George "Harmonica" Smith
When Fabulous Thunderbird harpslinger Kim Wilson calls George Smith "the most underrated musician I know", he isn't indulging in hyperbole. Nearly every important harmonica player on the scene today - Rod Piazza, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul deLay, Mark Hummel, and the late William Clarke, to name a few - have cited George Smith as a major innovator and influence. Yet, until recently, the Mount Rushmore of Blues Harmonica has had a blank patch of uncarved stone where George Smith's face should be. Smith was woefully underrecorded in his lifetime, and even what recorded output exists has remained mostly out of print until now. Happily, Blind Pig has decided to rectify the situation with the release of Now You Can Talk About Me, a compilation of extremely hard-to-find recordings Smith made in the '60s, plus selections (including one previously unreleased tune) from his final recording session for Murray Brothers in 1982. Now contemporary blues fans can savor the brilliant instrumental power and technique of Smiths harp playing and come to appreciate his heartfelt vocal style - clearly he's among the best of the singing harmonica players. These welcome tracks showcase Smith at the height of his powers.
George Smith was born April 22, 1924, in Helena, Arkansas, but he was raised upriver in Cairo, Illinois for most of his youth. His mother, Jessie, a musician herself, schooled the young Smith on harmonica when he was only four.
As a teenager, Smith began hoboing around Southern towns, eventually teaming up with Early Woods' country band, featuring Woods on fiddle and Curtis Gould on spoons. Together, they played fish fries and picnics throughout the Delta region. In 1941, Smith moved with his mother to Rock Island, Illinois, working mostly outside music, but managing to play a few gigs with a band that included future Muddy Waters drummer, Francis Clay. Then it was back to Mississippi, where Smith joined The Jackson Jubilee Singers, a gospel group.
After that, Smith worked in and out of music, scraping together a living as best he (or anyone in his social position in the Jim Crow South) could. While employed as a projectionist at a theatre in Itta Bena, he discovered he could take the amplifier and speaker from his Bell & Howell film projector and use it to amplify his harmonica. This was in the late 1940's, making Smith among the first to explore the possibilities of amplified sound for this instrument.
There remains some conjecture as to when Smith moved to Chicago. Smith himself said it was 1949; others have amended the date to 1951. Regardless, the golden era of Chicago blues was in full swing when the lanky young man showed up. Already a seasoned player, Smith landed gigs with Otis Rush and the Myers brothers. Like anyone playing harp at that time (and since), he fell under the sway of Little Walter, and, according to Smiths mother, the two men became fast friends. When Henry Strong, Walter's hand-picked replacement in Muddy Waters' band, was killed, Muddy called upon Smith to fill the spot. Smith toured the South with Waters, but his stint in First Chair of Blues Harmonica was, for reasons not entirely known, short-lived. Possibly his style didn't mesh as well with Muddy's sound; possibly he grew restless in a sideman role. Whatever the case, by 1954 Smith found himself accepting a permanent house gig at The Orchid Room in Kansas City. By this time, he had a fully developed style of his own, influenced not just by Little Walter but by chromatic virtuoso Larry Adler. Smith's facility on the chromatic was unmatched in the blues world. His style must have been reinforced by the jazz-flavored accompaniment his Kansas City musicians provided him; certainly their more urbane, swinging approach lent itself to his way of playing better than Muddy's electrified Delta sound ever did.
In 1955, Joe Bihari of Modern Records was on a scouting trip when he caught Smiths act in The Orchid Room. He signed him up immediately and recorded several sessions, producing some classic tracks like "Telephone Blues" and "Blues In The Dark," the song that unleashed Smith's chromatic technique on the world. Smith often approached his solos by using his tongue-blocked octave technique to imitate horn section riffs (as opposed to copying the single notes of a soloist). This gave his playing incredible power. He also knew how to coax a variety of tonal shadings and subtle pitch variations out of a single note by combining bends and microphone manipulation. And he built suspense by phrasing his attack just behind the beat. As a result, his tunes swung relentlessly.
When both records began to sell well, Orchid Room owner Marty Graham arranged for Smith to travel on a Universal Attractions tour with Champion Jack Dupree and Little Willie John. They barnstormed the country, stopping off in Cincinnatti in November, 1955, to do a recording session. There, Smith recorded "Sharp Harp" and "Overhead Blues", as well as other songs as a sideman for Champion Jack Dupree. After that, it was on to Los Angeles, the city that was to be Smith's home for the rest of his life.
