Smiley Lewis was a blues and R&B singer who performed in the French Quarter in New Orleans. His music would be featured in films and remade by major artists including Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. Credit: Photograph by Michael P. Smith, The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.1.1145

On Oct. 7, 1966, popular New Orleans musician Smiley Lewis died. 

A native of DeQuincy, Louisiana, Lewis, whose real name was Overton Amos Lemons, was a well-loved blues and R&B singer in New Orleans but fell short of gaining national fame.

As a teenager, Lewis moved by himself to New Orleans, where he lived with a family in the Irish Channel and played guitar in clubs throughout the French Quarter and 7th Ward. The Museum of the Gulf Coast notes that during World War II, Lewis joined Kid Ernest Molière’s band, which performed for soldiers at the Fort Polk army base in Louisiana. 

Lewis’ talents and dedicated following landed him the opportunity to record his first song, “Here Comes Smiley” with DeLuxe Records in 1947. Three years later, he signed a contract with Imperial Records, where he recorded “Tee Nah Nah” with Imperial producer Dave Bartholomew.  

In 1952, Lewis had his first national hit with the song “The Bells are Ringing” and three years later, he released “I Hear You Knocking,” which would be his biggest hit. New Orleans native Fats Domino released a version of the song in 1961 and it was also featured in the 2019 Martin Scorsese film, “The Irishman.”

Lewis’ single, “Shame, Shame, Shame” was featured on the soundtrack of the 1956 film, “Baby Doll.” Despite the national reach, none of his singles sold more than 100,000 copies. 

After his stint with Imperial, Lewis went on to record with Okeh Records, Dot Records and finally Loma Records before he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1965. He died on October 7, 1966.  

While the remakes of Lewis’ music by top artists such as Elvis Presley and Aerosmith would land in top spots on Billboard charts in the U.S. and U.K., the Smiley Lewis name would be largely forgotten nationally and overshadowed in the world of rhythm and blues. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:

Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.

Shannon Stecker is a creative writer, a marketing director, and a lover of stories. She has spent the past 15 years of her career in a creative space – as a print and broadcast journalist, a freelance...