Here's an interview with Gregg Smith from early 1993. This was printed in Jam Magazine. When it was printed, the brilliant editor had retitled it "The Texas Blues Whaler". I still have not seen Gregg with a harpoon. Since this article was done Gregg has toured extensively with Lucky Peterson, including several trips to Europe. He has recently released his third album, I'm Gonna Rock Ya, on Ultrax records, distributed by Ichiban.
The Texas Blues Wailer, Gregg Smith
Gregg Smith Interview 3/4/93
By Don O.
Gregg Smith is definitely a blues singer. At the end of his show he is always drenched in sweat. Not from doing somersaults or running around the stage. Just from singing. When Gregg Smith sings, you know it's coming from deep inside. You don't just hear it, you feel it. That's the unmistakable sign of a REAL blues man, when he can make you feel what he feels. His latest album on the Ultrax label, "It's My Time", couldn't have a more apt title. It should be his time. He has definitely paid his dues. Yet Gregg is another great Texas bluesman who is probably better known in Europe than in his own home state of Texas. In an interview on March 4, gregg talked about his musical background, recordings, and a major concert tour in Italy.
Tell us where you grew up and how you first became interested in music.
I was born Feb 7, 1951 in Honey Grove, Texas (about 70 miles northeast of Dallas). My family was from that area, my grandfather, uncles, everybody was up there. Most of them are still there. My mother was a single parent and she took care of us by running a little cafe and selling bootleg liquor on the side. They had a juke box and me and my brothers used to play that juke box and dance and do the be-bop to the juke box.
I was amazed by the effect music would have on people. To see the reaction of grown ups to my dancing and singing was great for me as a child. They rewarded us by tossing change at us and that made it even more interesting.
How old were you then?
I was just 3 or 4 years old. My brothers were 5 and 6. None of us were in school yet. I went on to school in Honey Grove for the first and second grade. Then my step-daddy came into our life and we migrated to Albequerque, New Mexico. I put together my first band there when I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was called the Soul Flames. We played teen centers, Job Corps centers, and the Elks club. We got kicked out of the Elks Club! We had convinced the father of one of the band members, who was an Elk, to let us come and do a performance for them. It was going to be our first paying engagement. We thought we were a lot more polished than what we were. To us we sounded great. The only person who knew how to tune up in the band was the guitar player! I guess he was just kind of carrying the rest of us and hoping we would eventually develop an ear. I was singing a lot of James Brown stuff, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, that kind of thing. It was like a ten or twelve piece band. Horns and everything! We used to walk around and drag instruments up and down the neighborhood with our little cases. We'd walk from house to house and play till the parents would run us off! We used to fight as much as rehearse. I'll never forget that first gig at the Elks club. We struck down on the first chord for "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and we were so badly out of tune that people just got up and started to leave instantly! The manager was rushing back there trying to stop us before all the customers were gone. By the time he got back there we had pretty much cleaned the house! I'll never forget it. He came back there carrying a pair of pliers and walked up and slammed them down on top of the amplifier. We were all plugged into this one amp. It was the only one we had! He said "Get your stuff, get outta here, and don't you come around here no more!" He gave us $10 and we split it. It was about $1 a piece. That kinda made us get our act together. We went back into rehersals and practiced for 5 or 6 months. Then we entered a battle of the bands contest with an older gentleman, a grownup, who already had his own band Doc Ren and the Purple Blues. We ended up winning the contest and were named best band in the city. We were doing soul stuff like "Tighten Up", "Funky Broadway", stuff like that. Winning that contest gave us the confidence to go ahead on.
Later on you moved up to the Northwest?
We moved to Portland, Oregon when I was about 17. I got into the community choir, the high school band, and joined a working band, The Antoine Brothers. We would play at a place called Cleo's Lounge. All the other guys were much older than me. They turned me on to the showmanship part of performing. Nolan Struck was the lead singer with the band and by the time I graduated from high school he had moved back to Chicago. He invited me to come out there and work with him and I took him up on it after I finished school. My mother really wanted me to go to college. I told her I'd just finished 12 years worth of school and I didn't even want to think about another year of school right then! So I went on to Chicago and worked with Nolan. I'll never forget the first night I performed with him. We got off the gig about 3:30 or 4 in the morning. I was ready to turn in and he said no, we were going to another club, have some breakfast, and then do another show! This was late Sunday night into Monday morning. So that's when I first got introduced into the Monday morning blues sessions in Chicago. We got to the place about 6 or 7 am Monday morning and the place was packed! I couldn't believe it! McKinley Mitchell was there, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Dollar, and several others. I was amazed. Everybody was getting up and performing. Dancing was going on, food was going on. It was like a Saturday night! I had never seen anything like that. We played all over Chicago. I'll never forget one night outside of Peppers Lounge. Me, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Nolan Struck all standing around on the corner passing a bottle of Old Crow. Man, I thought I was poopin' in high cotton! That really inspired me. I got a great reaction from the crowds in Chicago and I started feeling I could get on stage with guys like that and hold my own.
What took you away from Chicago and back to the West Coast?
Uncle Sam sent me a draft letter. Back then if you were in school, kept a full schedule, and kept your grades up, you didn't have to go. Around this same time, late August, my friends were telling me "You didn't bring no clothes for a Chicago Winter!" So my mother got her wish and I went back to Oregon to go college. I got some grant money and majored in music theory. I never finished that degree but I'm just a few hours short. About this time I formed my own group, Gregg Smith and Shades of Brown. I had a lot of very strong players. The Wilson Pickett Band had come through there and broke up. Some of the band members teamed up with me. Willie Gresham was our awsome saxaphonist. We would have a couple of days a week when we would have access to the rehearsal hall at the college Arts Center. Before we would even attempt to do a song, each player would have to break down their part on their instrument and then write out the music. This is how we would study. We broke songs down before we even began to play it. We'd analyze it then we'd put it together and rehearse it. We were so tight from that disciplined approach. It taught us so much musically. We were opening for groups like Albert Collins in Oakland, Portland, all around the West coast. I thought I was really on my way then. By the time I got to be about 32, I was opening for folks like James Brown. I did three dates with James. I also began to do a lot of writing about that time.