When the Univeral Attractions tour broke up in L.A., Smith found himself in a city with a comfortable climate, a large African-American population, and the home base for his record label. It's not surprising that he chose to settle there. Much of his style had already developed, and since the West Coast swing bands differed little from the swing bands of Kansas City, Smith found his whole horn section riffing approach worked well. He recorded another session for Bihari, this time with a horn section, producing "Cross-Eyed Suzie Lee" and "Down In New Orleans".
By this time, however, the rock 'n roll craze had begun to eat away at the sale of blues records, and Smith's tracks fared less well than before. Bihari dropped him from the label. Smith found himself hustling and scraping once more, only now he had a growing family to support. He made a string of recordings for any small label that would work with him: J & M, Lapel, Melker, Caddy, Carolyn and Sotoplay. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Smith adopted a variety of monikers for these recordings, including The Harmonica King, Little Walter Junior and George Allen. He did the same thing for his live shows. Rod Piazza recalled, "When we played Watts, no one ever knew George as George Smith. He was Little Walter or Big Walter." This sort of subterfuge may have drawn more people to his live shows (Piazza himself thought he was going to see Big Walter Horton the first time he met Smith), but it made it impossible to establish a reputation under his own name.
In 1966, Smith was reunited with Muddy Waters for a second time, following James Cotton's departure. Smith moved back to Chicago, but this phase of his career, like his first with Muddy, lasted only a year or so - but long enough for Smith to record with Muddy's band for Victoria Spivey's label. Smith also played behind Otis Spann on a live set Bob Thiele recorded for Bluesway in 1966. Soon after, Smith returned to his family in Los Angeles, but he and Muddy remained on good terms, and when Little Walter died in 1968, Smith called on Muddy's band to support him on A Tribute To Little Walter on World Pacific Records. Smith covered number of Walter's tunes brilliantly, imposing his own style on many of them, but again, by making the album focus on another man's tunes, Smith deflected attention from himself.
Around this time, Smith encountered a young Rod Piazza, and the two went on to form The Southside Blues Band. By then, the first so-called blues revival was in full swing, with a growing white audience, and Smith's multiracial band stood poised to capitalize on it. The group toured nationally with Big Mama Thornton. Producer Bob Thiele assembled them for the fine 1969 album, ...Of The Blues, again on World Pacific. Smith's "Juicy Harmonica" from this session is an instrumental classic, and the chromatic workouts "Hawaiian Eye" and "Blues For Reverend King" are noteworthy, as well. At the turn of the decade, British producer Mike Vernon came along and signed the group to a European tour. He also changed the band's name to Bacon Fat. In 1970, Smith recorded No Time For Jive for Vernon, and a year later he returned to England and recorded Arkansas Trap. But despite his success in Europe, Smith still found it hard to get gigs at home.
The '70s also brought a decline in Smith's health. His heart condition began to deteriorate, but he did his best to remain active on the local scene. He recorded as a sideman for Eddie Taylor's Feel So Bad album on Advent and backed Big Mama Thornton on her 1976 Vanguard album. He befriended the late William Clarke and coached him on the chromatic harp. The two played together, and Clarke recalled how he and Smith would split their thirty-five dollar take at the end of the night. "He showed me: never play your audience cheap," Clarke said. He always put on a show and gave it his best - despite sometimes disappointing crowds and always disappointing pay. Smith's final recording project came in 1982.
He reunited with Piazza's band to cut Boogie'n With George for the Murray Bothers label. Although Smith would succumb to a heart attack months later, his playing and singing on Boogie'n With George is superb - and it's interesting to hear him stretch out on some different material like "Peg O' My Heart" (the old Harmonicats hit). From the jumping title track and "Sunbird" - which feature Smith's horn section approach - to the impassioned slow blues "Bad Start" and previously unreleased (and aptly named) "Last Chance," the Murray Brothers session smoked from start to finish. The session was to be Smith's last chance, unfortunately, as he suffered a heart attack and died on October 2, 1983. Now most of these tracks, sought after by collectors for years, along with some of Smith's output for Sotoplay in the '60s, are finally seeing the light of day on compact disc with the release of Blind Pig's Now You Can Talk About Me.
The appearance of this material in CD format for the first time is a significant event in the history of blues harmonica, one that will hopefully rectify, at least to some extent, the disregard much of the world showed for George Smith when he was alive. Now blues fans the world over can hear the work of this harmonica master and powerful singer. Now You Can Talk About Me offers an extended look at the work of a man who profoundly influenced the shape of blues harmonica playing today and whose influence will undoubtedly extend well into the future. Look to the Mount Rushmore of Blues Harpdom, and let the carving begin.
- Tom Townsley, contributing writer, Blues Revue