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Feature: G.E. Smith and LeRoy Bell

| September 11, 2020
G.E. Smith and Leroy Bell

Timing, they say, is everything. There’s no possible way that legendary Long Island-based musicologist and guitar slinger G.E. Smith could have predicted meeting Washington state-reared, soul stylist LeRoy Bell roughly a year ago, or that they would hit it off so well that they would enter the studio to launch a new duo only two days after that first smooth summit. But now, the team-up seems not only prescient but written in the stars, as their new Stony Hill debut disc spins off its latest single this week, the starkly political “Take Cover,” with its metaphor-laden, eagle-vs.-snake video by filmmaker Ehud Lazin. The cut was penned by Smith’s wife of 30 years, Taylor Barton, who first heard Bell — a former X-Factor finalist from 2011 who has also written for artists like Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, and Teddy Pendergrass — online. She was so impressed with his singing voice she recruited him for her “G.E. Smith’s Portraits” series of concerts she was producing at Guild Hall. And her husband — whom she’d met when he was anchoring the house band at Saturday Night Live (which earned him an Emmy) — was more than open to any potential recording possibilities. “Taylor just cold-called him, and he came out to our house, and we hit it off real well,” recalls Smith, who — having backed stars such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, and Hall and Oates over his career — knew how to spot a great vocalist. “He had just written the (protest song) “America,” and we got along so well in the studio that it then transpired that everything we did has dovetailed into what’s going on in the world right now.”

Echoing the racial harmony once suggested by the Paul McCartney/Stevie Wonder duet “Ebony and Ivory,” this one-two combo of African-American Bell and Lebanese-American Smith is a perfect sonic example of the power music has to unite all cultures, creeds, and races in this touchy, post-pandemic Black Lives Matter era. “‘Ebony and Ivory”! I forgot about that!” laughs Bell. “But racial lines never meant anything to me, as far as music. I’ve played everything from country to hard rock, R&B, and blues — music is music, and I never want to be categorized and stuck in one slot.”

IE: G.E., Hal Willner, an old cohort of yours, just passed away.

G.E. SMITH: Isn’t that sad? And I know a lot of American music, from the Civil War on. And I thought I was the king of that, but Hal knew more than anybody — he had the greatest record collection that I’ve ever seen, and he could instantly call it to mind. And that’s just what he did with the music he played — if you needed music from a specific period, he could instantly come up with three examples from the right era. 

IE: Did you ever get consumed by one particular era? 

GES: Oh yeah, definitely. Around 2007, I did a thing for the Martin Guitar Company, which was having an anniversary in New York City, where Christian Frederick Martin — when he came over from Austria — got a little shop. So that location is long gone, but they put up a plaque on the site of that original building. So I went to the Martin guitar museum that they have, where they have guitars from 1835 and on. So I picked out a bunch to play, and I learned the music from the era of that guitar on the guitars from the 1840s. Because I thought, “Why would somebody go to a store and buy a guitar back then? What was there to play?” So that turned out to be a lot of fun. And I’ve always loved learning old songs — I’ve just always had a knack for it, ever since I was a little. And I played with Bob Dylan, and Bob, of course, has a great library of American music, so I learned a lot of stuff from him, and he gave me great pointers on a lot of stuff. But the funny thing is, all those old songs that were hits back in the 19th century – they’ve recycled the elements over the years and reused the melodies over and over again. (Smith hums a jig-like tune). Now that was originally a song from Ireland about a candlemaker, but then it was the biggest hit of the Civil War under the name of “The Girl I Left Behind.” And it was such a big hit that sometimes at night, the bedded troops would sing it across the line to each other, and then the next morning, they’d get up and kill each other. So I found a lot of songs like that, whose melodies got recycled over and over. It was really interesting.

IE: Even your wife’s song “Take Cover” lightly echoes Patti Smith’s cover of Springsteen’s “Because the Night.”

GES: Yeah. And that melody — from the one to the minor three, then back to the one — is an ancient British Isles kind of tune, and also African. That interval itself is very African. 

IE: How would you provide a sonic backdrop for SNL guest hosts? And were there any that you really surprised with an obscure reference?

GES: Well, I always tried to find something that subtly referred to maybe some work the person had done or something they were known for. Like, if it was an actor, I might play something from a movie they had been in, or a current movie — something where the audience could immediately get that reference. I really liked to do that. And I do remember one time I was playing behind governor Chris Christie, and when he came on we played “I Want Candy,” and I thought that was a really good one. I wasn’t insulting him or anything, but he was a really big guy, so it was just a little joke. I don’t know if anybody else got it, but the guys in the band all thought it was funny. 

IE: It’s weird how songs can take on a life of their own. I’m still stunned that Vince Gilligan used the classic “Baby Blue” by Badfinger to wrap his Breaking Bad series finale.

