of Blues Harp
|This is the bio note on George Smith from my harmonica
transcription/instruction book Masters of
the Blues Harp, which has a
transcription of his Blues In The Dark from Harmonica Ace
( Flair Records/Virgin Amer. 86298 2)
George Smith was born in Helena, Arkansas, in 1924, and was raised in
Cairo, Illinois. He was taught the harmonica by his mother when he four.
As a teenager, he began traveling in the South, and eventually wound up
playing fish fries and picnics in the Mississippi Delta with Earley
Woods country band.
In 1941 he moved to Rock Island, Illinois with his mother for a few years, mostly working outside of music, and then went back to Mississippi, where he made his living playing music and working as a projectionist in a movie theater in Ita Bena. It was there that he began to experiment with playing the harmonica amplified through the sound system of the film projector.
In 1949 Smith moved to Chicago to pursue his music, and began working with Otis Rush and the Myers Bothers. He had become close with Little Walter, and after Henry Strong, Walters replacement in the Muddy Waters band, was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend, Smith got the harmonica chair in the worlds greatest blues band.
It didnt last, though. Perhaps there were stylistic differences, or maybe Smith was not content to be a sideman-no really knows. But by 1954 Smith was steadily employed in the Orchid Room in Kansas City, where the swingy music was more to his taste than Muddys electrified Delta blues.
The following year he was noticed there by Joe Bihari of Modern Records and signed to the label. Smith then recorded some sides which are now classics, including "Blues in the Dark" and "Telephone Blues." He used octaves extensively to get the sound of a horn section, and was a master of amplified tone shadings. Along with this he also had a preference for playing just behind the beat, which gave his music the swinging sound which later earned him the title of the Father of West Coast Swing.
In 1955 he toured with pianist Champion Jack Dupree and Little Willie John, and after some recording for Bihari, eventually settled in Los Angeles. He was to stay there for the rest of his life. Established in the city, he recorded again for the Modern label, this time with a horn section.
By then rock and roll was starting to erode sales of blues records, and Smith, now a man with a growing family, was dropped by Modern. He hustled as best he could, recording for any label that would take him and playing the local clubs. Smith also adopted Rice Millers old trick of identity theft by billing himself under a variety stage names to get bigger crowds at gigs, including Little Walter and Big Walter. It proved a shortsighted choice; establishing a reputation under his real name would now be difficult.
When James Cotton left Muddy Waters band in 1966, Smith got his old gig back and moved to Chicago to play with Waters. As before, it didnt last, and Smith went back to Los Angeles. But he stayed friends with Muddy, and when Little Walter died two years later, Muddys band backed Smith on his highly regarded Tribute to Little Walter album.
At about this time blues, Smith met the young Rod Piazza, and they launched the Southside Blues Band, which toured with Big Mama Thorton and also recorded the album "..Of the Blues."
In 1970 British producer Mike Vernon met the band, signed them to a European tour, and changed their name to Bacon Fat. They recorded a couple of albums for Vernon, but Smith still could not import his overseas success to Los Angeles and the group continued to struggle at home. The decade also saw a decline in his health as a heart condition worsened. On the brighter side, he began to teach future harp great William Clarke the chromatic harmonica, and two began gigging together.
Boogien With George, Smiths final recordings, were made with Piazza in 1982, and he died in October of 1983. Partly by luck, and partly by his own doing, he was underappreciated for many years, but recent reissues of his work will hopefully gain him his rightful place in the blues harp Pantheon
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