There have been a number of Smiley Lewis compilations over the years, including some fine ones: the signature EMI release of The Best of Smiley Lewis, the Proper Introduction to Smiley Lewis, the two-volume Smiley Lewis Story, and Bear Family's definitive four-disc box set Shame, Shame, Shame, that collected every side he ever cut. That said, other than their original box set, none of them comes close to Bear Family's single-disc Smiley Lewis Rocks comp. Rather than merely present 36 chronologically recorded sides for Colony and Imperial from 1950-1958, it contextualizes them. Though Lewis began recording in 1947, his biggest years were the '50s, those in which he recorded his regionally popular “I Hear You Knocking” and “One Night” (whose later sanitized and vastly inferior versions were recorded by Gale Storm and Elvis Presley, respectively, with greater success -- yes, you read right, Presley's version of “One Night” utterly pales in comparison with the Lewis’ original. Of the rest, “Shame, Shame, Shame” and “Bumpity Bump” are here, as well as versions of “Blue Monday," “Rootin’ and Tootin,” "Lillie Mae," and many other New Orleans standards. Yet, it’s not simply track selection that makes this set so righteous: it’s the sound of Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio at work with the musicians that played on these sides that made them so unique: drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonists Lee Allen and Herbert Hardesty, and trumpeter and bandleader Dave Bartholomew -- who wrote or co-wrote the majority of these tunes. The players' spontaneity to capture on tape whatever was happening is apparent on this set. At the heart of it there’s Lewis’ voice, an enormous and expressive instrument capable of transferring so much to the listener: from raucous joy and wildness to tenderness and heartbreak, seemingly without effort. His guitar playing exemplifies the Crescent City sound, full of rhythmic invention and tough, R&B groove. The liner notes by Bill Dahl are peerless for their historical authority. The digitally remastered sound is better than any previous collection on the market; it's full, warm, and immediate. For anyone interested in rock & roll’s real roots, New Orleans music, or jump blues and classic R&B, Smiley Lewis Rocks is indispensable.
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