Child prodigies come and go in the blues. Some disappear in adulthood. Others become stars in their own right. But Los Angeles-based Josh Smith is cut from different cloth altogether. Recognized as one of the top guitarists on the planet, he’s released about a highly reviewed albums in his career while both comfortable and willing to yield the spotlight to others rather than demand it for himself.
An established talent in his mid-teens when Jimmy Thackery described him as being “only three heartbreaks away from being a true guitar genius,” Josh has gone on to fulfill that prophecy with about a dozen highly reviewed albums, his own line of six-strings, pedals, instructional books and more. But since adulthood, he’s achieved most of his acclaim while serving as the foundation behind American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, R&B superstar Raphael Saadiq and others.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even today, after being named by Guitar Player magazine as one of its Top 30 blues artists in the world, he’s still in the shadows, currently serving as the musical director for Joe Bonamassa as well as his partner in the recording studio, too. He was on the road in Boise, Idaho, with when Blues Blast caught up with him a few weeks ago.
Born Oct. 7, 1979, in Middletown, Conn., but raised in Pembroke Pines, Fla., where the family laid down roots when he was two, Smith’s a pleasant, soft-spoken, easily approachable man and a deep thinker, too, who’s consistently used common sense and his inner strength to pave his path to success.
The son of parents who were both trained as psychologists but eventually became restaurant owners in downtown Fort Lauderdale after becoming disillusioned with the grind of their previous positions, operating a couple of diners that closed early, which allowed space for quality family time at home.
“I was lucky to have their record collection,” Josh notes. “They liked good music.”
Dad Joel was deeply into the blues — especially Albert, B.B. and Freddie King, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — and loved the Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and Beatles, too. And he owned just enough greatest-hits jazz albums to whet his son’s interest — Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps – too. Mom Jane, meanwhile, was a lover of the R&B and soul sounds of Stax and Motown..
“I got my first guitar at age three on Oct. 11, 1982, the day of my sister Lindsay’s birth,” Smith says. “They got it for me on the way home from the hospital” — and it’s fair to say that he hasn’t put it down since! “There’s a lotta pictures of me draggin’ it around the house and tryin’ to figure out stuff on it. And from what my folks told me, I asked for lessons when I was six…‘hey, I really wanna play this thing!’”
Their initial foray took them to a strip-mall music school owned by Yamaha, which proved to be an instant disappointment. After a single lesson, the instructor attempted to up-sell his parents into buying a better guitar along with a stack of instructional books – something that Joel immediately thought wasn’t right.
After a search through the want-ads, his folks eventually secured the services of a recent University of Miami grad, a jazz enthusiast named Rino. It proved to be an excellent match. In addition to teaching Josh all the essentials, he also started giving him invaluable lessons about music theory from the jump. Just a few months into training, his folks say, Rino took them aside and told them: “Josh is really good…but more importantly, he has timing like an adult.”
It was input that might have prompted some parents to push their child harder to pursue the instrument. But throughout his youth, Smith insists, they were always supportive but never pushy as he pursued his path – although it’s true that they did threaten to hide his six-string if he didn’t keep up with his homework – something that really wasn’t a problem because he was an honors student.
In a world dominated by heavy metal at the time, Josh emulated his rock heroes, Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, for a while. But the more blues and jazz he listened to in the home, the more his interest went in a different direction. He was so in love with the guitar that he practiced from the moment he got home from school until bedtime. And when he tried playing with other kids, he was often frustrated, discovering that they couldn’t play at his level and weren’t interested in the same music.
After Rino left for New York to pursue his own career and Danny Cuthbert replaced him. “He started getting me into the deeper stuff,” Smith remembers. “He would tell me who’d be playing on the records…not just B.B. and Albert King. He told me about Otis Rush and Magic Sam, Hubert Sumlin. That really helped igniting my blues passion even further.”
Three years later, Danny imparted all the theory he could provide and Josh moved on to his final instructor, Tommy Lee Stryder, a rocker who took his studies in a different direction – a relationship that ended when Smith was 12 when family friends with bands invited him to start play “Wild Thing” and “Louie Louie” at house parties and nightspots.
Somewhere in his early training, Josh learned that supporting musicians are just as important as headliners, too. “It wasn’t just the lead guys that fascinated me,” he remembers. “Listening to all those Stax records and hearing Steve Cropper play all those parts or Jimmy Nolen playing with James Brown…I started realizing that all those things were as important as playing lead.”
