When speaking with guitarist GE Smith, you get the distinct impression that he’s an everyday guy who just followed his passion. No big deal, right. Listening to tell him talk about his career, he shows no sign of braggadocio, although he’s played alongside Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and David Bowie, was the Musical Director for Saturday Night Live for ten years, played on top 10 records by Hall & Oates, was nominated for a Grammy with Buddy Guy and attended Woodstock. If he hasn’t played with someone, he’s met them or calls them friend. Yet, as we’re just starting our conversation, the plumber shows up and he runs off for a few minutes to attend to that, and often while he’s telling one of his stories about being here or there with some big name musician, the dogs are yapping by his feet as someone walks down a pathway near his house. Such normal things that we can all relate to. Except, Smith took his talent to the next level and it made him a music star. “I never considered it work,” Smith told me recently, reiterating his normalcy. “For me, it was just that’s what I did, you know.”
Smith discovered the guitar when he was toddling around the house behind his mother one day. It fascinated him, the way the strings vibrated and created this sound. As he grew older, so did his desire to learn more of what the instrument could do, which guitars could summon up golden notes, what types of music held gut-punching vibes. It has always been about the music. He never aspired to be a solo god; he wanted to enhance what others had to say vocally. He found he had a knack for directing other musicians and was an MD not only for shows such as SNL, but awards shows and big extravaganzas like the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992. He’s played on big tours and big singles. And with the release of Stony Hill, he has a new record he’d love to get out there and play live … except coronavirus is still lurking and live shows haven’t made their comeback as yet.
With LeRoy Bell, Smith has found his perfect musical partner. Songs came together like magic with Bell’s lyrics and vocals. “America” has a bluesy slink that weaves in and out of R&B rhythms and stark words of reality. Smith’s guitar over that silken voice of Bell’s is a river of holy matrimony. You can drink it up like pure honey. “You & Me” jitterbugs into your hips while the cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine” is gritty and aching. “Black Is The Color” has a guitar beat that pulls you in from note one while the melody of “Take Cover” is so hummable you almost forget to listen to what the song is actually saying. In other words, Smith’s dream of creating memorable music has certainly found fruition with Bell and Stony Hill.
But let’s get back to the guy sitting in his yard with his dogs and a plumber in his garage, who is talking about Dylan and Waters and connecting with that perfect guitar, who answered the phone by telling me how much he enjoyed reading my interview with Jack Casady and immediately started sharing a story about working with him in Moonalice. And suddenly you hear how his voice returns to the Smith who sprawled out on the floor as a kid mesmerized by records and the licks of Elmore James. He has never lost that love for the music at it’s core, at it’s roots, and it shows up everywhere in Smith’s playing. And that’s how our interview began.
“Leslie, I really enjoyed the Jack Casady piece you did. You know, I’ve played with Jack a lot and we’re good friends. Me and Jack and Jorma [Kaukonen] played in Moonalice together and I have a funny story. One time we were in San Francisco, and I think that was right at the beginning of the Moonalice thing – for Jorma, Jack and myself anyway – and it was when Francis Coppola had put out that remastered, re-edited version of Apocalypse Now and we went to the movies in San Francisco and saw it. I’m sitting in the movie theatre in San Francisco between Jorma and Jack and I’m going, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m sitting here with THESE GUYS in THIS TOWN!
“But yeah, he’s a smart guy and he’s funny too. You know, he’s kind of dry and witty and I love Jack, I love talking to him. And they had great songs, they really did. When I was a teenaged guitar player, playing in the bars and stuff, I would listen to those Airplane records, and of course I would learn Jorma’s parts cause we were playing the songs. But I would study Jack’s parts cause he was such a unique bass player. I would study his parts and translate what he was playing onto the six-string guitar. And he had such a great tone; he still does. Jack’s the greatest.”
So how has this virus been affecting you?
