Rockin Pneumonia: And the Boogie Woogie Flu

Douglas Wolk
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I’m not entirely sure to what extent one of my favorite albums actually exists. Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu is a CD of thirty songs by a New Orleans R&B group that had a couple of hits in 1957 and 1958. I picked it up somewhere in the early 1990s and still play it all the time. It has no liner notes, a slapdash design, and a label credit that simply reads “HRÖN RECORD CO, New Orleans, LA.” On the inside, there’s what appears to be a vintage ad: “It’s Sweeping the Country! And the only one that’s SELLING is on Hrön.” Another ad appears on the back cover, misspelling the name of one of Smith’s songs in bold type and announcing that it’s “S P R E A D I N G everywhere.”

The album is one long, ebullient party; it’s impossible to listen to it and be unhappy at the same time. The band generally sounds so drunk they can barely hold their instruments or keep from cracking up. Everything about them is a little bit vague: I’ve seen the same line from their hit “Don’t You Just Know It” transcribed as “high on a mountain, cool as a breeze” and “I don’t mind that culotte a bit,” both of which are reasonable approximations. The classic lineup of the Clowns only existed for a few years in the late ’50s, sometimes fronted by a ­female impersonator named Bobby Marchan, who went on to be one of the forces behind Cash Money Records four decades later.

A bunch of Smith’s Iron Curtain–era Ace Records singles appear on Rockin’ Pneumonia, alongside some otherwise unreleased tracks; one of them is a version of the old string-band tune “Little Liza Jane,” in which the saxophonist’s solo is a swinging two-step variation on Dvoˇrák’s Humoresque No. 7. Another one is, improbably, called “Blow Everybody Blow (Take 73).” There’s no information on any of the more unusual stuff online, and there’s no reliable documentation I’ve found of a Hrön Record Co.—there was a New Orleans label called Ron in the ’50s, but Hrön wasn’t one of their imprints.

Also, my copy of Rockin’ Pneumonia is the only one I’ve ever seen. When I put it into my computer a few years ago, the CD Database didn’t recognize it; I had to type in its metadata. For years, I found no trace of it on the Internet, other than a description I’d posted on my own blog. Amazon has a listing for something called Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flue [sic], with no artist indicated and a note reading “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” Finally, a few months ago, Rockin’ Pneumonia started to spread, but not the way I’d hoped. I found track listings for the album on a few websites—and then realized, a little unnervingly, that they included a typo I’d committed when I entered the song titles into iTunes.

A few days later, my wish to learn more about the album’s label was granted, also not the way I’d hoped. When I opened a box of CDs I’d shipped across the country, I found that the jewel case of the Japanese experimental band Yximalloo’s The Worst of 1984 had been smashed; the disc itself was gone, and a slip of paper was visible under the cracked tray: “Distributed by HRÖN RECORD CO.” (Again, this was the only copy of that album I’ve ever seen, and my attempts to replace it have failed; all I have left of it is one MP3, a hauntingly silly tunelet called “Mahi Mahi Fish Song,” on which a chorus of nasal voices declaims “I wanna way, I want to sky-climb away.”)

References to Rockin’ Pneumonia continue to S P R E A D everywhere across the Internet, imperfectly derived from my own copy. Reviews are a way to share experience, so it’s strange to write about this album; I have no evidence that anyone else has heard it, or that it even has an “original.” Perhaps there’s also a copy somewhere of Boogie Woogie Flue, different from and even better than the disc I know—music that’s slipped into this world by accident and mutated like a virus.

—Douglas Wolk

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