The following biographical piece about Shakin Smith was put together from several sources, most notably liner notes written by Mary Kunz for his new CD, "Wizard of the Harmonica." Other details have been gathered directly from Shakin Smith or culled from a recent article published in The Buffalo News, also written by Mary Kunz. Ms. Kunz is an arts reporter for The Buffalo News.
Shakin Smith: Today's Link to the Legacy of the Blues Harmonica
Shakin Smith is endorsed by Hohner USA. (Photo courtesy of Ed Sobala.)
Shakin Smith's association with the blues dates back to when he was 5 years old, when he asked for a harmonica for Christmas. As a youth, he was fascinated with the music of Sonny Boy Williamson, whose skill on the harmonica was legendary. Smith would be absorbed for hours at a time, listening to recordings by Williamson (accompanied by long-term sideman, guitarist Robert Lockwood Jr.). Smith would do his best to emulate the complicated swoops and swirls that Sonny Boy would gracefully summon forth form his harp.
As a teenager in the 1960's, Shakin Smith had some priceless opportunities to interact with a host of legendary figures in the world of blues music. These events transpired at the Governor's Inn, a bar on Buffalo, New York's East Side, which was a hotspot for blues. It was there that for the first time he met people such as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Louis Myers, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and others. This was a fascinating environment for a young blues fan, allowing him to interact with, play alongside, and learn from these tremendously talented musicians. Not surprisingly, Smith has plenty of interesting anecdotes to share. For example, Smith recalls how he once became the center of a tug-of-war between Howlin' Wolf and Junior Wells. "You're going to mess that boy up!" Wolf snapped at Wells, who had sat down to tutor Smith, as the two discussed and played their renditions of Sonny Boy Williamson. "I can show him how to play that stuff the right way!"
After spending a few years playing with the James Peterson blues band, Shakin Smith formed his own band in 1969. It was time to start creating his own legacy, having drawn from the inspiration and wisdom of his mentors. As is the case with any culture or tradition--in this case, the blues--the vast storehouses of knowledge need to be passed on through the generations, lest they become lost. Smith had been a firsthand recipient of such wisdom and advice--straight from the authoritative sources of the time. To this end, Shakin Smith has continued to play at various clubs and other venues throughout the years, amazing audiences and constantly refining his harmonica playing skills, becoming an impressive virtuoso in his own right. He has had opportunities to expand his horizons, showcase his talent, and carry on the tradition of the blues, while also putting his own unique spin on it. In fact, Shakin Smith has also turned to other sources for inspiration, drawing upon bebop jazz (from the likes of Lester Young and Charlie Parker), as well as European classical music. In 1985, Shakin Smith became the first blues musician to be inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
Some other notable blues performers with whom Smith has shared the stage include Jimmy Rogers, John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Albert Collins, James Cotton, J.B. Hutto, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
However, one important blues figure whom Smith did not have the opportunity to meet until later--1977, to be precise--was Robert Lockwood Jr. "I always wanted to meet Robert. But he didn't use to come through Buffalo," Smith recalls. In Smith's view, Lockwood was among the closest links to Sonny Boy Williamson, and also a legendary blues guitarist in his own right, having learned from one of the best--blues guitar pioneer and stepfather, Robert Johnson. Smith finally met Lockwood at the Bona Vista club in north Buffalo, where he opened a show for the guitarist. Over the years, the two developed a rapport, as Lockwood proved a good mentor for Smith. "I'm so influenced by jazz, and it's encouraging to see someone like Robert," Smith says. Lockwood has watched Smith's artistic evolution as the years have gone by. Though he doesn't bestow praise lightly, Lockwood breaks his usual silence when discussing Shakin Smith. "Shake's one of the best harmonica players out there today," he says. He pays Smith the highest compliment imaginable when he adds, "I wish Sonny Boy could have heard him. He never would have believed it!"
Robert Lockwood and Shakin Smith have been friends for over 20 years, and it was largely thanks to Lockwood's encouragement that this recording came about. "He pushed me and encouraged me to get my songs recorded," Smith says. "He's encouraged me to be my own man, writing my own songs. He told me, the way you play, you don't have to yield to anybody." The result is a recording that is intimate and endlessly inventive.
Lockwood was so committed to the project that he offered his services for this session. Now 85 years old, Lockwood invited Smith and guitarist Steve Grills over to his home in Cleveland, where they recorded a couple of tracks in his basement--"Sweet Little Girl" and the instrumental "Chess Piece." Lockwood's enjoyment with the project is evident. Listen to "Chess Piece" and you'll hear Lockwood laughing at the end, reminiscing about his days with Chess Records (with Smith chuckling in the background).
An intensely private person off stage, Shakin Smith is extroverted in his music. That fact is obvious in his new recording, released in 2000, titled "Wizard of the Harmonica." Smith admits that the album's 14 songs are autobiographical. He's proud of the album, which strikes a balance between the past and the present. "You should honor tradition," Smith says, "but not get lost in it." This album reflects the sheer scope of his creativity. Instrumentals like "A.M. Blues" and "Chess Piece" offer a sharp contrast to one another. "Chess Piece" is reminiscent of the classic Chicago blues of Little Walter, while "A.M. Blues" offers a breakthrough, thoroughly modern approach on the harmonica, with a hint of what Smith describes as "dark romantic classicism."
There is a rough edge to the music that was intentional; as Shake says, "I wanted it to reflect the raw energy of the music that influenced me." The energy certainly shines through.
This is no ordinary bluesman, and these are no ordinary blues.
--Mary Kunz, Arts Reporter, The Buffalo News