Thursday, August 25, 2005

'Smiley' lived like his blues hero

For Jim "Smiley" Lewis the blues were epitomized by Howlin' Wolf.

The Wolf was Smiley's hero. You could hear it in Smiley's growly voice and articulate guitar when he played in numerous blues, country and rock bands, beginning in the Sixties.

Sadly, Smiley's musical genius was silenced when he died at St. Francis Hospital in Escanaba Aug. 13 at age 57 after several years of ill health.

"My main influences are blues and rock-a-billy," Smiley said in the liner notes to his 1991 album, "No Explanation Necessary." That album contained eight originals and some covers including a version of friend Dave Lark's "Mother-in-Law Blues."

Smiley started his career as a teenage drummer, buying his sticks at Marrier Music. It was at this time that he was diagnosed with diabetes, which plagued him in his later years. He remembered being beaten-up by locals who thought his hair was too long.

Smiley soon switched to guitar and honed his musical chops "in countless cities and bars" and traveled to where musicians could make money, including Milwaukee and Las Vegas.

But as the years passed, he returned to Escanaba, where music opportunities were limited. He gigged with the Blues Bombers. About 15 years ago, he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident when his Harley and a "big old Buick" collided. This mirrored the experience of Howlin' Wolf who suffered kidney damage in a serious traffic mishap.

Things took a turn for the better in 2000 when Smiley's friends "Big" Al and Mary (Corbett) Ek moved to Escanaba to back Smiley in a band. The Shuffle-aires, however, actually featured all three players. They played their first gig at the Thunder Bar in Gladstone in March in what proved to be a reunion of old friends and fans who had followed Smiley's career for years.

Over the next 13 months, the Shuffle-aires entertained at weekly gigs around the central Upper Peninsula.

The shows were amazing. Smiley played stunning renditions of the Fleetwood Mac classic "Albatross" and Chuck Berry's 1964 hit "Nadine." He would put a few licks from Davie Allan into the Chantay's super-cool "Pipeline." He put all his vocal emotion into Bob Dylan's "Walls of Red Wing" and his own "Blacktop" with its "thunder rollin'" and "sparks across the sky" references.

The crowd loved it. But, in the end, the band couldn't support itself on area gigs alone, so when a music store in Las Vagas offered Ek a job, he and Mary departed for Nevada. The Shuffle-aires last local performance was staged at the Days Inn in March 2001.

In the following years, Smiley suffered some health set-backs. Once, as he was riding his motorcycle, his vision deteriorated as if he was "watching a curtain go down." This was especially difficult for Smiley because he played the guitar while watching his left hand do the fretwork.

Later, he faced surgery at Marquette General Hospital. His doctors at that time didn't know if he would survive the operation.

Still, Smiley recovered enough to offer friends and fans a "thank you show" show at 8th Street Coffeehouse about a year ago. He wowed the crowd while performing as a duo with stand-up bassist Jay Brodersen. It was Smiley's last time on stage.

As his health worsened, Smiley retreated to his home. A small group of close friends, including Wendy Pepin, watched over Smiley during this time. She accompanied him earlier this summer to a show at the Terrace featuring jazz clarinetist Chuck Hedges and his friend Jay Brodersen. Smiley looked well and he chatted with his many friends during the evening show held to benefit the Delta County Animal Shelter expansion.

Finally, Smiley succumbed. He had had several heart attacks and died just like his hero Howlin' Wolf.

Smiley didn't just play the blues, he lived them. His friends and fellow musicians remembered him with a two and one-half hour jam session at 8th Street Coffeehouse on Aug. 17. The music said it all.

Smiley's talents and accomplishments are undoubtedly under appreciated. But, if there's any justice, he's playin' "Spoonful" and "Red Rooster" with the Wolf right now.

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