Well, as you well know, the music business is in a coma. Who knows when it’s going to get back up. Now, the governor here in New York just said the other day that museums can open back up with a 25% capacity. That might be okay for museums but a joint where we want to play can’t run at 25%, even 50% capacity. They’ve got to get at least 80% to just keep their head above the water. Sadly, most of these places, the smaller venues, they don’t have the money to withstand this, of months and months of being closed. Those people operate on a two week margin, the men and women that run those places. They’ve got two weeks worth of money so most of them are already done, even if they haven’t said it out loud. It’s sad, really sad for live music. They keep talking about a vaccine and everything and I hope they come up with a vaccine so everybody’s safe. Even with that, it’s going to take a while.
[At this point, the plumber shows up]
You see, you’ve unmasked yourself as a normal person. You have the same problems we do.
I always tell people, cause obviously I’ve worked for some of the most famous people in the business, and people ask me about them as if they’re from outer space or something. People ask me about David Bowie and I say, “Well, yeah, he was David Bowie but he’s just a guy;” and I always say to people, Think about it, at one time, every one of them, whoever you want to talk about – Mick Jagger, anybody – was just a kid that liked music and had records under their arm and was walking around. Chrissie Hynde was in Ohio loving music, learning to play the guitar, just like anybody else. They just had a special talent of some kind, a songwriting talent or performing talent, musician skills, whatever, and they rose up. Jorma always says, “We start in the bars, we end in the bars; the only difference is where we go in the middle.”
LeRoy Bell, my partner on this thing, you know he wrote most of the songs, and he and myself, we’re not thrilled by kind of the direction some of the sentiment in this country has taken in the last few years. The great thing to me about LeRoy’s songs is that he says stuff but he doesn’t smack you in the face with it, you know. Somebody asked if these were protest songs. No, they’re not protest songs, they’re just songs. A song like “America,” he’s really laying it out. Le Roy is black and I’m white but we both kind of see the same things.
Taylor Barton, my wife, had been listening to like a Spotify list or something and I heard this voice and I said, “Who is that?” And she said it was this guy, LeRoy Bell from Seattle. Cause I’ve been looking for a singer for like thirty years. Singers and drummers are the hardest things to find because if they’re really good, they never even make it out of their little hometown, they get snatched up. I never managed to get a singer. But LeRoy, he’s just what I’ve been looking for. We invited him to the house, and this is January 2019, and we brought him in from Seattle and as soon as we sat down – he had just written “America” – he started playing it and I said, “Yeah, that’s it!” Within two days we were in the studio starting to make a record.
What did he have, what was his special ingredient?
His voice. He had a great voice. There’s warmth in it, there’s humor in it. He hits the notes but also he’s got this, I don’t know, special way. A really good singer has something unique in their voices and you want to hear them sing more. Plus, he writes good songs. His uncle is Thom Bell. Thom wrote and produced a ton of big, famous songs with Gamble & Huff in Philadelphia back in like the sixties and seventies – Delfonics, that kind of R&B stuff. So LeRoy grew up with Thom and Thom kind of taught him and they’ve done a lot of work for other people. They wrote songs for Elton John and J-Lo and all kinds of people.
How many of these songs did you have before LeRoy came in?
When I met LeRoy, I had been doing “Codine” and “Black Is The Color.” “Codine” was written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. I first heard that when I was about ten. There used to be a show called Hootenanny that was on back in the folk days, late fifties, early sixties, pre-Beatles, and I was playing acoustic guitar playing folk music, trying to learn songs. And I heard her sing that song and I went, “Wow, that’s great!” Even though at the time I was ten or something and I didn’t understand what the song was about. But I just loved the sound of her voice and the melody in the song. So I’ve always been doing that.
Then “Black Is The Color” is a Traditional song, came out of Kentucky probably around the Civil War or right in there. I might be wrong and I’m probably wrong but I always took that song to be a white guy who was in love with a black girl. And of course they can’t make it public at all cause they’ll both maybe get lynched. I’ve always performed that song. Most people who do that song – Nina Simone did a great version of that song – almost everybody that does that song does it real slow. It’s a very beautiful melody if you play it slow but I wanted to play it in bars, you know, so I rocked it up and I’ve always done it like that and people like it. With LeRoy singing it, besides the wonderful sound of his voice, it just brings a better dimension to it.
