Kansas City metro remembers musical legend Marva Whitney

Posted: Jan 03, 2013 1:54 PM CSTUpdated: Jan 19, 2013 5:09 PM CST
 
KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- The Kansas City metro is remembering a musical legend - Marva Whitney - James Brown's band mate and "Soul Sister #1."

Whitney, a Kansas City, KS, native, passed away last month from complications with pneumonia. KCTV5's Erika Tallan had a chance to talk to family members busy getting ready for her memorial services as well as a lifelong friend who's been with her from the beginning.

Tallan also got to hear the last song the late Whitney ever recorded, which was never released. Eugene Smiley wrote it and strummed along back in 1999. He and Whitney went way back after first meeting through a music group called The Derby's.

"They were a band back in the day that mainly introduced R&B live music in Kansas City. If you had talent, they would feature you in their band," Smiley said.

Whitney's talent caught the attention of James Brown. She joined James Brown Revue in 1967 after turning down singing jobs with Bobby Bland and Little Richard.

"James decided this is the girl he wanted because she was good at what she did and was very pretty. She added so much to his show," Smiley said.

Under Brown's direction Whitney had a breakthrough R&B hit that made the charts - "It's My Thing."

She ended her career in Kansas City, but never forgot where she came from.

"Somebody gave us the opportunity to grow up and make a name for ourselves. We always believed in that," Smiley said.

Even in death, Whitney is giving back. A fund is set up in her name to benefit inner-city school music programs. It helps them continue music education programs. Click here to learn more.

"If you don't do that, your music dies. Everything you put in all those years just fades away," Smiley said.

Her funeral services were Saturday and hundreds came to pay their respects. Some big wigs in the soul music industry were rumored to be attending, but Little Richard wasn't one of them.

"People are often not remembered for the things that they've done and their talents until they've gone and it's a shame because she was such a talented woman and she worked so hard in the industry. When I look back at her YouTube videos and some people just don't know who she is and I'm like, 'really?'. She was such an amazing person, amazing talent and more people should know who she was," said Roxanne Moore, a family friend, Saturday.

In her heyday, Whitney was in big demand before taking the job with James Brown. Besides turning down Bland and Little Richard, she also turned down tours with Joe Tex.

Whitney leaves behind a son and daughter. She was 68-years-old.

KCTV5's Nima Shaffe contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (MeredithCorp.)  All rights reserved.

 


 

 

Kansas City music mentor helps musicians make it big

Posted:  Feb 04, 2013  10:03 AM CST

Updated: Feb 04, 2013  10:28 AM CST

By Chris Oberholtz, Multimedia Producer - email

By Erika Tallan, Reporter - email

   

KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- A Kansas City man is working to help some local musicians make it big.

He may only be 16, but Michael Richardson, or Dom as he calls himself, is writing, composing and rapping his way to the top.

"My dream is to make it big and support my family," Richardson said.

And the man helping him get there is Eugene Smiley.

For Smiley, the sessions become more than lessons in music.

He said he helps put the children in the metro on the right track in life and maybe even stardom.

"I can see talent, I can see it. I is just a gift I have," said Smiley, who has played with the industry's best since the days of Motown.

These days, Smiley is love of music off the stage and in his basement studio. He offers affordable recording time and mentoring sessions to anyone he thinks has potential.

He tutored an 8-year-old child prodigy, Brody Buster, who appeared on Jay Leno and shared a stage with B. B. King.

"B. B. King stated on Dateline that this kid at that age was the nation's best harmonica player," Smiley said.

Richardson is his next hopeful, catching the attention of a record label in New York.

"My people in New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta, they are really hot on this kid. They are writing music for him as we speak," Smiley said.

All of this is Smiley's way of keeping his music and legacy playing.

Smiley says that one person opened the doors for him, so he's just paying it forward.

 

Click here to view video and additional information.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.)  All rights reserved. 

 


 

 


 

K-City Records: Press

 

The World Not According to Garp

An Interview with Eugene Smiley

By: Connie "Crash" Humiston and DaWayne Gilley

 ~

I can’t imagine a soul out there in Blues News Land who doesn’t know of Eugene Smiley’s Kansas City musical abilities, dating back to 1957 and ranging from R&B, gospel, soul, and blues. Newcomers will know Smiley as a co-founder, lead vocalist, and lead guitarist of the "Mighty BWB Show Band", as well as touring with Brody Buster from 1995 to 1997.

 

Recently, Smiley has formed the four-piece Eugene Smiley Blues Band and the eight-piece ESB Show Band. He has just released a personal treasure in his debut CD entitled, “Straight From the Soul.” For CD purchase or bookings, contact Burns Management at 816-358-4592 .

 

Some may not know that Smiley has performed with Johnnie Taylor, Al Green, Rufus Thomas, Bobby Womack, Albert King, Al Green, the Stylistics, Eddy Kendrics, Albert Collins, Vernon Garrett, The Chi-lites, and a host of other illustrious musicians. Along with Brody, Smiley has even performed at the White House and appeared on numerous national television shows. His most prolific years were from 1968-1972 when he was the featured vocalist for "The Visitors", a vocal group who released acclaimed songs for Chicago’s Brunswick Records/Dakar Label. He toured the country with the label, along with Tyrone Davis, Barbara Ackling, Gene Chandler, the Artistics, and others all on the same tickets as the likes of James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

 

The Visitors released three or four 45’s that sold very well and made major magazines, such as Billboard and Jet. The group had the moves, dress, and jewelry very similar to the Temptations and the Impressions, That was “the thang.” If you could step and sing, hey, you had it made."