Another favorite – and major influence — has been jazz master Cornell Dupree, a session player whose work graces dozens of hits from Aretha Franklin. Brook Benton, King Curtis, Joe Cocker, Donnie Hathaway, Van McCoy, David “Fathead” Newman and more.
“Luckily, I fell in with good musicians right away,” Smith says. “I was a young kid and they were willing to tell me when I was fucking up – something I never took as a negative growing up.
“I took it as a positive. I wanted to know when I was doing something wrong…if I wasn’t playing a Motown groove right. I wanted to know right away what I was supposed to be playing to have my pocket feel right. When I started playing gigs with adults, I was kinda asking for constructive criticism all the time.
“I always wanted to improve…something that I guess has always been an obsession for me. They’d tell me, and I’d work on it. There was nothing more important to me back then than impressing those guys — so when I’d come back to the next gig, I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”
The only other thing Josh ever wanted to do in life other than playing guitar, he insists, was to play second base for the New York Yankees – something he quickly understood would never happen. “I loved playing baseball,” he says. “I was all hustle – but I couldn’t hit. I played until high school when kids’ arms were getting better and they started throwing curve balls. I went: ‘Wait a minute! I don’t think I can do that!’
“I was just wa-a-ay better at guitar.
“I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I’m a guitar player 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 43 years old. I try to keep that flame lit all the time – and it’s never diminished yet!”
One of those good musicians he fell in with early is another protégé, Derek Trucks. Just four months Josh’s senior, they met for the first time when, at age 12, Smith still wasn’t playing out. A Jacksonville native, Derek was booked for a weekend gig in Miami and Josh and his dad attended opening night. The two kids bonded between sets and they struck up another conversation at the close of the night as Joel chatted with Trucks’ dad, Chris.
“Wouldn’t it be neat if you could sleep over and we could jam?” Josh asked – and the improbable happened. Realizing his son would be in good hands, the senior Trucks agreed, and the boys stayed up listening to a Robert Johnson cassette that Derek had recently acquired and jammed the night away.
For the rest of their childhood, the two young guitar masters played together frequently, eventually working the Florida festival circuit as a duo, and they remain good friends today. “We don’t cross paths often now,” Smith admits. “But when we do, it’s special.”
So was the night not long after when Josh jammed with pros in a nightclub for the first time. It occurred at the Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale – for 25 years prior to shuttering in 1996, the most important stop south of Atlanta for touring artists on the blues highway.
“We went down there, I signed the board and got up to play,” he remembers, “and Motel Mel (who ran the jam with his band, the Innkeepers) called ‘Messin’ with the Kid’ tongue-in-cheek ‘cause he thought it was funny.
“But I was prepared, and that kinda cemented the whole deal. The audience went crazy because this little kid could play. I was hooked! I knew immediately that this was what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life!”
As this writer can attest (he used to sit in occasionally with my band in that era), even though Josh’s appearance in those days mimicked Stevie Ray Vaughan with long hair, black, flat-primed Stetson and jeans, at 12 or 13 years old, he was already playing circles around many of the pros on the signup sheet.
Returning for the jam every Monday, he quickly started getting invitations to sit in elsewhere. When someone suggested he attend the Thursday-night jam at Club M in Hollywood and hosted by the Rhino Cats, a collection of adults who bridged jazz and blues and were all children of jazz artists, Smith’s career literally took off. “The first time I went there, they let me play the whole set,” Smith remembers, “and the crowd went crazy.”
After a few more successful trips, the vocalist/keyboard player, Rick Cafaro, and bassist Mike Nadaoka asked him to join the group.
“I think they saw that if they advertised that they had this 13-year-old kid playing with them, they’d get more gigs and people would show up,” he says. “And it did kinda work that way. But I didn’t care. All I wanted was the experience.”
More exposure came through Kenny Neal, Tinsley Ellis, Lucky Peterson and others who invited him to join them on stage at the Exchange and Cheers, the Pompano Beach club where the Rhino Cats regularly worked one stage on Friday nights while national acts worked the other. And it didn’t hurt that Josh’s dad eventually took over the kitchen at the Exchange and had him tag along after school on work nights.