You’ve rocked up “Codine” on the guitar
Yeah, yeah, because, again, I wanted to play it in joints so I had to make it accessible to people. So the little guitar line it starts with is like a banjo line really. I play it on an electric guitar and then double it with the acoustic. I like those kinds of songs. And then I wrote the song, “Art’s Sick,” that’s on there. Years ago when I was living in New York City, probably around 1979 or 1980, there was an artist, he’s passed away, but his name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, a very well-known artist; well, he wasn’t well-known at that time, he was just another guy, always around, and I knew him a little bit. We weren’t best buddies or anything but I knew him from around. We lived in the same neighborhood, downtown in Manhattan. So I was talking to him one time and then I got that phrase in my head, “Art’s sick, it won’t get better,” and I knew that was a song and I carried it around and carried it around; never could write anything that satisfied me. Then me and LeRoy were making this record and by early Fall we were done recording and I was doing the post-production, the mix and everything, and in the studio one night, we were almost all done, and that song, “Art’s Sick,” I swear it flew in the window and hit me in the head, the whole thing. I hadn’t even been thinking about it! I’ve just been carrying that phrase around for years but I hadn’t been particularly thinking about it and then within an hour and a half, it was done.
So LeRoy really has been an inspiration to you
Oh yeah, definitely. And we get along well. We’re almost the same age, we grew up listening to the same records. Because I was always a bar band guy, I was learning all those R&B songs that his uncle was writing. I was learning those songs and playing them in the bars. But at the same time, LeRoy and me were both listening to Cream and The Who and Rush and stuff like that. So we both had those things: we got the R&B and we got the rock thing. And blues, I’m a huge blues fan. I spent so many years of my life just listening and playing blues. So I like to sneak that in there. Like on “Black Is The Color,” I play some Albert King licks, note-for-note; I put some Albert in there (laughs). I love that music!
Who else do you like that’s blues?
Well, Muddy, of course, Howlin’ Wolf; I’m a big, big Elmore James fan and at one point I got to be good friends and played quite a bit with Hubert Sumlin, who was Wolf’s guitar player. Hubert knew Elmore and not many people saw Elmore. All those guys that lived in Chicago – Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller – I asked them, did you get to see Elmore James? They all saw Muddy, they all saw Wolf but nobody saw him. I’ve never met a white guy that saw Elmore James so Elmore is sort of like a mystery to me and I love his music. Then I also really love the old-time guys – Charley Patton and of course Robert Johnson was kind of the ultimate country-blues man. But I love Patton and I love Blind Lemon Jefferson, that stuff.
Son House, come on! Powerful stuff, “Death Letter Blues.” “Seemed like there were 10,000 people standing around the burial ground, I didn’t know I loved her till the gravedigger let her down.” Wooo!
I was talking to Jack Casady about the Reverend Gary Davis.
I’ll tell you a story about the Reverend. My grandmother in our little town of Pennsylvania where I grew up owned a gift shop and she would buy her stock for the shop in New York City and she would take the bus into New York City. So when I was about ten, she started bringing me with her. She could see I was weird and that I needed to see more stuff than what we had in our little town and she started bringing me with her. So one time we were in New York City and there was a guitar store that I wanted to look at so she took me to the store and there was this old man standing out in front of the store in the rain in like February. It’s cold and it’s raining and he’s playing the guitar and I stood there and watched him. Later, I figured out it was the Reverend Gary Davis.
Getting back to your record, which one of these songs would you say changed the most from it’s original conception to it’s final recorded version?