 

Talking with Smiley is like going back in a time capsule, so watch for continuing articles relating to the overall music scene of the past. The focus of this article is the Kansas City Blues Scene, past, present, and future. Smiley was on the scene during the 12th Street and 18th Street and Vine days and continues to make his mark in Kansas City, as well as touring nationally. He is widely in demand.

 

Smiley was born in New Orleans in 1944. Due to the break-up of his family he shuffled between relatives in New Orleans, Kansas City (from ‘55), and Brookhaven, MS, a little place south of Jackson where there were plenty of Fish Frys on Friday and Saturday nights. He’s been singing since he was four and only picked up the guitar after 1972. Following is part of the interview (a long part!) with Smiley: The beginnings:

 

When and where were you born?

 

“In ’44, born in New Orleans, birthday is January 12th, Capricorn. And, I kind of lived between New Orleans, Kansas City, and a little place south of Jackson, Mississippi, Brookhaven, Mississippi. I kind of stayed with grandparents and aunts and stuff like that. My family was like broke up, and my father-I never knew my father. I saw him a few times but never knew much about him. As far as my mother, I remember back to maybe 4 or 5 years old. And that was the last time that I saw my mother until about 1987 or 1988. I found her, then I found out that, hey, I’ve got like 5 brothers and 3 sisters. Quite a surprise. (Laughter)

 

But, anyway, I’ve just been kind of like, since I’ve been here in Kansas City, it’s just like it’s been music, music, music. Um, down south, with Grandma it was like Blues, Fish Frys on Friday nights, get in the front yard and dance and play and sing. But it was blues. I saw a guy playing a guitar had 3 strings on it, but he could play it, he could play it and sing. It was like on Saturday nights somebody had a fish fry in the neighborhood and it was like a lot of drinking white lightening. I don’t know how they drink that stuff. I had an uncle used to drink that stuff, and his breath smelled so bad. Man, I couldn’t stand to stay in the house with him.

 

How did you start getting involved with music?

 

Oh, God, I was really young. I remember one Saturday evening, the choir was rehearsing in church, and so they was singing this song, and I had heard my father sing it, so I went down there. They wasn’t singing it right. And my grandma told me about this, and so I showed ‘em how to sing it.

 

How old were you?

 

I was about 4 or 5 years old, and it’s like I’ve been singing ever since. So, my aunt started taking piano lessons. She was a few years older than me, maybe 7 or 8 years older than me. And I would listen to her play, and I would kind of pick up the different melodies. Then pretty soon I got to the place I could play the whole piece she was playing, and I hadn’t studied no music. So, my grandma goes and gets this white guy that had all these different instruments, and they just sit down, and they gave me one at a time. Some of this stuff I don’t even know what they were. And they checked me out, and evidently I was this gifted kid in music at that age. And then it was like every day when my grandma went to work it was like I got this piano here, and I was playing every day, you know, I was playing Fats Domino, and I could sing. I was probably about 8. The bad part about it was Grandma came home. She didn’t want to hear that, so that kind of cut it short, but there was like from about 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon that’s all I did. She didn’t want to hear that noise if you wasn’t playing Jesus Nail Me to the Cross.

 

Who were some of your early music influences?

 

How’d you get around that where she wanted you to stay close to the Lord? She was no problem. She was a pushover. I was her grandson and had my own radio in my room. I used to like this guy. His name was Johnny Ace. Hot dog, I thought he was the man. And there was some other singers that I liked. Fats Domino was doing pretty good. He had a nice thing going that was easy for me to play on the keyboard. But I kind of started picking up things, different styles like Johnny Ace, the Drifters, and I just started learning from them, you know, and the next thing I knew when I got a little older I was in school and stuff and I found out that I could probably really sing. We had talent shows and battles of the groups, all kind of things, and I was always hanging in there. It was amazing though. As far as grades was concerned and music was concerned I never made anything less than an E or an A. I didn’t even try. I didn’t study this stuff. I feel it, I hear it. And it’s kind of like I got out of high school, and I had to make a choice. What am I going to do with my life? That’s when I decided to go to Chicago and become a star. Well, to my surprise when I got down there, at first it was just wonderful, it was great, I was in the studio every day five days a week nine to five.

 

What year did you go to Chicago, and did you know someone there?

 

'67. Well, a few months before I left here the Chi-lites had came down and did a show at Town Hall Ballroom, so the guy that booked the show in there also booked my little four-piece group to open the show up for them. Now, I got to talking to Eugene Records, the guy who was doing most of their writing and arranging at that time for the Chi-lites, and he was excited. He said, "Man, you come on and go with me down in Chicago. I’m sure Carl Davis will want your group." So I said OK, and I got home, and I got to thinking, and I said I gotta make the best of this. I thought I’d go to Motown first, then come back to Chicago, and that’s what I did. I went to Motown and they signed me to this arranger, his name was Choko Campbell, and we went in and we did some auditioning, and then he gave us the scoop.

 

This is at Hitsville?

