July 5, 1913 - Oct. 7, 1966
Overton Amos Lemons known as Smiley Lewis, was an American New Orleans rhythm and blues singer and guitarist. The music journalist Tony Russell wrote that "Lewis was the unluckiest man in New Orleans." He hit on a formula for slow-rocking, small-band numbers like 'The Bells Are Ringing' and 'I Hear You Knocking' only to have Fats Domino come up behind him with similar music.
Lemons was born in DeQuincy, Louisiana, a rural hamlet near Lake Charles. His mother died while he was a child, and later he named a song and several automobiles after her. In his mid-teens, he hopped a freight train with some friends, who jumped off when the train began to speed up. Lewis alone remained on the train, getting off when it reached its stop in New Orleans. He found boarding with a family in the Irish Channel neighborhood and eventually adopted their surname, Lewis.
He began playing clubs in the French Quarter and "tan bars" in the Seventh Ward, at times billed as Smiling Lewis, a variation of the nickname earned by his lack of front teeth.
During World War II, Lewis joined with Kid Ernest Molière's band, entertaining soldiers stationed at Fort Polk, and serving as the house band at the Boogie Woogie Club.
In 1947, Lewis's debut record, "Here Comes Smiley" with the single "Turn On Your Volume" was a local jukebox hit, but DeLuxe requested no more material and left two other recorded sides unreleased. An invitation from Dave Bartholomew, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Lewis and was then beginning a career as a producer with Imperial Records, led to a recording session for the trio in March 1950, at which they recorded the song "Tee Nah Nah." Lewis had his first national hit song with "The Bells Are Ringing" in 1952. He was the first to record Bartholomew's song "Blue Monday," in 1954; Fats Domino's recording of the song was a hit two years later. In 1955 he achieved his biggest sales with "I Hear You Knocking," the first recording of the song.
Lewis was hospitalized in 1965 with a diagnosis of ulcer; surgery revealed that he had stomach cancer. Bartholomew organized a benefit for him at La Ray's on Dryades Street. On October 7, 1966, three days before the benefit, Lewis died in the arms of his second wife, Dorothy Ester Lemons, whom he had married six months before.
None of Lewis's Imperial singles sold more than 100,000 copies, but cover versions of his songs were commercially successful for other artists. Gale Storm's pop version of "I Hear You Knocking" reached the top five on the charts.
Elvis Presley's cover of the Lewis song "One Night" (altering one risque lyric) was number 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 1 on UK Singles Chart. Lewis's recording of "I Hear You Knocking" was released when U.S. radio was still mostly marketed to exclusively white or exclusively black listeners. A version of the song recorded by Dave Edmunds in 1970 reached number one in the UK and number four in the United States; in this version, Lewis is mentioned in the lyrics, along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Huey Smith.
Lewis's recording of "Shame, Shame, Shame" was used in the soundtrack of the film Baby Doll in 1956, accompanying a dramatic chase through a collapsing attic. The song failed to enter the R&B chart. It was covered by the Merseybeats for their EP On Stage in 1964. Aerosmith included it on their blues album, Honkin' on Bobo, released in 2004. The song also provided the title of the fifth episode of the HBO television series Treme, which included a rewritten version of the song with lyrics critical of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.