That’s a good question. The way that LeRoy writes is he’ll write lyrics, of course, and a melody and then he’ll have a kind of feel that he’s thinking about. Like there’s a song called “How Does It Feel” on the record, a fast one, and he said, “I want to do a song that goes like slapa-slapa-slapa,” and I went, “Okay.” And then I started playing the guitar lick and we went, “Yeah, that’s it! Boom!” That one changed a bit. It definitely got more excitable. As we played it a little and started recording it, I put a bridge on it, that rising section. The song, “Under The Skies,” which I think is a beautiful song, that’s got like a climate change commentary that LeRoy is making there. That got a lot bigger. It’s huge now, the sound of it is really big, and I thought that that was kind of appropriate since it’s about the Earth – Earth big, we small – that it was good to make it big sounding like that.
Why did you go very somber to end the album?
With “When I Close My Eyes”? That’s just such a beautiful song. It’s a Memphis sound. He’s passed away but Teenie Hodges was the great guitar player from Memphis. Teenie played on all the Al Green records, all that stuff, Hi Records, and I’ve studied Teenie’s playing a lot and there’s a style, like Curtis Mayfield played that style. And when LeRoy played me that song, I thought to myself, I get to play Teenie Hodges licks on it! (laughs)
I don’t know, we just thought that it closed things out nice. You know, it doesn’t have to be a rocking, blasting song to close a record. These days, are there even records? Although the record company says they’re going to make some vinyl, I’ll be happy to see if they actually come through and do that cause I guess I’m from the pre-digital age. I still think in terms of an album and how songs are going to flow one into the next. But you know these days, it’s one song at a time for most people. Remember how great it was to sit there with that album with the cover and the record’s playing and you’re looking at the pictures and you’re reading the stuff on the cover? I miss that.
Did you veer off from your comfort zone doing anything on this album?
The answer is no. When I was doing the Saturday Night Live, which I did from 1985 to 1995, I had a sign painted to hang on the wall there on the bandstand that said, “All kinds of music played here;” cause I’ve always thought it was important to be able to play everything. When I give lessons to people, I always tell them to learn songs that you like but also learn a song you don’t like. It’ll force you to learn new things.
Which guitars did you use the most recording Stony Hill?
It’s actually kind of interesting. I was looking on eBay one time and I saw this 1962 Epiphone Sheraton and just from the photo I could tell it was a magical guitar. I’m really into guitars, obviously, and I know about stuff and those Epiphone Sheratons are pretty rare. There aren’t many of them around. I’ve owned a few but for whatever reason they got sold and I was always looking for another one. And I could tell by the picture that this was a great one so I got it. And that guitar is magic, it really is; probably the best electric guitar I have ever owned. So that guitar is all over the record, it was the main guitar.
I’ve always been a Fender Telecaster player. My mom got me a Telecaster for my eleventh birthday. We went out and searched around our little town and could only find two decent used electric guitars that were remotely in the range that she could afford and they were a Gibson, and that was $200, and there was this Fender Telecaster for $100. There was no doubt which one I was going to get, you know. I still have the little book where she paid it off $15 a month and I still have the guitar. So that guitar is all over the record. There are a couple of Telecasters that are on the record a lot. Fender made a GE Smith model Telecaster for a few years, 2007-2008-2009 in there, and there’s one of those that’s on it a lot too. All that Teenie Hodges sounding stuff, the R&B sounding stuff, is that GE Telecaster and some of the rockier stuff is the 1952 Telecaster that my mom got me. But that Epiphone Sheraton is on almost every song, I would think.
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
(laughs) The hardest thing for me to get the hang of was just to be able to see. I got a guitar when I was four and I went down in the basement with my mom, she was going to do laundry, and I said, “What’s that thing hanging on the wall?” And she said, “Well, that’s a guitar, that belongs to your Uncle George,” who I’m named after. I said, “Can I have it?” and she said sure. This is just some cheap old acoustic guitar from the 1930’s, you know, Collegiate brand, and I was four. So I took it out back in the summertime and I was just dragging it around and banging on it and stuff. But I loved to watch the low E string vibrate. At some point it struck my mind that that vibration was what made the sound. And the whole world came into place.
