You have to be pretty impressive at something for others to nickname you for the thing at which you are impressive.
That’s not an uncommon practice, of course. However, I don’t mean a roundabout nickname, or a cutesy one, or something that references what you’re good at — I mean the actual thing itself. For instance, Albert Einstein was a genius, but nobody called him “Physics” Einstein; Dickens wasn’t referred to as “Words” Dickens.
But when Huey Smith played his instrument, all people could think to call him was “Piano.” Not “Ivory Tickler,” or “The Keymaster,” or even “The Piano Man.” Just . . . Piano.
Born in New Orleans, Huey Smith took up his instrument at a young age and almost immediately began composing songs. He served as a session player on big hits by Lloyd Price and Little Richard before putting his own backing band together, The Clowns, in 1957. That same year, after signing with Ace Records, Smith and his producer co-wrote his debut single, a rollicking novelty tune called “Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu,” featuring the new band.
The record didn’t make the US Top 40 (likely due to the combination of being too raw and too “black” — radio was very uptight in the 50s, becoming less so in the 60s) but the single still sold over one million copies. Huey Smith had a big radio hit the following year with “Don’t You Just Know It,” but it’s mostly forgotten nowadays except by early R&B aficionados.
“Rockin’ Pneumonia…” may have remained a somewhat hidden treasure, too, but a cat named Johnny Rivers — who had a string of hits with well-chosen covers — released his own Top 10 version in 1972, cementing the pop legacy of Huey “Piano” Smith.
Let’s hear how New Orleans does it.