Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Smiley' fans support show, CD

Almudena Aguirre and Mike Riegel joined
the Lark Brothers for a rendition of "Sweet
Home Chicago" during a charity show at the
Terrace Bay Inn on Nov. 7.


Fans of Jim "Smiley" Lewis gathered on Nov. 7 for a tribute show which included the release of a new compact disc of the late bluesman's recordings.

Held at the Terrace Bay Inn, "Paws for the Blues" benefited the Delta Area Animal Society, Smiley's favorite charity.

Performers included headlining act the Lark Brothers, keyboardist Steve "Doc" Yankee and other musicians who played with Lewis during his four-decades long career.

Lewis, who died in 2005 at the age of 57, was a superbly-gifted singer, songwriter and guitarist who devoted himself to blues and rockabilly music.

The tribute show, following similar events in 2006 and 2007, was organized by blues enthusiast Wendy Pepin, a friend of Smiley's.

The Hip-Tonics (Mike Riegel, Jesse Pepin and Greg Ducheny) opened the proceedings with "Pipeline," a 1963 surf classic by the Chantays. Fittingly, Riegel learned the song from Smiley.

This year's program also included performances by Augie Peters and Almudena Aguirre, Old Dawgs (Fred Cavill, Dan McDonald, John Roman and Brad Gleason), ToHuboHu (John Beck, Bruce Cassell and Dave Potvin), Grassfire (Allen Stenberg, Tom Caron, Bruce Irving and Marv Anderson), Fast Eddie's Blues Blues Band (Fast Eddie Consolmagno, Kurt Touimila, Rob "Crab" Samsey and Scott Stevenson) and Red, White and Blues Band (Russ "Fingers" Fennick, Jay Olivares, Rick "Sugar White" Bailey, Jake Jacobs, and Jay "JJ" Davis).

The Lark Brothers, featuring Dave and Bill Lark, Dean Peterson, Mike Larsen and Yankee, delivered a set of blues in the afternoon and reconvened to end the evening's entertainment with several friends, including drummer Dave Cass and bassist Bob LaLonde.

Dave and Bill Lark shared a love of the blues with Smiley. At one point, they formed the Blues Bombers with drummer Craig Seckinger.


The tribute show concluded with Yankee and the Lark Brothers performing a powerful version of "Bad Dream Blues," a track from Smiley's just-issued CD, "Rebel Without a Pause."

Yankee, an East Lansing resident, plays on the studio take of "Bad Dream Blues" and several other selections on the new CD.

The disc contains seven tracks Smiley recorded at home with Jay Brodersen on stand-up bass, four songs with the Shuffle-Aires, and five numbers from a reel-to-reel tape dating from the 1990s.

Menominee musician Ron Patron plays drums on a couple of the tracks, as well.

Brodersen, who produced the recordings and penned the album's liner notes, said Smiley "was a true blues disciple who was into the blues long before it became trendy."

"He shared many stories with me of hitchhiking from Escanaba to Detroit, Minneapolis or Chicago to seek out blues bars and the musicians who played them. Many times he would be the only white person in the club, listening and learning both the music and its history," Brodersen noted.

Nearly an hour long, Smiley's CD opens with "I'm Ready" and "Keep Your Hands Off Her." By Muddy Waters and Leadbelly, respectively, the two songs were staples on Smiley's set list.

Three sterling originals follow: "Love Bug Blues," "Bad Dream Blues" and "Disappearin' Blues."

Next, Smiley covers his blues hero, Howlin' Wolf, with "Who's Been Talkin'." The traditional "Tell Old Bill" features Smiley on mandolin.

Smiley recorded a number of tunes with "Big" Al Ek and Mary Corbett as the Shuffle-Aires. He interprets "Statesboro Blues," Corbett takes the vocals on "Hollywood Bed" and "I Hear You Knockin'," while Ek sings Jim Liban's "Without Her."

With the exception of Brodersen on bass, Smiley plays all the instruments on "Route 66," originally recorded in 1946 by Bobby Troup.

Smiley also runs through B. B. King's "She's Dynamite," Bo Diddley's "You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover" and "Dirty, Low Down and Bad," by Keb' Mo', a contemporary bluesman he admired.

The disc concludes with Smiley's original, "Blacktop Blues," a long-time fan favorite.

Simply put, "Rebel Without a Pause" is a treasure. It follows the excellent 16-track "No Explanation Necessary" album which Smiley released in 1991.

Smiley's friends and fans snapped up the disc and reminisced during the get-together at the Terrace.

Steve "Doc" Yankee

Veteran musician Steve Yankee, a native of Iron Mountain, told me his friendship with Smiley began about 1974 when Lewis was gigging around Grand Rapids as a solo act.

"I was impressed with how professional he was," Yankee remembered.

For a while the two played in the Jim Galligan Band.

Not long after, Yankee, Smiley and his girlfriend moved into an apartment on Union Street in the Heritage Hill district of Grand Rapids.

Together with a second guitar player, bassist and drummer, Smiley and Yankee assembled a five-piece blues outfit, the Union Street Boogie Band.

Union Street played all over Michigan, Yankee recalled. The band even did five nights at Steve Mitchell's Stephenson Street Distillery in Escanaba, also known as The Still, in 1976.

The Union Street Boogie Band

"We did a few originals. Jim had written a fast little instrumental number we used for a break song. We did a couple of mine and a couple that one of the other band guys wrote. But mostly it was stuff Jim picked out for us," Yankee said of the group's repertoire.

According to Yankee, Union Street lasted several years, then reformed as a four-piece called Bacon Fat. "A year later we started working as the Boogie Boys, doing a duet with guitar and keys. We did that for maybe half a year, before I got married and retired from the band biz," Yankee related.

"He had exquisite taste when it came to the blues," said Yankee about Smiley, his buddy and bandmate.

With a fresh CD, a tradition of tributes featuring his musician friends, and plenty of shared memories, Smiley's legacy seems secure for years to come.

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