So I messed around with that. I wouldn’t say I was really playing but by the time I was about seven, I had put strings on it and figured out how to tune it and got a book probably. Back in those days, we didn’t even have TV till I was seven! There was no one else that played the guitar in my little town; I knew that there were people but I didn’t know them. They were way older than me, you know, thirty years older than me. So when I was seven through a lucky break somebody gave me a Martin acoustic guitar, a decent guitar, and the woman who gave me the guitar brought along her babysitter, who was taking care of her kids that summer, probably thirteen/fourteen/fifteen year old Irish girl who could really play. She taught me how to fingerpick. So I was really lucky that when I was seven she showed me what is called Travis picking, where you are playing like the bass with your thumb and then using your first couple of fingers to pick out the melody. I was really lucky to learn that as a kid, that that’s how you play.
Was she teaching you more Traditional songs?
Oh very much. She only knew Irish. She taught me this song called “Mairi’s Wedding,” which is funny cause eventually Van Morrison did a recording of it with the Chieftains. She taught me that song. It’s like a C, F and G type of song, simple. But she taught me that and how to play the bass notes while I was picking out the melody and that really kind of put me on the right road. I don’t even know her name but she was really responsible for getting me started.
When you really started playing, were you focused on being like someone in particular?
A guitar player? No, at that point this is still pre-Beatles, about a year before The Beatles, so I was playing polka music, music that was popular in Pennsylvania, Nat King Cole songs. My grandmother, who I mentioned before, I grew up with her and she had Nat King Cole records, Louis Armstrong records and I would lay on the floor when I was a little kid and she’d be playing those records and I’d be studying the jacket. I’d be looking at Nat King Cole’s face and going, “What a cool guy this is!” (laughs). So I was just playing that kind of stuff.
Once The Beatles came along, they were cool and exciting, I got that, but it didn’t really turn me on like when the Rolling Stones came and the Kinks, with the harder guitar sounds. I was like, yeah, that’s it! The first time I heard “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks and I heard that guitar sound, yeah, that’s it. Luckily, I already had the right guitar. My mom had already bought me that Telecaster. She got me a guitar so I could make money cause these older people in town needed a guitar player and there just weren’t any. They knew about me for whatever reasons, seen me play at church or some birthday party or something, and they knew that I could play so she got me that guitar so I could go out and start making some money.
But they had great songs. Ray Davies writes great songs. It always comes down to the song, no matter what else you’re talking about. You can have Eric Clapton up there and if it’s a bad song, he might play his ass off but for what, you know. But if it’s a good song, then he’ll really be inspired. A good song will always point the way.
When you’re composing, what is most common with you?
I think the rule is having an idea. Like I told you about with that “Art’s Sick” song. I’ll have an idea for a type of song. I write songs but I wouldn’t say that’s my main thing. My main thing has always been, what I have always wanted, was to be a sideman to people who write great songs and they sing great. People like LeRoy, people like Daryl Hall, Bowie, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters. These people write great songs and they can sing them in a really unique, powerful way. And that’s just inspirational for me. As a guitar player, I want to support that song. If I play a guitar solo in the song, I start with the notes that the singer is singing and you can’t go wrong.
When did you learn to play slide?
Back in the seventies. I think it was in 1971, both Ry Cooder and Little Feat, their first records came out. They were both on Warner Brothers and those records came out within a couple of months of each other; I forget who was first. And I was really inspired by those records. Of course, great slide playing, Lowell George in Little Feat and Cooder, one of the great, great musicians ever. I listened to those records a lot and I got deeper into playing slide because of those records.
Was it easy for you by then?
I don’t even remember, to tell you the truth. I’d been playing for a long time so I knew where the notes were on the guitar and because, you know, I just loved playing so much, I probably just spent days and days and days practicing. And by then I was listening to Elmore and I was listening to Wolf and Muddy and hearing the great guitar playing on those records. There’s a Howlin’ Wolf song I always tell people about called “Louise.” I think it was recorded in 1961 and on that song Hubert Sumlin, who I spoke about earlier, he would play a solo in that song that says everything anybody is going to say for about the next ten years. Like, everything that happened – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, all those guys – it’s all there in that one solo. I’m surprised it’s not like a big famous song with people. I mention that song to even guitar players and they don’t know about it. The solo is just one of the greatest, most powerful guitar solos I’ve ever heard. Listen to that song, Hubert is just wailin’!