“He’d cook and I’d watch the band soundcheck and then stay for the show,” Josh says. Even when I didn’t get to sit in, I met everybody there. And I had a little practice amp that I kept in the back room near the kitchen, and I’d play by myself when the bands were loading in. Inevitably, somebody’d peek their head around the corner and say: ‘Who’s that back there?’ When they saw I was a little kid, they were like: ‘Do you wanna play with us tonight?’ I actually got to play ‘Shotgun’ with Jr. Walker & the Allstars! I didn’t realize how cool that was when I was 13. Looking back now, though, wow!
“Man, you just grow so quickly through that!” he says. “I’m so-o-o grateful. I think they all wanted me to succeed because they saw my seriousness and passion.”
At 16 and billed as Josh Smith & the Rhino Cats, the band launched a three-month summer tour, which was initially financed by Josh’s folks who sold the family diner to buy a tour van with dad hitting the road with his son and mom returning to her former day job. The band released two albums — Born Under a Blue Sign and Woodsheddin’ – by the time the child protégé was 17.
He moved on to form his own group, Josh Smith & the Frost, shortly thereafter, and he was 18 when he and the band teamed with Grammy-winning producer Jim Gaines to cut Too Damn Cold, an album recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis – a meeting that occurred after Thackery had invited Josh to join him at a Fort Lauderdale studio where Gaines was mixing his new, live album.
“Honestly, it was all a blur for me until I was 21 or 22,” Smith admits today. “I was on the road all the time and just trying to figure out how to keep a band together and how to make ends meet.
“Guys were always comin’ and goin’, and there was never enough money for any stability. But I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was get in that van and play gigs – and get better and better.”
But frustration began to set in when Josh came to realize that Trucks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang – all young men about as old as he was — were signing with major labels and making it big while he was still sleeping in his van between gigs and making $400 a night.
“It’s funny to say that I got disillusioned as a child, but I did!” he insists. “I’d been beating my head against the wall and I wanted to grow up, pay bills and be a responsible adult – something that was even more important then because I was living on my own and I’d just met Niki, the woman who’d become my wife.”
With no other marketable skills, Smith realized he had to make a major move. And once again, family was there to lend a helping hand – this time in the form of an uncle, David Michael Frank, the Emmy-nominee composer whose works include Forrest Gump, The Babysitter’s Club, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and hundreds of episodes of TV shows.
“For the first time in my life, I thought that maybe I’d never be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan or whoever,” Josh says. “I thought: Let me go visit my uncle and see what the scene is like in L.A. Maybe I’m just destined to be a guitar player – and it’d be amazing if I could make a living doing that, too.”
A three-month visit to the West Coast during which he jammed every night provided enough evidence that work as a session player could be promising, even though it meant he probably wouldn’t be playing much blues or be able to do his own thing.
Throwing caution to the wind, he and Niki got married, jumped in the van and headed west without any real prospects. And for the first ten months, Josh worked a job as a tester for video game maker THQ, whose product line includes everything from WWF WrestleMania and Star Wars titles to Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and more, by day while trying to make inroads as a musician at night.
“Life could have been a lot worse than having to play video games all day to make a living,” he chuckles. “And 20 years later, it worked out kinda the way I thought.
“I ended up doing a good number of sessions and some touring, and a lot more pop work. But the business is very up-and-down with periods of success and then others where I didn’t make a thing. I wouldn’t be where I am now if Niki hadn’t been the anchor and breadwinner she was during those early years.”
Josh eventually spent two years on the road with R&B singer/Virgin recording artist Ricky Fanté, a former Marine who hit the jackpot with the tune, “It Ain’t Easy,” which led to appearances on all the late-night talk shows, followed by several years with Hicks and Saadiq along with other work with hip-hop artists Benny Cassette and Tara Ellis, actress Taryn Manning and others.
“For years,” he says, “my life was going from gig to gig, being on the road and in sessions…sometimes playing music I liked, sometimes music I didn’t. But it was teaching me a lot about being a better professional guitar player along with learning about recording, engineering and producing just by observing.”
Somewhere along the way, however, Smith began to realize that even though he was subjugating his services to help put the shine on others, he was starting to make a name for himself, too, noting: “I started getting recognition for my abilities as a guitarist, which was different than anything I’d ever anticipated as a kid when all my heroes with artists who played guitar, not simply musicians.”