 

Yeah, he gave us the scoop. And he says, "I’m gonna train you guys for nine to ten months. And we were pretty happy with that. And, so, we were down there maybe two or three days in Detroit, so we came back. We stopped in Chicago, and that’s how we got hooked up with Brunswick, ‘cause they were saying like "I got the money to produce you. I can sign you up right now. And, I can have you recorded within a couple of weeks." And, that just blew my mind, and so that’s what I did. They signed us two riders, and we did a few songs. And were you playing guitar and singing at the time. No, no, it was a vocal group. I was just singing. I didn’t even know how to play guitar.

 

Who were the guys in the group?

 

Let’s see, there was Darrell Penrays. He was the baritone singer. Wilbert Taylor, he was second tenor, and Ray Foreman, first tenor. And, I was the lead vocalist.

 

Any of those guys still playing or did anything beyond your group?

 

I think Ray Foreman, he continued. He went on with Bobby Womack, but I don’t know where he went to from there. I like, um, left Chicago in ’70, ’71, and started re-establishing myself back in Kansas City, although I still toured and stuff, but I didn’t want to live in Chicago. I didn’t like what I saw as far as the music business, and I didn’t want to get involved because of my upbringings, you know. And, I decided, well, I’ll just go back to school, finish raising my kids. Well, I tried that. I couldn’t hang. This is ’70. You’re 26 years old probably. Yeah, I couldn’t hang. I tried to give it up. I got back into it in ’74, I believe it was. See, my contract expired in ’72. I got back into it. I think it was ’74, with another recording contract right here in Kansas City. Wait, you lived here in Kansas City and continued to tour some, and they accepted that you left Chicago. Well, really they didn’t have any choice ‘cause I had a two-year contract with a three-year option. The option was that I could decide which way I want to go after my two years was up. And, I think they kind of blackballed me, but it didn’t hurt me.

 

So, did you have some released on Brunswick?

 

Yeah, I had three or four.

 

What were some of the titles?

 

Uh, "Until You Came Along" , that did really good.

 

The name of the band again was the Visitors?

 

Yeah, the Visitors. "I’m in Danger", that did good for us. Um, "Little Golden Band", that did good for us. And there was another one, I think. I forgot the name of it. But, those 45’s, they made a lot of the magazines, Billboard Magazine they were in Jet Magazine quite a while. And, then the group broke up after that. It was like I was supposed to have been released from Brunswick to Atlantic, and I didn’t like it because I didn’t like leaving the group. I wanted to be a group singer. I didn’t want to stand up by myself and sing. I didn’t have enough nerve to do that by myself. And so I just kind of weasiled out of it. I came back to Kansas City and started playing the guitar. I had a friend of mine that was kind of coaching me. His name was Teddy Gatsen, James Gatsen’s brother. And I guess it took me about a year or so to really be able to play on the stage.

 

With all of those instruments they were bringing you as a kid, the guitar wasn’t one of them?

 

The guitar was one of them, but I couldn’t play the guitar. I didn’t understand it. I knew what it was. I didn’t understand about it. Naturally you hear 1-3-5-1 which is a complete major chord. OK, the guitar is not tuned that way. The keyboard was so much simpler because everything is right there, but the guitar is like, what is this? And I really didn’t want to deal with the guitar, but the people who play it thought it was so much fun that I picked it up. Well, my oldest boy was just a little kid then, and I was home babysitting with him, and that’s kind of how I picked it up.

 

You said growing up you lived at some point in Kansas City?

 

I had moved here to Kansas City permanent when I left here to go to Chicago.

 

You went from Mississippi to Kansas City?

 

Yeah, it was like some of the time I went to school in Kansas City, and some of the time I went to school in Mississippi.

 

So, you had family here then? You’re talking about high school years?

 

Oh yeah, high school, junior high.

 

You were in New Orleans. When did you leave New Orleans?

 

Very young. I guess I was there until I was a year and a half. I remember traveling back and forth to New Orleans because I had people there, too. My mother was from New Orleans.

 

Any particular things or stories you might remember? Anything that really impressed you? You were a teenager then.

 

Well, I think the most impressing thing that I can remember is when I walked into Brunswick in Chicago and got the kind of welcome I got. And the strange thing about that was we had been to seven or eight different recording studios. We went to Chess and others. No one turned us down, but they wanted to set an appointment for us to talk to one of the producers, and when I walked into Brunswick it was like no appointment. Come on in. Let me hear what you got. And, it was like, "Can you sing this song? Just like this? Just like you got it here on this 45." And, we did it. And next thing I know they gave us two writers. And the strange thing about these writers they just went back on the keyboard and they started playing something and told you just hum along. Then you got another guy over here writin’ lyrics. That’s how we came out with the first two songs. And they were good songs, "Until You Came Along" and "I’m in Danger".

 

When did you start writing songs?

 

Well, I was writing songs before that. I didn’t really know the magic formula. And my songs, it would be "Baby, I love you. Now, Baby, I don’t like you no more". And then when I listened to those pro’s do it out there, and I watched and saw what they were doing, they were telling a complete story and putting music to it. And I said, "Well, I can do that." So, I started writing.

 

About when?

 

‘74 I wrote my first song that was recorded, and I gave it to Sy Kerry(?), and he arranged it for me. It’s called "The Shady Side of Town", and this group called The Committee recorded it. Then I came back with another group I wrote for, Smoke. I wrote "Make Believe". And I think that was ’75. I wrote a couple of songs that got recorded in ’75. And I came back in ’76 and decided to do my own thing. And a different recording company, Kansas City Records, we did a song, a couple of 45’s. It was like "Day and Night". Oh, man, beautiful song, and it did quite well on the charts. And in ’78 I did another one.

