Mouth-harp player Gary Smith
lays down the truth in his music
|By John Orr
''Everybody says you've got to be original, but there's nothing original in the blues, man,'' says San Jose blues harmonica player Gary Smith. ''You're basically part of the blues tradition. You do your interpretation of the blues.You're carrying on the oral tradition of the blues that's handed down from hand to hand.''
Smith, 50, knows whereof he speaks, because he's been a part of the blues for more than 30 years.
He started as a drummer -- after having been raised on a diet of Ray Charles records -- but in 1967 he heard an album that changed his life: ''The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.''
''I just flipped. Electric harmonica just grabbed me. I tried to find a harmonica player for a couple of years, couldn't find any, so started picking it up myself. Around 1968 I saw my first real blues show -- Muddy Waters at the Monterey Jazz Festival, with George Smith on harmonica. That day I said "Well, that does it. I'm not going to fool around with drums anymore. I'm just going to get that tone.''
After some practice, Smith put a notice in Rolling Stone -- in the musicians free classifieds, a feature that has since gone the way of actual music on MTV: "Harmonica player wants to get the hell out of Sunnyvale.''
Patrick Ford answered the ad, on behalf of himself and his younger brothers, Robben and Mark. They, too, had been knocked out by that Butterfield album, which had apparently been delivered by mistake to the local record shop in Ukiah, the logging town that was their home.
The brothers waited till Robben graduated from high school, then moved down to live with Smith and form the Charles Ford Blues Band (named after the brothers' father). That band became an inspiration for almost all the South Bay blues players who followed, from Billy Johnson to Sammy Varela to Chris Cain.
This weekend at the San Francisco Blues Festival at Fort Mason, both Smith and the Fords, on different days, will be passing down some blues traditions.
Smith, who was the opening act, with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, at the first San Francisco Blues Festival in 1973, will open this year's festival as well, at 11 a.m. on Saturday, in ''Top of the Harps,'' along with R.J. Mischo and Byrd Hale.
''I've always wanted to do a tribute,'' Patrick Ford said last weekend by phone from Ukiah. ''I feel like Butterfield and (Mike) Bloomfield (of the Butterfield Band) are the guys who gave us our whole careers.
''Mark never played harmonica till he heard the Butterfield album, his whole career is based on it. Robben and I were doing pop rhythm and blues stuff. As soon as we heard that album we went on a crusade, twisted our lives around it.''
The brothers just this month released ''A Tribute to Paul Butterfield'' by Robben Ford and the Ford Blues Band, a project that led producer Tom Mazzolini to ask the brothers to perform a tribute to Butterfield at the blues festival this year.
Butterfield fans can expect to hear modern versions of ''Screamin'','' ''Work Song,'' ''One More Heartache'' and other great tunes from several Butterfield albums. Over the years a number of great musicians worked with Butterfield, including Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop and even Paul Schaffer, who now leads the CBS Orchestra on the David Letterman show.
The Fords and Smith didn't listen to just that album, but looked at the song-writing credits, which led them to McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters, James Clark and Little Walter Jacobs, which led them deeper into the blues.
The Fords over the years have each evolved in different directions. Robben became fascinated with John Coltrane and toured as a jazz musician for years, including with Miles Davis. He has just signed with Concord Jazz to kick off a blues wing for that label, with an album due in March. Mark, tired of the road, still plays blues harp, but pays the bills as an EMT in Ukiah. Patrick runs his own small label, Blue Rock'It Records, and tours with the Ford Blues Band, which sometimes features Mark and sometimes harp player Andy Just.
Smith, meanwhile, has kept a very sophisticated but deep in the blues sound, but doesn't play live much anymore -- usually just at harmonica blow-outs and for fund-raisers.
''Something's got to pay the bills,'' he said last weekend, over the phone. ''Blues around here isn't going to.'' So, for 20 years, he has worked as a supervisor at Olders Landscaping on Brokaw Road in San Jose.
His new album, ''Blues for Mr. B,'' is dedicated to Kenny Baker, a great blues saxophonist who was part of that '70s South Bay scene and who traveled for many years with John Lee Hooker, Michael Osborn, Sista Monica and many other blues and jazz bands. Baker died in 1999.
Saturday morning Smith's band will include guitarist Johnny Kat, doghouse bass player Kater Roy (who is terrific on the new album) and drummer Steve Jones.
Smith, Mischo and Hale will come out together' to start, said Smith, for ''A little harmonica sword-fight kind of thing, try to blow each other out. Then each guy will get a featured song to show off his blues musicianship, then we'll all come back for another battle.
''We'll try to give people something for their money.''