JC Smith may be something of a slow burner, but he’s up and running and blowing hot now.
The 58-year-old West Coast bluesman will be here soon to play gigs at Mike’s Place outlets in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jerusalem and present a master class and lead a jam session with local blues musicians from November 20 to 24.
Smith will be making his first trip to this part of the world and says he is looking forward to seeing for himself a lot of things he has been hearing about over the years.
However, that does not necessarily mean he is going to do too much church hopping.
“I wouldn’t say religious beliefs inform my music,” he declares.
“They say the blues is the devil’s music,” he adds with a laugh.
That’s not to say there weren’t any religious vibes to pick up on when Smith was young, and he was aware of the musical significance of certain religious practices.
“My cousin was a preacher, and a lot of my older relatives prayed in church and were into the gospel thing. The blues phrasing comes from gospel music. That’s the flip side of blues album, the gospel stuff.”
Smith was actually taken to task for staying away from religious observance.
“A cousin of mine once told me I should come to church and sing gospel with him, but I told him God made all music,” he recounts. “That’s where I’m at.”
There was some other familial guidance from closer quarters that helped move young Smith along in the required musical direction.
“My dad was born in 1898; I was born when he was 57, and he played country blues guitar in the South. He was happy when I said I wanted to be a guitar player, and he’d stick me in front of the TV to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and all these different TV shows that had music,” he says.
Smith Sr. also gave his young son the benefit of some of his own experience.
“He showed me a couple of blues licks after he bought me a guitar, but that was it. I went to a neighbor for guitar lessons and said I didn’t need any lessons. I was really picking it all up on my own,” says Smith. “You could say I was a natural. It was the same with the drums.”
Today, Smith earns his crust as a guitarist and singer and fronting his own band. But it wasn’t too long ago that he spent his working hours neatly tucked away near the back of the stage, playing drums.
“I started playing drums at junior high school, but then I quit music for a while – some substance abuse and that kind of stuff got in the way at the time and took away my space,” he explains.
It was a personal tragedy that brought Smith back into the music fold.
“When my mom passed away in 1980, I started playing drums again,” he says, although it was in a different area of the music business. “When I got back into drumming it wasn’t the blues, it was punk rock. Disco music was taking over and was trying to kill every form of live music, and me being rebellious I got into a punk band. We were pretty crude guys. We’d play in San Francisco and all over the Bay Area.”
That was in the early 1980s, but Smith’s estrangement from the blues didn’t last long.
“I got back into the blues in 1982 by just listening to an independent radio station – you know, the kind of station that plays everything – and I heard loads of great stuff on there. When I first started playing the blues, I only knew guys like BB King and Bobby Bland – you know, mainstream guys – and then I heard Muddy Waters, and that was it,” he reveals.
Having found his way back home to the blues, Smith realized he needed to get a serious handle on the genre.
“I knew I was lacking an education in the music, so I started playing and listening to the blues and learning how to play shuffles,” he says.
Smith’s return to his first musical love was welcome but required a sharp shift in mindset, but it also meant forsaking a good way of letting off steam.
“The blues is way different from punk rock,” Smith observes. “Punk was fun because I was always pissed off, and there was always the chance to play loud, hard music. My mother had passed away, I was drunk half the time, the music scene sucked, and my life was terrible.”
That sounds like the kind of woes any selfrespecting blues musician would be eager to put into lyrical and melodic form.
“Yes, I guess that was a form of blues approach, and then I started blues and I got happy. Now that’s a weird concept, right?” That’s when Smith’s life started moving in the right direction.
“Yeah, I got off the booze and the drugs and got myself cleaned up,” he says. “I started playing drums in a blues band, and we were pretty successful. Things started getting better for me. The band I put together was called the Back to Back Blues Band, and we got some records out and we did pretty well for about 10 years.”
Then it was time for Smith to hit the front of the stage. His fortune changed around 1990, and he got around to making good on an old promise.
“I got a high-paying job, and I could afford to buy all sorts of equipment and I began reinventing myself. Once, in a drunken stupor, I told my dad I’d become a guitarist, so I went for it,” he says.
True to character, Smith wanted to learn from as close to the source as he could get.
“I went to jam with all these old blues guys, and I met this guy called Country Pete and others, and they were so accepting. I could play a slow blues and a shuffle, and that was about my repertoire at the time, and I was just trying to figure out how blues guys like T Bone Walker did what they did. But those guys I jammed with sorted me out,” he says.
And the rest is history. The JC Smith Band has put out three albums to date, and Smith has taken his hard-earned craft to Mexico, South America and Russia, to name but a few stops on his globe trotting forays. And now he’ll be at Mike’s Place all over Israel.
“I’m going to have a lot of fun in Israel,” says Smith. “I can’t wait.”