 

Now, how were those distributed?

 

We had some distributor out of Tennessee. Were you doing R&B and soul at this point? Yeah, and after that I kind of just dropped off because the whole industry changed. It went to disco. Work just dried up. Everything just shut down. There was no place to really play gigs or do anything. You might get a gig, but it was a party or something. No clubs was doing too much of booking bands.

 

Were you touring very much after you left Chicago, or did you pretty much stay in Kansas City?

 

I was still traveling. I never stopped traveling to New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, played all of those places, pretty much in the middle of the country.

 

Now, didn’t you tell me you played with Johnnie Taylor?

 

Yeah, I played quite a while with Johnnie Taylor. Johnnie Taylor was working the Midwest area where I would naturally play (guitar) with him and when he’d go back East he’d pick up another band back there. It was pretty common back then because the artists made all the money. The bands would only made what the bands was getting paid. But, we knew his stuff. We did stuff for Bobby Womack, Rufus Thomas, Stylistics, Al Green. You played big halls then. Yeah, mostly big halls. If we played clubs, it was something like we were in the area, like if we did something in Dallas we might do something in Denison the following night. I enjoyed it. Didn’t make a lot of money, but I kept my chops up.

 

I remember one night I was playing this gig with Johnnie Taylor. His girlfriend was down there. She’d been drinking, so I was singing this song, "Something Is Wrong With My Baby", and she comes up and lays some roses at my feet. I think I got to him! (Laughter) Scared the hell out of me. I said, "I know I’m not going to get paid now." That was one of the funny things that happened. And, I guess another scary thing that happened to me is I was playing at this club in Dallas, and they had Aretha Franklin in there and several other big acts, and they had one hit group out that was never a group. It was a group called the Eighth Day, and they had this hit song, but it was never a group. It was only a studio band, session players that put this song out. And, somehow or other I got this gig and had no idea I was supposed to be this group, so check it out. I found it kind of strange the way they introduced me, so we go out and start playing and all of a sudden I got this white girl standing over here by me and I heard somebody in the audience say, "That’s not the Eighth Day!" And, that’s when I found out we was supposed to be this group called the Eighth Day. Somebody made beaucoup money! Yeah, I was glad to get outta that one! I was nervous! Don’t do me like that.

 

Then I’ve had a few times where I had been a warm up act for somebody, and then they don’t show. Shew, the crowd’s not pleased, and these old men sitting out here steady drinking, and they’re getting quieter and quieter and quieter. That’s a hairy feeling. You know the place is gonna break out, and it do break out.

 

Tell us something about Rufus Thomas.

 

Well, when I played with Rufus I was just really getting the feel of the guitar pretty good, and we was playing this song "Walkin’ the Dog", and Rufus turned around and told me to play a guitar solo. Oh, I almost freaked out. No, you don’t want me to do this, do you? Yeah, man, come on. No, no please don’t make me do this. So, finally he got me to play it. I don’t know what it sounded like, but for me to step up front and play a guitar solo, it was like Oh, man, I never did this before. Yeah, that was pretty hairy. Rufus was so easy to work with. Johnnie Taylor was just the opposite. One night we was down in Florida playing and Johnnie was half drunk, and I don’t know why he hired this guy in the first place. You know, he needed a blues guitar player. The guy was playing like a toy guitar with a toy amplifier. I was playing rhythm, and Johnnie calls for this guy to play a blues solo, and it sounded like, Johnnie took this guy’s guitar and broke it. (Laughter)

 

Any other memories come to mind from that time period?

 

I can remember back that times was really tough. And even though you play music, if you wanted to live halfway decent you had to have a job. You had to play music and still have a job. Now, the guys that did that, they drove cars. The guys that didn’t, they had to have a ride. And, so I always tried to keep home on top first.

 

So, what kind of jobs would you pick up?

 

Well, I’ve been in machines a long time, machine shops, and I went down and got special training for it, and then when I got back from Chicago I could go study the computers. They were brand new back then. So, I got off into computer programming for machine shop work and stuff like that. And I was pretty fortunate. I was able to make ten bucks an hour on the job back then. That was the thing, be able to support your family.

 

Did that make you tied down to Kansas City?

 

No, it was like a weekend thing. Most acts came through here would either be playing Kansas City or somewhere in Oklahoma or down in Dallas or Denver, someplace I can get to between the time I got off from work, or sometimes I might even take that Friday off. Even now I still do it the same way. I might fly out of here Friday and be in California to do a gig at 9:00 at night. It’s just that fast. And I still have a job. I respect the job. Music is fun, but it ain’t about a lot of money. Kansas City Sound vs. Others: You lived in New Orleans, Kansas City, the Mississippi Delta. Tell me some of the differences in the three towns, music-wise. Music-wise I think people in Kansas City are more open and a lot easier to work with than those other areas. Say, for instance, in Mississippi this is the way you do it regardless of where you came from. They’re like this is the way it go whether it’s right or wrong. Timing for instance. A lot of musicians down there had really bad timing, but you couldn’t say that they were wrong because this is the way they played. For instance, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, that’s not the way they do it. They play the line, there might be five beats there. And then here comes a surprising change. And, New Orleans was a little different. New Orleans was like OK, you want me to play a shuffle. I’m gonna play you a shuffle. It’s the weirdest kind of shuffle you ever want to hear. It’s different, but it’s still a shuffle. Whereas in Kansas City, it’s like, uh, we play a shuffle. How do you want it played? Do you want it up, you want it down, you want the one and the two, or the two and the four, or the one and the three, or whatever. And, guys here adapt. They listen to you play. There’s a lot of good musicians here in Kansas City.