GE: When I was about 16 or so, Badfinger played at a college near where I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I actually sold them a couple of guitars. I’ve always bought and sold guitars, and they needed a couple. But they were just great live, and it was amazing to get to meet them back then.

IE: Your duo, though, just feels like a band of the COVID-19 moment. 

GES: I know. And there was no way I could have planned for this. LeRoy just happens to be black, and I happen to be white, and also half-Lebanese. My grandmother was Lebanese, and I was raised in a house with her, with Middle Eastern food all the time. So I was always aware that there was racism, and that it was wrong. And it still goes on. And it’s like, “Come on!” I loved all the black American music — that’s what I grew up on, from Motown to the Chicago blues, and that, to me, is the bedrock foundation of the culture of the country that I love. So to me, it’s incomprehensible to be a racist. But yet, the country was founded on it; on the enslavement of one people and the genocide of another, all in the service of Capitalism. And since that’s the foundation of our country, I guess it’s no surprise that it’s still around. 

IE: What did you learn from LeRoy during this project?

GES: I’ve been looking for a great singer for 30 years because I don’t sing. I yell into the microphone (on “Art’s Sick” on “Stony Hill,” for instance), but I’m not a singer. I’m a guitar player. And I can do something with that. But LeRoy can really sing, so the combination is like two halves made a whole, in a way. I hope. And we only got to play twice live before the lockdown came. But when I have somebody that can really sing, it makes me play better. I was very fortunate that I got to play with a lot of good bands from Daryl Hall to David Bowie and Mick Jagger. And one time on “SNL,” Al Green was on, and I was so excited because I always studied his music, and Teeny Hodges was always the guitar player on his records, a Memphis guy. And Al was on, and I played something, and he turned around and looked at me and said, “Man — that’s exactly right! I haven’t heard that guitar sound in YEARS!” And that really got me feeling good. 

IE: LeRoy, what’s your take on everything happening in society right now?

LeRoy Bell:  A lot of the younger generation thinks it’s time for a change. But, being an older guy, I’ve been talking the same stuff for all my life, it seems like. But it’s nice to have some fresh faces and some fresh energy behind the movement to get things done, so I think that there’s a lot of good out there that’s gonna happen. I know it’s a really trying time for everybody, but I’m one of those believers in the fact that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. It’s a reactionary kind of thing — things got so bad until you finally have to do something about it. So it’s a helluva time right now, but I think in the long run, it’s gonna be better.

IE: But music has always been this unifying, harmonizing force. And collaboration-wise, just about anything goes these days. 

LRB: Yeah. And it’s one saving grace. I’m glad that I chose that profession. Well, actually, I never chose music — it chose ME. But that’s been my lifeline, just helping me keep my sanity. 

IE: Were you surprised when you suddenly heard from G.E. and his wife?

LRB: My partner that I’ve played in bands with for 20 years now, Kerry Morgan — we play in a band called LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends — he got an e-mail from Taylor about coming to do a show out there at this Guild Hall. And I said, “Why us? How did we come on their radar?” And he said, “I guess she really likes your songs, and she heard you on Spotify or something.” And once I learned that G.E. Smith was her husband, then I really wanted to know, “Why us?” So anyway, we ended up playing a rehearsal, just playing some songs and getting to know one another. And in a day or so, we were in the studio together. We just hit it off. It was pretty seamless, really, for having come from two different worlds. But we are close to the same age, and even though we have completely different backgrounds, we like a lot of the same music. So we recorded my song “America,” and we were like, “Hmmm. This sounds really good!” And when I first decided to write that song, it was a few months before I met G.E. I was watching this little kid on TV, this Mexican girl, crying as they handcuffed her mom when they were separating children from their families. And I was like, “What the fuck is going on? My country is going down the tubes — what the hell are they doing in this administration? They think they can do whatever they want?” 

IE: What did you learn from G.E.?

LRB: He knows everything there is to know about guitar. And he’s really educated — he can expound on so many different topics, and he’s obviously a musicologist, as well. But it’s fun to work with somebody who knows a lot about all different sorts of things, and at the same time can be really simple. And we had this one conversation about the old days, and how when you’re younger, you go, “Oh, gosh — I hate such and such.” And you hate this group that might have had a big song that seemed ridiculously simple at the time. But then, as you get older, you look back on it and go, “Hey — that song had something to it!” And G.E. said that when he was teaching a guitar student, and they’d say, “Oh, I hate that song,” he’d say, “Well, why don’t you learn that song? Learn the chords, the melody, then come back to me.” Because once you actually learn the song, then you kind of get it. It might not be your forte, it might not be your kind of music. But then you can appreciate the actual writing and what it took to make that song a hit. 

-Tom Lanham

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