When you started working with Roger Waters, what did he expect from you in terms of what you were to play?
Well, we did The Wall. I worked with him for six years and we performed that whole piece. I wouldn’t even say that was a band, that was a theatrical piece, so we had to play the parts. At first it was kind of difficult for me, being like a bar band guy, a guy that was used to improvising and doing whatever I wanted with songs. Then a buddy of mine, who is not really a musician, pointed out to me, he said, “Just think of it as Classical music; think of it as Bach or Beethoven, and just play the notes.” And I went, Oh yeah, he’s right, so after that it was easy. I just had to study the songs and learn the parts.
I had played bass for about 80% of that show cause Roger was out there and he was doing the character in the show so he couldn’t be playing bass at the same time. He had to walk around the stage and do stuff. So I played bass on a lot of that. I got to play guitar on some things but there were already two great guitar players – Dave Kilminster who played the Gilmour parts perfect and Snowy White, who had been with Roger for many years; great guitarists and really good people. I think we traveled all over the world and really had a good time. It was really fun.
How did that differ from working with Dylan?
It was absolutely the complete opposite. I’d get together with Bob in the afternoon and we would write a setlist. Let’s start with “Maggie’s Farm” and then we’ll do whatever. And that setlist was just a suggestion. We never knew what he was going to play and we never knew how he was going to go at it. Some nights he’d do a song fast, slower, different key, different time signature. You never knew and I loved that, that seat of the pants thing, standing there watching his hands and listening to his voice and following. He’d do songs that we had never, ever even talked about live in front of 15,000 people. We’d just have to kick in and do our best (laughs). It was really fun. I learned so much. A few times he sat me down, and it was cassette tapes in those days, and he’d play me something and he’d say, “You should know about this guy: Blind Alfred Reed from the late thirties. And you should know about this guy and that guy.” Great stuff. He taught me a lot of songs.
What was it like with Hall & Oates?
Hall & Oates, we were playing the songs but fortunately for me, they had had “Sarah Smile” and “Rich Girl” in the middle seventies, big hits. And then their career had kind of gone down a little bit, a bit of a slump, and I got hired in the summer of – I can’t ever remember if it was 1978 or 1979, but somewhere in there – and when we first went out, we were playing bars. I was getting paid $200 a week: $100 to play guitar and a $100 to drive one of the station wagons. We were riding around in a station wagon and playing joints. In fact, in Slidell [near New Orleans, LA], we played in a place, I think it was called Ole Man Rivers, and we were playing there and there was a bomb scare and we came offstage and ran out and got in the station wagons and left. And that was kind of the last bar because whatever song we had at the time was going up the charts and instead of driving everywhere, we were in planes and getting picked up by limousines and stuff. Then they got huge, you know, in the early eighties. So when they started getting big in the early eighties, I was there to make the recordings with them so it was my parts on the records so I got to play MY parts and then we would just kind of make them bigger because now we’re playing in front of, instead of 500 people in a bar, now we’re playing in front of 20,000 people in an arena and you’ve got to make stuff big. You’ve got to make it arena size.
When you were doing Saturday Night Live, where were your stress points and where were your fun parts of being a Musical Director?
Well, the fun part was definitely you’d get to play with the other musicians. Everybody in that band was a real musician, people that really knew what they were doing and read music, understood it. They would sit me down – Steve Turre, the trombone player, Leon Pendarvis, the organ player, Cheryl Hardwick, the piano player – they’d sit me down and say, “Okay, here, this chord goes with this chord but here’s why it goes with this chord.” And they would show me the real intricacies, the inside of music. And I learned a lot from those folks in that band. They really helped me.
The stress? People always say to me, “Don’t you get nervous if you go out in front of 60,000 people?” No, I got my guitar on; I’m not nervous. It’s when I don’t have my guitar on, that’s the time when I’m nervous. But not when I’ve got the guitar on. Then I’m okay.
