared like a lion.  Strangely, Fats Domino fared better with some of Smiley Lewis' tunes than Lewis did ("Blue Monday," in particular).

Similarly, Elvis Presley cleaned up the naughty "One Night" and hit big with it, but Lewis's original had already done well in 1956, as had “Please Listen to Me.”  His blistering “Shame, Shame, Shame” found its way onto the soundtrack of the Hollywood film “Baby Doll” in 1957.  After a long and at least semi-profitable run at Imperial records, Lewis moved over to OKeh in 1961 for one single and was with Dot in 1964 leaving with an Allen Toussaint, produced remake of “The Bells Are Ringing for Loma” in 1965.

By then, stomach cancer was taking over and one of the greatest New Orleans R&B artists of the 1950s died on October 7, 1966, in New Orleans. Almost but forgotten outside his Big Easy home base.  The ensuing decades have brought back much of his music to a new audience.

Heart & Soul: A Celebration of Black Music Style in America, 1930-1975
by Merlis Davin Seay, foreword by Etta James
Copyright 2002, Billboard Books
ISBN 0-8230-8314-4

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