After playing drums in a junior high Top 40 band with future bluesman Tommy Castro, now-internationally touring bluesman J.C. Smith didn’t play a single note for nearly 12 years.
“I was just doing drugs, drinking and getting into fights and all kinds of trouble,” says the Oakland native. “I stayed loaded for years.”
But shortly after his mother died in his arms – after failed CPR attempts – in the early ’80s, Smith says he had a vision: He saw drums playing by themselves in his mother’s bedroom. The vision inspired him to buy a drum kit, set it up in his late mother’s bedroom and start wailing. It also inspired Smith to make music his priority and the driving force that got him sober.
“Everything started falling into place,” he says. “I don’t care what anybody else do, I just know what I can’t do: get loaded and play music.”
Smith spent the ’90s back behind the drums, first with the Tough City Band, then with popular Bay Area outfit Back to Blues Band. But he never felt quite right with drumsticks in his hands; he’d always thought of himself as a guitarist. He owed that to his father, an Arkansas country-blues guitarist. Since the J.C. Smith Band formed in 2001, with Smith on lead guitar, he’s performed with Pinetop Perkins, opened a B.B. King show and regularly tours everywhere from Latvia to Central Mexico. Last November, Smith sang with the Russian National’s 24-piece big band in Pavlova, Russia for an audience of thousands. He delivered American standards like “Cheek to Cheek” and a lot of Sinatra.
In May, Smith tours Russia for the ninth time. The frontman says the group’s slick mix of danceable R&B and sleek blues gets audiences – Russian and beyond – going, but it’s the band’s showmanship that keeps them interested.
Usually sporting a shiny three-piece suit with an animal skin loafer, Smith was named “best-dressed bluesman” at the 2003 West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Awards in Oakland.
“You never caught Muddy [Waters] wearing Levis on stage,” Smith says. “It’s just as much a visual experience.”
When the dapper musician hits Sly’s Saturday with his seven-piece band, he’ll celebrate the J.C. Smith Band’s fourth full-length record Love Mechanic.
It includes a mix of covers, including Little Walter’s “Last Night” and Elmore James’ “Yonder Wall,” and originals that Smith describes as a blend of West Coast swing, traditional Chicago blues and a small dose of something “countryish.”
THE J.C. SMITH BAND ALBUM RELEASE PARTY 9pm Saturday, April 17. Sly McFly’s, 700 Cannery Row, Monterey. 649-8050.