Crossing paths frequently with other top session players including Michael Landau (Boz Scaggs), Steve Lukather (Toto/Ringo Starr All-Star Band) and Larry Carlton, they regularly started asking him: “Why don’t you make a new record?”
For a while, Smith was torn. He was already working steadily, but he was aware of a growing fanbase that had sprouted up during his travels. Finally, in 2009, he recorded a multi-directional instrumental CD, Inception, that he hoped would “serve as a calling card to say: ‘Look, I can do all of these things…’ and get me back out there a little bit.”
Almost simultaneously, he notes, “this label in Germany, Crosscut, showed some interest in releasing a blues album, Deep Roots, that I’d done early on in L.A. They retitled it and released as I’m Gonna Be Ready.
“The next thing I knew, I had a booking agent over there, started doing gigs – and I realized how much I missed doing my own thing and playing the blues…along with all of the new things I’d been learning for the past 15 years. I found that I had a voice, something to say – and folks seemed to care!
“It was amazing to me that I’d fly around the world, play a gig and people would actually show up” – just like in his teen years with the Rhino Cats.
Crosscut subsequently released two more CDs. Josh recorded Don’t Give Up on Me with his Saadiq bandmates and served as an R&B-infused love song for Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King and ‘70s blues, while Over Your Head was delivered in a power-trio, improvisational format that was targeted for a European audience that loves blues with a decidedly hard-rock edge. They were followed by Burn to Grow on VizzTone and the self-produced Live at the Spud, a set recorded at The Baked Potato, a Studio City, Calif., nightspot.
While it’s true that some of his recordings stretch the boundaries, Smith insists: “I don’t do anything for any reason other than it feels right. If you come to see me play a ‘me’ gig now, it’s all blues, but you’re gonna get lots of jazz, rock and R&B because it’s all the same to me. It doesn’t matter if I play a song with an incredibly complex, jazzy chord structure or some hard-rock thing.
“To me, I still feel like that kid playing the blues. I’m still thinking of Albert King or Otis Rush no matter what I’m playing.”
His latest effort – and his pride and joy – is Bird of Passage, an album that debuted last spring and caught even his most fervent fans by surprise by delivering a truly old-school set of traditional blues and swing with horn and organ accompaniment. It was influenced because of his love for Blue Note Records and big-band albums produced by Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, all of which feature guitar- or organ/guitar-led trios and big horn sections.
Along with other projects, it’s one that Josh has been mulling over for years with Calvin Turner, a former Saadiq bandmate who’s both a world-class bassist/arranger and one of his closest friends.
“He kept picking at me for years: ‘When are we gonna do that record? We gotta do it, man! Nobody’s doin’ that,” Smith says. “It’d be good not to have to put on your jazz costume for a day, but just go out there as yourself and play your Tele with a big band!’
“Once I decided to do it, he and I had the songs written in a week, and Calvin arranged the horns. He’d moved back to New Orleans, where he’s from, by then, so I flew him out and we recorded the quartet section – me, Calvin, (drummer) Lemar Carter and the great Larry Goldings on organ – completely live in one day of sessions — and then we flew to Nashville and did the horns a week later.
“I’m so incredibly proud of that record.”
As much happiness as Smith enjoyed from that release, his true passion right now is the recording studio, Flat V, he built in San Fernando Valley and already has produced a smorgasbord of top blues and roots recordings, including Eric Gales’ Grammy-nominated Crown, Seth Rosenbloom’s Keep on Turning, Reese Wynans and Friends’ Sweet Release and others for Jimmy Hall, Guy King, Andy Timmons, L.A.-based Brazilian Artur Menezes and several others.
And it’s the place where Josh teams with Bonamassa to capture sounds for Joe’s Keeping the Blues Alive imprint – a partnership that began with the Wynans release, which was such a pleasure to produce that the duo quickly started making a list of who they wanted to record next.
“Larry McCray’s name was the first name out of both of our mouths,” Smith remembers. “Larry was really important to me, and I’d tried to do a record with him a year earlier on my own without being able to make it happen.
“I first met him when I opened for him at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City when I was 13 on my first tour. He was so-o-o kind and encouraging to little me. I’d already loved his albums, and I’ve been even a bigger fan ever since. Here’s a guy who can really play, sing un-believable.