What was the largest crowd you think you ever played in front of?
I did a gig with Bob. It was a festival where like France and Holland and Belgium, where those countries all touch each other, and they estimated there were like 500,000 people there. You can’t see to the end of that. It just went as far as you could see and then it kind of went over the horizon. And I did some huge ones with Roger Waters, some outdoor things with a couple hundred thousand people. We did one in Zocalo Square in Mexico City that they estimated like 300,000 people.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
The first real rock star I ever met was Gary Puckett. Do you remember Gary Puckett & The Union Gap? (singing) “Young girl, get out of my mind.” He played at a college in Pennsylvania and I went to see the show, and he was great actually, like a really good guitar player, and I got one of his guitar picks with his name on it. I was probably like seventeen or eighteen or something. So he was the first one that I met.
Who were you completely awed to meet?
Well, Bob obviously. I had been a huge Dylan fan since his first record came out when I was ten; I think that’s when his first record came out. I saw it in the little record shop in our town and here’s a picture of a guy that’s not a whole lot older than me and he’s got an acoustic guitar that kind of looked like mine and I’m like, wow, let me get this record to see what this is. I was definitely in awe of Bob.
What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?
Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, I really loved their music, but when I was maybe seven or eight, a cousin of mine, my cousin MaryAnn, she played me “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy and it had that big, deep, ringy guitar, and I went wow, that’s cool, cause at this point I’m playing acoustic guitar and I know it’s an electric guitar on the record but I was like wow, someday I’m going to do THAT! So I think that was the first one that really kind of shook my guitar player bones and got me shaking.
I understand you went to Woodstock. So what was your Woodstock experience?
I was there on Saturday and Sunday. I had to work on Friday. I was driving a truck for my uncle at that point delivering produce to restaurants and stuff. So we left at like 5:00 Saturday morning but luckily for us where we lived in Pennsylvania, we could kind of go the back way. We didn’t have to go on the New York City Thruway. We went through the woods and we got within a mile of the stage before we had to abandon the pickup truck that we were in. And we walked out and got up right near the stage, got us a nice spot there on the hilltop.
I remember the first band that really impressed me, and I’m pretty sure they came on Saturday afternoon at like 1:00, 3:00 – Santana, who wasn’t known yet on the East coast. They were big on the West coast but they weren’t really known on the East coast. I had only read about them and I hadn’t heard the music yet. And they were unbelievable. They were so good live. Then as that day went on, Creedence Clearwater and Mountain; it was Mountain’s first gig. The first place they ever played was Woodstock. I loved Mountain. I had the record so I was looking forward to hearing them and they were fantastic. The Who, Jefferson Airplane; Sly & The Family Stone – it was ridiculous how great they were live, they were just so powerful. I was a big Who fan and I’d already seen The Who a bunch of times and seeing them there was really exciting.
You were out there in the crowd. What were the people like that you were sitting by?
It was 1969 and it was hippies, a lot of hippies or people who wanted to be hippies. People smoking weed, smoking hash, taking acid, whatever they were doing. People always ask what I remember about the music. Well, I remember the way it smelled. It was like this combination of mud and you know those watermelon rinds and what it smells like when it’s been out in the sun for four or five hours? That smell. There was a lot of watermelon around so you smelled that mud and that watermelon. That was the way it smelled.
Did you have problems getting food?
I don’t remember eating. I don’t think we ate. We might have brought like cookies with us or something but I don’t recall. I didn’t get in any of those mile long lines to try to get rice and beans or anything.
Did you see the Keef Hartley Band?
I did see the Keef Hartley Band. They were one of the first ones on Saturday. First was a band from Boston called Quill that I never heard anything about and never heard again. Then Keef Hartley came on right after that. I can still remember one of the horn lines that the Keef Hartley Band played. It got in my head, and I didn’t know their records, but that one horn line got in my head. I can hear it right now.
Did you see Joplin?