 

And, what about Chicago?

 

Chicago’s awesome. You got so many different types of people coming from so many different areas, and when they all get together it’s different. Chicago and Texas, I think is the most differentest type of blues. Texas has their own style. Chicago has so many different styles, and all of the sounds are good. And Kansas City has? Kansas City has a different type of blues. The whites are really playing a bluesy rock, a rock-type of blues. And the blacks are playing down home blues. You got a little different type of thing going there, you know, here in Kansas City. And that’s probably one of the reasons that when musicians get together they listen to each other, to see which side of the fence you’re coming from, and they make the adjustment. But, white guys can play down home blues just as well as the black guys, but for some reason they favor their own particular style of blues. For instance, the Back Alley Band, great band. John Paul, great, great band. But, it’s different.

 

Because it’s more rock tinged?

 

Yeah, yeah, but the bass is still blues. And it’s good. It sounds good.

 

Do you think that maybe Jay McShann, Joe Turner, Count Basie, some of those guys still have some influence going on with what the style is here in Kansas City?

 

I think they was really the ones that really gave Kansas City their sound. All of those guys was pumping it out way back, you know when I was too young to really go in the clubs. I used to sit and watch some of these groups, sit in the window and watch them, you know back down on 12th Street. They had blues clubs down on 12th Street. They wouldn’t let us go in since we were too young.

 

Back in the mid-to-late 50’s then?

 

Yeah. Early Years in the Business You were telling me about having to pay to have your records on the radio, here in Kansas City and all over in ’67 all the way to ’75 or ’78.

 

And, how much did you pay?

 

$400-$500 bucks. To the DJ, station manager? Well, that was quite a bit over my head who they paid it to. I was just the guy on the record. I just know that if you really wanted your material played, you had to buy it, you had to satisfy somebody. And there was a lot of that stuff going on, things like handling drugs, to get your records played. And that was happening all over, I hate to say it, but even with some of the bigger record companies. And they would like kind of favoritize these people and play their music. And another thing that they did, like in those days, "I’ll bring you to Kansas City, it’s kind of like a promotional deal. You come and play for me. OK, the guy does this and you’ve got a packed house here, and the only thing they have to pay out is the expense, you know, driving here, spending the night, stuff like that. But, in the long run they made their money.

 

Who’s they?

 

The promoters and record companies.

 

And where were you living, here in Kansas City?

 

Well, I started off recording in Chicago with Brunswick Records. I was on Dekar Label along with Tyrone Davis, Chi-lites, and that bunch, and I kind of saw what was happening. It was a lot of politics, and things happened really fast, just like overnight. Uh, you could record a song today and hear it on the radio tomorrow. It was just that fast. And that’s kind of the way most of them did it back then. Recording companies back then, they had maybe 8 or 9 different acts within that same company, and what we’d do, we’d go in one night and everybody would record a 45, and we did it just that fast, all 8 or 9 acts. One band, they played all the music. And, a few months later we’d go on tour, the Brunswick artists, just that fast. We didn’t make a lot of money, but it was a lot of fun.

 

Are you talking about ’67?

 

’67, 68, ’69, 70. I came back to KC to live in ’72. I’d been here since ’55. Tell us who the tour package was. Oh, God, that was Barbara Ackling, there was Gene Chandler, there was Tyrone Davis, there was the Chi-lites, there was a really sharp group called the Artistics. I mean they could really perform, put on a show. And the group that I was with was the Visitors. Well, we were the youngsters in the bunch, and at that time we did things very similar to the Temptations, the Impressions.

 

Now, that’s clear down to your dress?

 

Yeah, your dress, like everyone looked the same. Everybody had to have their hair done, had to have your shoes shined. You had to have a handkerchief or whatever you call these things, and you had to have some type of jewelry, whether it was cuff links or rings, and it looks really sharp when they put those colored lights on you, flashing lights. Your whole image changed. It was really a lot of fun.

 

Did you do any of the dance moves, like the Temptations did?

 

We did that. That was the thang. If you could step and sing, hey, you had it made. You always had an audience, you know. And, I guess back then we did New York with James Brown, we was the little fellas on the ticket, but anyway we opened up for James Brown, and I think that was ’67 or ’68. We did DC, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, a few other places. I always wanted to do the California thing, but for some reason we never went to California.

 

Now were those mainly black clubs or were they crossover?

 

Crossover. At that time it was getting over really big with the white audience also. And in them days it was getting more so than blues. It was the new music, and everybody had caught onto it, and blues was like I like blues, but I like this too because this is different. Everybody’s uniformed, dressed, the band is sharp, the lights was great, horns. Did the Motown thing help this happen for most of the labels. Did Motown kind of pave the way for that? Well, to tell you the truth about it, I think Motown picked it up from somebody else. They got the idea and where they did things different was like, the way I understand it, was instead of taking one act and putting all of your money on this one act, they took several acts and divided it up, put equal amount of exposure, advertising, and promotion on each group, and all of them did good. The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, Temptations. And, it kind of picked up with the independent companies like for instance Stack, Brunswick, the Philadelphia sound, I forget the name of them. Anyway, they picked it up, and they had several acts, and within that one organization they’d come out and do a complete show with just their artists. And it was fun.