“To me at that time, he was the very definition of contemporary blues. But I think the blues audience has a way of overlooking that. Even though he got his moment on a major label back then, life didn’t go the way he thought it would. And Joe felt the same. We’re in agreement that we want to help people who are important to us to get the little bit of a leg up that they deserve.
“We both know what a tough choice it is to be a blues musician right now and how difficult it is to invest it in a record – and do it right. Unfortunately, most of the records made in our world today are an afterthought because the artist has to have something to sell on the bandstand, made as cheaply as possible and after pulling in all the favors that you can.
“We’re not spending a ton of money, but we’re spending enough to have the time to make as good a record as we can.”
The end product, Blues Without You, has reestablished McCray on the front burner of the blues world – as has 4801 South Indiana Avenue for Joanna Connor. The duo have also worked together on three Joanne Shaw Taylor CDs and have several more projects in the pipeline, including one from Louisiana great Marc Broussard and another entitled Blood Brothers from Albert Castiglia and Mike Zito that will drop soon on Mike’s Gulf Coast imprint.
“Producing is something that I never thought I’d be doing to the extent that I am now,” Smith admits, “but I’m so happy to be doing it because it allows me to keep growing so-o-o much!
“I’m finding new ways to be creative. It’s amazing to be able to help someone to reach a level that they don’t even know they have. They set a goal to make a statement, and my job is to get it past that…better than they ever thought they could. And that’s really fun to do!”
Bonamassa has become so comfortable with the partnership that he’s enlisted Smith to produce his next CD, the first in 20 years not supervised by Kevin Shirley, who remains a close friend. “We’ve been doing so many together that he wanted to do one our way for a change,” Josh notes. “I tried to push him into something different.”
And in his spare time, Smith recently debuted a prototype for second version of the FLATV model guitar he markets in partnership with Ibanez. Like the Eminence Signature Series speaker and pedals he’s designed, it’s something that comes from his “nerdy” side when it comes to perfecting his tone and equipment.
And if Josh isn’t busy enough already, he’s now serving as Joe’s musical director – something that he’d never planned to do. In fact, he says, his mind was set never to go on the road again unless he was playing his own material.
“But Joe asked me matter-of-factly: ‘Hey, will you come do a tour with me?’” Josh says. “He was promoting the Time Clocks album — which has a lot more guitar on it — and said: ‘I need somebody to play guitar while I’m singing’” – an unusual request because Bonamassa has rarely had a second guitarist on his shows in the past.
“I said: ‘Sure, I’ll play rhythm for you.’ Why not? He’s one of my best friends.”
Once on the road, however, Bonamassa found that he wasn’t touring with an extremely talented collection of older musicians. The energy had changed because for the first time in his life, he was playing with someone his own age – something that was enhanced by Josh’s go-getter attitude and his suggestions that tightened up the show.
“When you’re an artist and you don’t have a musical director (the case for Bonamassa throughout his career), it’s all on you,” Smith notes. “Joe’d never had someone…an outsider…coming onto his gig and getting him to think about changes. So he asked me to stay – and then he decided to switch up his band, too.”
Ceasing on the moment, Josh suggested bringing both Lemar – his longtime drummer — and Calvin on board. Joe was familiar with Carter because of their studio work together. But he’d never heard Turner play bass despite being aware of his skills as an arranger.
One rehearsal, however, was all it took with Bonamassa exclaiming: “Man, this is a special group, you and those guys – and I want to make it a thing!”
Well aware of Joe’s loyalty to the musicians he hires and how well he treats them, Josh says it was an easy decision for him to stay on board. And the end result is that it’s made their studio work considerably easier, too, because they can do almost everything they do in a studio setting now on their bus between gigs.
“Basically, I’m touring with all of my best friends right now,” Josh notes. “And, yeah, I’m not playing my own music. But it is what it is. We’re making our own little Wrecking Crew/label thing happen, and it’s pretty exciting!”
Come what may, however, Smith insists: “Even if you don’t know me because of the break I’ve taken from the blues, check out my music and the records I’ve produced because I love the world you’re in.
“I miss being out there on the blues scene – in America especially – because I’m a lifer! And take a listen to Bird of Passage. I promise you’ll like it!”
Check out that CD – and all of Josh’s other projects, too – by visiting his website: www.joshsmithguitar.com
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.