I did, I did see Joplin. I had seen her a couple of times already at the Fillmore East. She used to do shows there and we would come in from Pennsylvania to see the shows. For $5, I still have one of my tickets from March of 1968, $5 – Albert King, Jethro Tull and the Jeff Beck Group for five bucks. And you could come up Friday night two hours before the show and get a single ticket. You couldn’t sit with your buddies, you had to get single tickets, but I was in the third row right in front of Jeff Beck. It was fantastic.
I bet you watched his fingers the whole time
Oh you know it! (laughs). Later, I got to play with Jeff and what an honor to get lucky enough to be around these folks and get to know them a little bit and play with them. I’m just a bar band guy, you know. Jeff Beck, come on! As a guitarist, wow. When I got to meet Ry Cooder and play with Cooder a little bit, amazing. I got to tell you a great Ry Cooder story. There’s this thing called the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt, I believe, started it, to raise money to help older R&B, blues singers and artists, ones who may need hospital money and stuff, you know. It’s out in Los Angeles but one year they had the fundraiser in New York City and they asked me to be the band leader. So I put a band together and along with the different people who were playing the show, in the band is Ry Cooder and Steve Cropper and me. So there are three guitar players. I already knew Cropper a little bit from playing with Bob cause Booker T & The MGs would do stuff with Bob sometimes. But I didn’t know Ry and he was one of my heroes so I was really happy to get to meet him; and a little nervous.
So Little Richard is going to close the show, he’s the finale act. He doesn’t really come to rehearsal like the other acts but he comes and does a little soundcheck before the show and one of the songs we’re going to do is “Lucille.” So Richard looks up and goes, “Guitar players!” So me and Ry and Steve walk over to the piano, “Yes Sir, Mr Little Richard, what is it?” He goes, “Play this,” and he starts playing that repeated lick with his left hand and Cooder goes, “You want all three of us to play?” And he goes, “Yes! All three of you play it and don’t play nothing else!” And then he like waves his hand, like, okay, get away, go back in your spot (laughs). It was great! All three of us just played that lick and had so much fun.
Where is your heritage, where does your family come from?
My mother was like English type, born in Ohio. She was an orphan. Then my dad was Lebanese and his mother, my grandmother that I grew up with, of course she was Lebanese. So I grew up in the house thinking of myself as Lebanese. That was the primary feel in the house. When I was a real little kid, there was even some old great uncles and my great-grandmother and stuff that only spoke Arabic so there was Arabic around. But they would always say to us little kids, “English! Speak English!” They didn’t want us to learn Arabic. In those days, you know, that was like the kind of immigrant tone: you learn English so you fit in. But I was born in Pennsylvania.
Were there musicians in your family?
There were no musicians and I didn’t find out anything like that until I was in my forties and my mother kind of reconnected with her family, her parents were long dead, but she reconnected with her people and they were from Galax, Virginia, and there were fiddlers and mandolin players and guitar players and stuff, like bluegrass and Appalachian stuff. I didn’t ever hear that music until I got older. But when I was a kid and I’d be sitting in the kitchen and playing while my mom was making dinner or something, I’d be playing something and she’d go, “How do you know that song?” And I was just playing, I don’t know. And she goes, “No, no, that’s a song.” And she’d start singing it and she remembered it from when she was real little. She lost her parents when she was three but she remembered some of those melodies and stuff.
And that just came to you
Yeah, but there’s only twelve notes (laughs). But I love that music. Like I love these bands like Steeleye Span. Oh man, Maddy Prior, the singer, and another English woman named June Tabor, amazing. I love the Traditional music. Have you seen the video for “America”? It’s black & white and has a lot of archival footage. My wife, Taylor Barton, she made that video and it’s really good. Check it out.
What happens for you next?
The big thing now for all of us is we just want to get out there playing live again. This band, Stony Hill, we were supposed to go to SXSW in March and introduce the record and play three live shows in Texas while we were there and do a tour and then the virus came along. So I’m just looking forward to getting back out there playing live again.
Portraits by Fabian Robriguez & John Peden