When did you first move to the Dallas area?
In 1983. By that time I began to feel I had outgrown being a local act in Oregon so I picked up stakes and moved to Dallas. I had a lot of kinfolk in this region, being from Honey Grove. I also wanted to be more in the southern blues belt. I didn't have a car. I had sold my vehicle in Oregon, came down here, and started from scratch. Brought my publicity, bios, newspaper articles with me from back there. I immediately found out how good the musicians were at North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) and within a week or two I was up there recruiting band members. I put together a group of 5 musicians and I used to catch the Trailways bus to Denton twice a week to rehearse. We got real tight, then I brought them over to South Dallas. I did my first blues gig here at the South Dallas Blues Festival in 1984 with Little Milton, Charlie Robinson, R.L. Griffin, Vernon Garrett, and myself. We got a lot of attention and got a good article written in the Dallas Morning News from that show. That later led to a gig at Boone's Club where I met my wife. She was the bartender there. She had heard me down at the Dreamland Inn on Lamar and had told the club owner about me. He came down the next night and invited me to play at his place for a couple of months. That got me a little better known around town. A booking agent later introduced me to the Addison area, the club Memphis out there, and we began to work up there quite a bit. Then I started working up and down Greenville Avenue. I think I pretty much worked every club that had live entertainment down there.
When did you do your first recording?
"The Texas Blues Wailer" album was recorded live at the Rose Garden in 1985. Producer Phil York was a big help to me at this time. He had access to the equipment and put it all together. Helped me get the publicity packages out and everything. We're still real good friends. I'll always be indebted to him for his help. We pitched it to a label in Germany but they were looking for something slightly different. So that recording really went nowhere. I used it mostly as a demo for clubs around the area and it was a big plus having a professionally recorded demo cassette like that. I think some day we may still put that out.
That later led to your first released album, "Money Talks"?
Butch Bonner and I produced "Money Talks" in 1990 and it was distributed in the U.S through Ichiban. It was a finished product and all they had to do was put it out. I went to Atlanta with Tommy Quon and his newest discovery, rap artist Vanilla Ice, to meet with John Abbey of Ichiban. They had previously expressed an interest in my product, but Tommy wanted to do a three album package deal. So he said "We'll let you have Gregg if you try Don Diego and Vanilla Ice". They signed the deal the same day and we got a February 26th, 1990 release date for all three projects. A month later, Ice had sold 50 to 60,000 copies so they knew they had a hit rap record. Once that record went crazy, Tommy took that one from Ichiban and bumped it up to SBK. In the middle of all the negotiations and scrappin for the Vanilla Ice dollars with Ichiban, "Money Talks" was abandoned in the middle of the sea with no paddle. That album still hasn't been promoted like it should have been. I think time will tell. It has the quality. It was done from the heart and I think that comes across. I'm still getting airplay in a lot of different parts of the country and it has been out since 1990. I licensed it to Prestige records in Europe which is distributed by Sony. "Money Talks" has been repackaged and renamed "Party Warrior" over in Europe. We added two songs that haven't been released over here yet, and the 12 song CD package is doing quite well in the European market. One of the songs "Lovers Hangover" was the number one pick of the critics in Blues and Soul Magazine in Europe (#619, August 25th, 1992). We've been talking about doing some touring over there this year but nothing is set yet.
So how did the tour in Italy come about?
The Italy trip came about through my hook up with Ichiban. We took Trudy Lynn, Buster Benton, and Jerry McCain over with my band Lazzar for a six week tour. We all met up in New York and flew over to Palermo, Sicily and had a couple of days to rehearse together. We'd never met before, but Ichiban had sent us some tapes to work from earlier. I am so fortunate to have such a great band. They are fantastic players and are so disciplined. They can play behind anybody. We played our first show there in Palermo in front of a beautiful cathedral. The streets were packed with people. They kept getting closer and closer to the stage. Pushin and pushin! We usually try to electrify a crowd pretty good, but the promoters encouraged us not to encite the crowd too much. That was hard to do! They were afraid we'd make them riot or something. They love the blues over there. We toured a number of different resort towns all around the Mediterranean. Rode me around in a Mercedes! They had wine with every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The tables were always lined with all this great food and we had our own personal waiters. After we finished each show they'd give us each a bottle of wine to get on the bus with. We were practically winos by the time we came home! It was so beautiful over there. We played in one old city that had been dug up. They had a beautiful amphitheater stage. That's something, playing in an ancient amphitheater! They definitely didn't want us exciting the crowd too much in there. It was a great experience.
In 1992 I went into the studio for 4 1/2 months to work on the "It's My Time" album for Tommy Quon's Dallas based Ultrax label. The CD is just out. We have great plans for the "It's My Time" album but are just waiting for the proper time, financially, to push ahead with it. Tommy is a great gentleman. He believes in my talent and has invested in me quite extensively on this album. We'll be licensing it to Prestige as well. Right now I'm doing some booking work for the Venue Showroom, occasional appearances at the Longhorn Ballroom, and a few shows with Johnnie Taylor. Not too much touring. The main thing I'm working on right now is some bookings in Europe. I'm hoping to be headed back over there pretty soon.