Louisiana State University Press, 312 pp., $25.95 (paper)
Most performers' biographies follow a standard pattern: growth, discovery, success, and either decline or icon-hood. John Wirt's excellent documentation of one of New Orleans' great rock & roll figures is different in that Wirt shows that throughout Smith's career he's been thwarted by a man who crossed him at every juncture and made it impossible for him to reap the rewards that are justly his. That man's name is Huey "Piano" Smith. There's a hint of this halfway through Rocking Pneumonia Blues. It's the Seventies, and Smith has long disappeared from the charts, the great bands he's fronted now long-gone. He's gotten screwed by Ace Records, which issued his hits, but as many others have proven, that's not insurmountable. A man appears who says he'll get Smith his songs back, and so it starts. Expect to cringe. Not, however, at the writing. Wirt's interviewed dozens of people, including the reclusive Smith, plowing through mountains of legal papers to render a clear and unbiased recounting of events. The first half of the book unfolds in an almost cinematic fashion in documenting New Orleans' early R&B scene. The second half is tragic, and Wirt reports it without flinching.
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