 

Were there a lot of drugs?

 

Well, there was a lot of that happening, but we didn’t let it happen to us. I didn’t know what marijuana was until I got to Chicago, and I just kind of stayed away from that. It was like we had other problems in our group. We was all young, we was roudy, we would fight, do stupid stuff.

 

Guns and knives?

 

No, no. No guns and knives, but if somebody intimidated somebody in this particular organization, they might get in one hell of a fight. (Laughter)

 

Did alcohol play any role in that?

 

No, not really. Look at these people like this. They’ve been scuffling ever since they was little bitty kids. Now they got an opportunity, but even though they’ve got this opportunity, the little things they used to do, stealing, fighting, and stuff like that, they never got away from that. And those are the kind of problems that I was having with my people. I had one guy in my group that he didn’t get paid the money that he was promised, so he went up in the attic, came down through the President’s office, and pulled this asbestos or whatever they had in the ceiling down, reached down and picked up this $6000 mink coat, heisted it up, and went to New York. And, I got a call that Monday morning that they thought that he had taken this guy’s mink coat, and he was about to be killed, you know. Well, this particular guy, well, he was one heck of a singer, but he just couldn’t stay out of trouble, and he ended up in prison. In fact, he’s still in prison. I think he did eventually get on the drug thing, and it was like, we had to replace him, and it was kind of sickening, you know. And then, it was other things happening like there was a lot of back stabbing. Other recording companies would try to sabotage your organization, your works, your songs, and it was pretty ruthless. You know, I’ve seen single artists travel with shotguns. If I don’t get my money, I’m gonna blow somebody’s head off. Now I was down in Austin, and I was with this guy. I ain’t gonna call no names, but he had a pretty good hit out there. We did a gig. It was a great gig. So, someone wanted us to do an after hours gig. So, we did the after-hours gig, and it was crowded and packed. So, when I went to pick up the money to pay the band, well, I saw this particular artist and the promoter. The artist had a shotgun on him, "I want all of my money." I just kind of backed up and went on out. But, yeah, there was a lot of that going on. The Clubs, the Good Ol’ Days: Well, tell me about 12th Street, its an open environment. 12th Street, 12th Street! It was where everyone wanted to be, but nobody got along down on 12th Street. I mean, the more they drank, the more they fought. There was nothing for you to go into this club and see a big, big fight and say, "I don’t want to be around here." Go into the next club. Same thing. Big, big fight. Somebody’s either talking to someone’s woman… And, it was like that every weekend.

 

Was it really crowded?

 

Always. Always crowded. In fact it got so crowded down there until they ventured out. They started opening clubs on Troost, Prospect, 31st Street, 31st and Prospect, 31st and Indiana. Black Orchid. Starlight Lounge. Club Prestige. Ollie Gates Place, OG’s. And, then Kansas opened up. They had 50-Yard Line, they had a Club 19 Hole which was supposed to be a golf organization. Several more clubs. Kansas City was wide open, booming every weekend up until about 3:00 in the morning.

 

Well, now there were still very few white faces at that time, right?

 

Well, in certain areas. In the black clubs, you didn’t see very many whites, although there were whites there. And in the white clubs you didn’t see no blacks other than the entertainers.

 

Now, which ones were the white clubs?

 

Oh, there were clubs on Troost. I forget some of the names, but there was a club down there on 34th or 35th on Troost called Oscar’s which had great entertainment. And, they had more of a mixed crowd. And then you had clubs over on Main Street, and it’s been so long I forgot some of their names. There were a lot of football players (Kansas City Chiefs) that had clubs around town. What year span are we talking about now? We’re talking about up until about ’70.

 

Any real difference between 12th and 18th Streets? Different neighborhoods?

 

Well, the music was different. They had big time bands on 18th Street where they had the smaller blues bands in the clubs on 12th Street. Count Basie, I don’t remember him playing on 12th Street. I remember him playing on 18th Street.

 

Sands at 19th and Vine?

 

Yeah, that was the old Mardi Gras. And then there was a club down there called the Blue Room. And, I forgot some of the names of the others, but most of the bigger bands that would come through, they would play down on 18th Street.

 

The Acts: Do you remember any of the particular blues acts you caught when you were growing up in Kansas City? Blues acts?

 

I used to catch a lot of jazz acts, too. I remember the first act I saw was this group called the Falcons. They came in and really lit the place up. And then there was this guitar player, Wes Montgomery. The guy with the crooked trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie. Now he was my favorite. But they was jazz-blues orientated. Well, the town was kind of open either way. Yeah, whereas down on 12th Street you’d have Albert Collins, Albert King, somebody in that category. And, I remember when people like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, they were coming. They’d do it all together different. They’d go to the Municipal Auditorium. I can’t remember them ever playing in a small club where they did in other cities, but they never did here in Kansas City.

 

Who was bringing the acts in then?

 

Well, you had different promoters from other cities that would come in and book shows down at the Municipal Auditorium. Club owners would book their own acts, and then there was Willy Cyrus. He was the first person to have a Thanksgiving Breakfast Dance, and he used to have it at Town Hall Ballroom every year. Amazing thing about that, the very first Thanksgiving Breakfast Dance that we played I went to jail just before the gig. I have no idea why I went to jail, but me and my drummer, you know Little Brother, we was just walking down the street. Policeman made a U-turn, picked us up, took us straight to jail. So, we had to stay there a couple of hours, and our keyboard player came down and got us out. Who are some of the acts that are still around town that you were seeing back then? Oh, you got Millage Gilbert, King Alex, Sonny Kenner, Lawrence Wright, Little Hatch, George Jackson. Leon Estelle is now gone. KC Unions

 

Did you join the union?

