Featured Interview – Melvin Smith

Those already indoctrinated into the wonderful world of the blues can recite the music’s amazing properties at the drop of a hat:

The blues are healing; the blues are uplifting; the blues are soul-cleansing; the blues are joyful; and the blues are celebratory.

Those not fully-versed into the wonderful world of the blues, however, are also quick to show why they have a disdain for the music, and it’s usually quick and to the point and it goes something like this:

The blues are depressing.

Thankfully, Chicago bass maestro Melvin Smith is armed with a quick rebuttal for those in the camp of that later line of thinking.

“I’ve met people along my journeys that say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand the blues. It’s so depressing.’ I’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute. When was the last time you were at a blues concert?’ If you really think about it, country music is more depressing than the blues,” Smith laughed. “I tell them, ‘Go to a concert and see what these blues artists are really putting out.’ I mean, it’s basically a big party when you go to a blues concert. But people that automatically turn up their noses when they hear the word ‘blues’ don’t seem to grasp that. They’re closing the book on the blues before they even know what it’s all about. The blues are all about a party, man.”

His name might not be instantly-recognizable, but his smiling face sure is.

Blues fans all across the globe have probably seen Smith up on the bandstand at one time or another and have undoubtedly heard his in-the-pocket bass playing on countless albums.

It doesn’t matter if he’s heading into the studio or if he’s hitting the road to play in front of thousands of blues-hungry fans, Smith’s sole focus is on just one task.

“My number-one thing is to give my best. I enjoy all the different settings that I play in,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m playing in the studio for a recording session or I’m on stage at a big festival, or if I’m just jamming in a small club … or church … or wherever. I enjoy it all.”

A small sampling of Smith’s resume includes stints helping to lay down the rhythmic foundation for the likes of Billy Branch, Deitra Farr, Lefty Dizz, Zora Young, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and Koko Taylor.

While the names may change, his duty never wavers.

“For me, it’s second nature. I adapt to whoever the artist is and what they want. I study what they do and I adapt to that,” he said. “That way, I can give them what they want.”

In order to ‘give them what they want,’ it’s imperative that Smith be on the same wavelength as the drummer that he’s playing with. When the four hands of the bass player and drummer (along with the drummer’s feet, of course) can somehow manage to mesh together as one unit, that’s when the magic begins.

Some of Smith’s favorite drummers to play with include:

“Willie Hayes … ‘The Touch’ … we go all the way back to the Lefty Dizz days. And I like playing with Pookie Styx and Freddie Williams,” Smith continued. “Of course, there’s Kenny Smith, he has a nice touch back there. I’ve known him – and I knew his father – for years. I played a few times with Willie, and at one time, they were trying to get me into the Legendary Blues Band (Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy, Louis Myers).”

Smith’s steady gig with Zora Young precluded him from being able to join up with the remnants of Muddy Waters’ old bandmates in the Legendary Blues Band, but he did hook that crew up with a bass player who is better known as an outstanding guitar player and producer these days.

“I was Zora’s bandleader at that time and I didn’t want to leave her. So I gave them the name of Nick Moss, who was playing bass at that time,” Smith said. “I recommended him and that’s really how he ended up getting on the map. I ran into his brother, Joe, not long ago at Buddy’s (Legends Club) and we hadn’t seen each other in years. He said, ‘Man, my brother is so appreciative of you.’ And even when I do occasionally see Nick these days, we’re good friends and he appreciates the fact that’s what I did for him.”

Regardless of name or reputation, Smith says as long as the drummer he’s playing with is locked in on the task at hand, the results are sure to be pleasing to everyone, from the bandleader front-and-center, all the way to the fan at the back-end of the hall.

“It all depends on their (the drummer’s) mentality. If they’re thinking about themselves, that makes it kind of hard, because they’re playing for themselves instead of the band,” he stated. “If they’re trying to show off their abilities, they’re not playing for the group as a unit. When I play with Willie (Hayes), for instance, we play as a group.”

For an outstanding example of just how well Smith and ‘The Touch’ work together, slide Lurrie Bell’s critically-acclaimed 2013 disc – Blues In My Soul (Delmark Records) – into the CD player. That’s old school Chicago blues at its finest.

His prowess as a first-call bass player is a given. But Smith is more than just a dynamite instrumentalist; he’s also highly-skilled at handling the day-to-day functions that keep a band on the road, running at full speed. In addition to playing bass for Blues Hall of Famer Koko Taylor, he was also her tour manager for a spell, to boot.

“From Koko I learned that the show must go on. That was probably the most important thing that I learned from her; that and to always give it your all,” he said. “That’s what she always did and I’ve taken that same thing and ran with it.”

Bell, too, was a member of Taylor’s Blues Machine, but that was before Smith joined the fold. It was just a little before the great Queen of the Blues passed away that Smith and Bell joined forces.

