His Christmas album "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is a classic, but that's not what people thought when it was released.
[Updated] When asked for Christmas music recommendations, my go-to album is Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ Twas the Night Before Christmas, their 1962 album on Ace Records. It’s rowdier than most Christmas albums with arrangements that virtually ignore the season. Because of that, it’s simply a great R&B album with lyrics centered on Christmas, and it captures the antic sense of humor of that band. Earlier this year, John Wirt wrote Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rockin’ Pneumonia Blues, and he chronicled the making of the album, along with the reception it received.
Seeing an opportunity for holiday season radio play and gigs, Huey assembled a large group of singers and musicians to record a Christmas album at a new studio on Magazine Street. “All of us knew a seasonal record could play every year,” he remembered. “Bing Crosby. Yeah, we already hear ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas….’ Every year, the same thing. Well, we can have this ready for the next Christmas, so we’ll be working all over the country when it comes out.”
When it was released, Billboard reviewed it, saying it had “strong sales potential.” One night while Smith and the Clowns were on tour, they heard their version of “Silent Night” being played on a teen dance show on television.
Johnny Vincent [head of Ace Records] hadn’t even told them that the album was out. “Hey!” Huey said as he sat on the hotel floor. “We’re in if this record go’ to playing around here. It’ll be unending where we’ll be playing at.” But the program’s host cut the song short. “They should be ashamed of themselves!” he proclaimed. “Mocking Christmas! This is a disgrace! Let me show y’all what we can do with this.” He smashed the album and threw it in the trash can.
Unfortunately, the host wasn’t the only person to have a problem with rock ’n’ roll Christmas music. Sensitivities about the relationship between pop and Christmas cropped up with the first recordings. In 1942, Bing Crosby virtually invented the Christmas record with the release of “White Christmas,” but “White Christmas” wasn’t his first Christmas record. He had to be talked into recording “Adeste Fideles” backed with “Silent Night” in 1935 because the Catholic Crosby wasn’t sure that spiritual songs belonged in the pop marketplace. A similar attitude to the one Smith faced surfaced when Elvis Presley’s came out in 1957, and Irving Berlin, the writer of “White Christmas,” called radio stations asking them not to play it because he considered Presley’s version of “White Christmas” to be a travesty.
According to Wirt:
Even New Orleans reacted negatively to Huey and the Clowns’ Christmas album. One angry fellow told Huey’s mother, “Huey Smith’ll do anything for money!” Johnny Vincent told him the record had been banned and that Ace was pulling it off the market. “We were before our time,” Huey mused.
A track from Smith's album appears on "A My Spilt Milk Christmas 2014, our downloadable playlist of holiday music. We hope you enjoy it.
Updated December 13, 2015, 11:30 a.m.
The original videos were taken down by person who posted them, so they've been replaced by a Spotify player featuring the album.