 

Yeah, 627. 627 was horrible. I’ll tell you what I did. I joined the union, and I don’t know who it was came to town, but they needed a guitar player, so I took the gig. I was playing at the Town Hall Ballroom, and here come this union man in. He was asking for union cards. OK, I gave him my union card and there was several people up there that didn’t have union cards, so rather than take their money and put a fine on them, they took my money and suspended me. So, that cost me $300 and some dollars, and I did it again. This was back ’69, ’70, and it happened to me three times, and finally I said, "Uh, uh, no." And, something happened with Eddie Baker. He got in the same dispute, but his was big money, something like $17,000, and he went to the union in New York and protested. And, New York came here, and whatever they said, they took both unions and put them together. And, that’s what really brought the blacks and whites together when the two unions merged. But, it was still like, these guys over here get the best gigs. They was picky about who got the best jobs. If you didn’t have a name in music, you didn’t get no gigs. Which brought on another problem. Well, the lesser black musicians and the lesser white musicians said, "What about us? We’re musicians, too. Why you never give us gigs?" And, so everything kind of went downhill from there. We just stopped dealing with the unions here in Kansas City, everybody, blacks, whites. We said we’ll just go over here and work for the club owners and forget you all. That was the latter part of the ‘60’s and middle part of the 70’s. And, the best gigs right at the end they were giving was you might get a gig playing a convention, class reunion, something like that. You might get $30, and it went downhill from there. Now nobody has respect for the unions. The unions here didn’t stand up for musicians, whereas the unions in New York or California, hey, I don’t have any problem, you know.

 

Well, excuse my ignorance, but how did the gigs come about?

 

Well, the promoters would say this is who I want to play whether you’re in the union or not. That’s how I got busted out there at Town Hall.

 

But, if you played a convention or class reunion, how would those gigs come about?

 

Well, they would call the union and ask for a band that played a particular type of music, and the union would go down the list and find out who’s not working. And, they would choose the most popular of those that’s not working.

 

Do you like going into the Mutual Musicians Foundation these days even though that’s the old union hall?

 

Yeah, I like going down there because it’s new now. It’s a whole different atmosphere down there now. A friend of mine’s running it, Donald Cox, and he’s brought the youngsters in and taught them jazz, taught them how to play it and make it really sound good. Intro to the Blues via King Alex: So, this is all pre-disco. Then disco hit Kansas City… And just wiped it out. And I guess from about 1978 until 1988 I didn’t even pick up my guitar. There was no place to play in town or out of town. So, I guess it was about ’87 my marriage done got shaky, split up, and I decided I was going to play again. And, I started back playing, but I started back playing gospel. I didn’t even know anything about blues clubs. I didn’t even know if Kansas City still had blues clubs ‘cause I’d been out so long.

 

And, one night my cousin came and got me, "Hey I want you to come down here. I want you to hear this band", and it was King Alex. So, I went in that Friday night, and I listened to ‘em, and the club owner knew me. And, so she had been having a problem with Doug (guitar…. So, that Saturday night about 10:00 she called me and asked me would I come in and sit in for Doug? And, that’s really when I really got into the blues. (It had been R&B until then.) And Doug was sitting over in a booth over there with his leg cocked up and his guitar in his arm, asleep. And, she just let him sleep. And after the gig they went over and woke him up, and he didn’t even know anything about it. (Laughter) …

 

But, anyway, I played with King Alex. I liked King Alex. I learned a lot from King Alex and Leon Estelle. I was only a few of the guys that Leon would really sit down with and show his thing. Leon Estelle and the Forming of Smiley’s Style: Tell us about Leon. Leon was a creative musician, all of the time creating. When he was playing a gig, he’d be all the time creating, coming up with new stuff all the time. And, I could tell when he’d come up with something different ‘cause he’d look over there at me and give me that look. You were playing rhythm, and he was playing lead? Yeah, and I did a lot of singing because he didn’t sing, whenever I’d gig with him. And he showed me a lot of stuff. Well, I’d take what Leon showed me, which Leon didn’t have a lot of rhythm. He just had a lot of pretty blues, and I would play the same thing, but I’d put that funky rhythm behind it. And, somebody told me I was a pretty good guitar player. I still don’t get off on that, but I’ve taken what I’ve learned from the pros and kind of put it into my own thing and now I think I’ve got a style of my own.

 

You’re saying "now". You’re talking about just recently?

 

Yeah, just recently, from over the years of collecting your ideas and your ideas and putting it into my music and the way I feel. I feel music upwise, and if I’m playing blues I’m gonna make you cry. I’m gonna steal your heart. I really get into it, deep into it. It’s just something I take very seriously. I wrote a song "This Time I Got the Blues". I don’t know if you remember that, but if you listen to the lyrics, the music is great, but the lyrics is awesome. Blues in the Soul and Lessons Learned: Now, you’re talking about passion.

 

What is the difference between blues and R&B? How did you know it was blues when you saw King Alex?