“Me and Lurrie have been knowing each other for over 25 years. Near the end of Koko’s reign – about three or four years before she passed – his (Bell’s) management came to me and they wanted me to take the same job (bass player and tour manager) on with Lurrie,” Smith said. “So I was like, ‘OK, cool. I can handle that.’ It’s been a little bumpy at times, but it’s all been good.”

When Smith was cutting his teeth, the blues were just the blues. Cross-pollination between musical genres was largely frowned upon by most blues bandleaders in the Windy City, although that philosophy has eased somewhat over the ensuing decades.

“It is a little different now, largely because a lot of the young players coming up seem to play more funk or incorporate some other genre inside of the blues. When I started, you played the blues,” he said. “For instance, I used to play a lot of jazz and R&B and gospel. One of the first shows I did on the blues scene was with Dion Payton. I was at a rehearsal for the gig and I threw a few little jazz runs into the mix. All of a sudden, Dion turns around and goes, ‘Hey, man. No. We’re not playing jazz, we’re playing blues.’ The two can be similar and just have slight differences, but jazz is not the blues. If you pay attention, you can hear the difference. Once he mentioned that to me, I understood and I play blues for blues people and I play jazz for jazz people. It’s as simple as that.”

As a youngster, Smith went through several different spells concerning instruments of choice, starting with drums and then guitar, before he finally turned his attention and efforts into mastering the four-string.

“The band that I grew up playing with, we never did have a bass player in the group. I ended up playing the bass lines on my guitar. And then I said, ‘To Hell with it (guitar playing).’ I really enjoyed playing the bass … I was more relaxed,” he said. “So I just got me a bass guitar and that’s what I’ve been playing ever since. I still play a little guitar and drums and even keyboards. I even used to play a little horn.”

His initial jump into the deep and raging waters of music came when he was a pre-teen.

“When I was kid – like eight, nine or 10, something like that – I had a friend that I grew up with who’s father played guitar. He taught me, his son and another friend of ours the basics of playing,” he said. “And from that point on, I’ve been playing something ever since. It’s (playing music) really been a lifelong passion of mine.”

Once he learned the nuts and bolts of the bass, he quickly fell under the spell of cats like Rufus Reid, Alphonso Johnson and Stanley Clarke. Smith even had the chance to meet the great Clarke for the first time a couple of years ago.

“I was playing in Brazil with John Primer and Stanley was one of the headliners at the gig. So I met him and we got the chance to hang out,” said Smith. “He was a really nice guy and that was a lot of fun.”

More and more over the course of the last several years, Smith has been stepping out of the shadows – so to speak – and placing his own name on the marque as leader of his own band. This has received an overwhelmingly positive response overseas.

“I’ve kind of been dwelling on doing my own thing a little bit. For the past few years over in Europe – a few festivals over there – I’ve put together a band under my name,” he said. “Usually what I’ll do is invite bandleaders to join me on a tour, over in France and Spain and Belgium and places like that. I’ll put something together and it’s like a little revue.”

There’s even a chance that sometime in the future, Smith might utilize that very same concept stateside.

“Me and my wife was discussing that the other day. She was saying that I need to do that kind of thing more in the United States,” he said. “The thing is, though, they’re more receptive to that in Europe.”

Smith has a point there.

It seems bluesmen like himself are found in vastly more favorable circumstances over there than right in their own backyard in the U.S. They may tend to be undervalued on one side of the pond, while on the other side, they’re treated like true kings.

“I think it’s because over here, the availability of blues artists is plentiful and that’s not really the case over in Europe. Another thing I think is, it has to do with the background of the artists,” Smith said. “Most of the artists I’ve played with have their own original take on the blues, because that’s all they play and that makes it authentic. But when I’m over in Europe, there are a lot of people that live there that are trying to interpret the blues that they hear from here (the United States). Most of them do a good job of that, but it’s not the authentic thing like it is over here. That’s why European audiences really love American blues players … it’s authentic, it’s the real deal and they know that.”

The pulse of the blues continues to beat strong and vibrant, even though the same may not hold true for a large core of the music’s staunchest supporters.

“For people to say the blues are dying … it’s not the blues that are dying, it’s the audience that is dying. As along as people continue to accept the blues, the blues will continue to grow. Every other commercial you hear and see on television these days has got a blues tune in the background,” Smith said. “To me, the key to pulling in new and younger fans is education. It’s all about education. I used to do Blues in the Schools programs with Billy Branch and that’s what that program is all about; spreading the word and the message of the blues to a younger audience to keep the music alive and thriving.”

It may not have happened overnight, but little-by-little, bit-by-bit, blues fans are connecting Smith’s name with his face. It’s not like he was ever an invisible presence up there on the stage, but he’s for sure starting to reap the long overdue recognition that he deserves.

“Yeah, people know more of me now and they know of what I can do. They see what I bring to the table,” he said. “And that goes with the artists out there, as well as the fans. It’s easier for me to get work these days because they know the kind of standards that I have. They know what I can do and that I give it my all every time out.”

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015

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