 

The style. The chord progression and the lyrics. And the way he expressed, the way he brought it out. It was like certain parts you see him lean back and he’d grab those notes and hold ‘em and cry with ‘em, you know.

 

And, you hadn’t seen that in R&B?

 

No, not in R&B.

 

You’d been touched by the blues before now, but is this a turning point of when you started to feel the blues in your soul?

 

Well, my life gave me the blues! But, what I’ve done is I’ve taken what I’ve learned in R&B, the bluesy part of R&B, and I took the down home blues, and I’ve mixed them together for a real soulful sound. It’s just like gospel. It’s just like being in church, and I think I’m going to go with that. I know people across America who loves it, that type of soulful, strong type of thing. You were struck with the blues when you were playing with King Alex? Yeah, I was going through a bad time, and I finally realized how I felt and how playing and singing blues, it kind of mellowed my ego down or something like that. I got it out. I done got out here and screamed and hollered in front of all these people, and now I feel like I can go home and go to sleep.

 

Was this a turning point?

 

Yeah, yeah, but then it got to be fun. It got to be where I enjoyed it, then I noticed that people around, they loved it. And it was at one of the festivals, I think it was the Spirit Festival, and this was way back then, ’88 or ’89, somewhere back then. I was still playing with King Alex, and the Kansas City Star gave me a write up for playing this guitar solo. I forgot the name of the song, but I’d learned how to feel the blues from Doug and King Alex and Leon Estelle, and several others, it was no problem, and I guess with the R&B sound I had, the blues guitar was something probably new to some people’s ears. And they gave me a write up. The first write up I’d ever had in the Star. And, I just kind of took it from there and went with it. This is what I’m gonna do. Then, I guess we decided to put the BWB Band together.

 

Wait, first, who was with King Alex at that time?

 

Originally it was Doug, King Alex on the bass, and Sticks (Robert Lock). But, King Alex, I guess he found himself punishing them. He fired them all and picked up Jeff Lucas (keyboards) and Adam Page on bass to relieve him on bass and Ricky Hardy on the drums. He had one hell of a band. He had more band than he could handle. And, I guess we played together a year or so, and he got to the point where he’d drink too much, and I couldn’t stand it no more. He’d be falling on stage, and then he got to the point where he’d say, "Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m gonna sing Sweet Sixteen." OK, now we’ve finished playing Sweet Sixteen, and here we go again, back to back. "Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re gonna sing Sweet Sixteen." And we’re looking across stage like, "What are we gonna do here?" And, so it got to the point where I just couldn’t handle it no more, but I always respected him. I always respected him.

 

King Alex had a way of saying things like, "It ain’t what you do. It’s how you do it." And, a lot of people might take that kind of light. But, that’s a pretty solid statement. And, so I kind of kept that in mind since he told me that. It’s like when you come out on stage, you dress right. Are you ready to perform? Can you even satisfy this particular audience you’re playing for? King Alex was pretty serious about all of that stuff. And, it just about applies to everything in the music business. It’s not what you do. It’s how you do it. You can be the best player in the world and never go anywhere, but if you know somebody, that’s how you do it. And that statement always stuck with me. Every time I get ready do something I go back to King Alex. Now how am I gonna do this? And, I’ve had pretty good success with it.

 

Mayfield Towns and the BWB Band: When did you leave King Alex?

 

I left King Alex in, I think, 1990, and I kind of flirted around with just playing with different groups and stuff. And then Mayfield Towns came over one day and said, "Smiley, let’s put us together a professional blues band. I know this other guy. He wants to do the same thing." So, it was me, Mayfield, and Johnny C (Copowycz). So, I went out and talked to Johnny, and we all hit it right off. And, we went and picked up some serious musicians, and I guess it took us about a month. The other musicians were Kim Peeler on the bass, Calvin Whitmore on saxophone, and Reggie May on trombone, and we couldn’t keep a drummer at that time.

 

We couldn’t find a drummer that had the personality and actually fit in with us. Sometimes black drummers didn’t like the way this white guy over here’s playing, and vice-versa. So, we went to Mike (Lightnin’ Mike--now with Cotton Candy), and … he could hold the rhythm, he was dependable, and he was always willing to help. And, that’s what we really needed, not so much the professional boom boom drummer, and we developed a pretty solid sound. We couldn’t find a keyboard player at that time, but finally I ran into Jeff Lucas, and we was solid. As soon as we got things going right and things were happening in our favor, Mayfield gets sick. Well, when Mayfield passed away, it was a group without a leader, and that’s actually what happened to the BWB Band. That was ’94 or ’95. I need to add that the Mayfield Band was a real show band. You know--the dress, the moves. Mayfield had been on the Kansas City scene a long time. He’d been one of the Lawrence Wright and the Starlighters and other bands. Right. When Mayfield first came to Kansas City, he didn’t know nobody. At that time I just happened to pick him up and give him a ride. He was outside with some brushes (vacuum brushes?) or some books or something, and he was in Raytown. It was hot outside, smokin’. This was ’72 or ’73, somewhere along in there. And, we hooked up then. We put a band together, but I was already playing with another group, so it got pretty hard to do playing with another group. And so eventually Mayfield went with Lawrence Wright, and we played off and on behind different people. It just depends on what type of band was playing. Like if Johnnie Taylor or someone came into town, Mayfield did things like that with me. Lawrence Wright, they very seldom did anything other than Lawrence Wright.

(Dec 17, 2010)
 

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