Blues guitarist Byther Smith made the long haul count - Chicago Reader

2022-04-07 03:49:54 By : Ms. Alice Ma

Chicago’s alternative nonprofit newsroom

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

So little in the world seems to be going right that I hardly feel the need to explain why the Secret History of Chicago Music is extending its annual Winter Blues series into April. Sticking to the calendar is less important to me than eulogizing an important bluesman who recently passed away. I hope this tribute to guitarist Byther Smith makes for a fitting conclusion to the series.

Byther Claude Earl John Smith was born April 17, 1932, in Monticello, Mississippi, the second youngest of nine children in a Baptist family. His mother died during childbirth, and his father followed her around six months later. One of his sisters later lost her life in a house fire. He was raised by an aunt and uncle and first played guitar in church, though he’d also pick up harmonica and drums before leaving home. 

Smith lit out on his own at age 15, living an itinerant life for a couple years—he traveled to Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas, often working jobs in pipeline construction. In May 1949 he went to stay with the family of another aunt, his father’s sister Elvira, in Prescott, Arizona, where he drove a lumber truck for a sawmill and started training as a boxer. 

Smith also began hanging out on a cattle ranch, and he taught himself the double bass so he could play in a country band led by Bruce Merk, son of the sawmill’s owner. “Country western was all they were doin’,” Smith said in a 1988 series of interviews with KAOS FM in Olympia, Washington, conducted by Mark Lipscomb and Barbara Anderson and then adapted and published by Living Blues magazine in 1991. (Thanks to Kevin Johnson at Delmark Records for the scans!) “I got to where I could play the upright bass and in the meantime I could use the maracas between my fingers too. . . . So, that was like having a drum set. And I did four or five of the rodeo shows. . . . I was really pretty good at it.” 

In his three years in Arizona, Smith claimed, he only lost one boxing match, but that loss pushed his aunt to discourage him from pugilism—she bought him a Fender electric bass, figuring music was a safer career path. 

In 1952, Smith returned to Mississippi for an eventful six or seven months: he met and married his wife Etta Mae and had a life-altering encounter with bluesman J.B. Lenoir, his cousin on his mother’s side. Lenoir too was visiting his old hometown of Monticello (he’d moved to Chicago in 1949), and he was enjoying the role of local boy made good, playing for huge crowds at Saturday-night fish fries where they’d hang speakers in the trees. Lenoir was riding high, having recorded a bunch of singles for Chess and J.O.B. (including the popular “Korea Blues”), and he persuaded Smith to come to Chicago. He said he’d help Smith out as a musician and even suggested there might be a place for him in his band. 

“I was a young kid, it just blew my mind,” Smith said on KAOS radio. “I was going to get a chance to play on the bandstand with J.B. Lenoir—the idol of my heart. I wanted to be like him.” 

Regrettably, Lenoir didn’t have an opening in his band when Smith arrived in Chicago in late 1956. Etta Mae had moved here a few weeks before Smith, though, securing a job at a barbecue joint on 47th Street, so the couple weren’t in immediate financial crisis. Soon Smith found work at the Chase Candy Company, where he stayed for two and a half years. He later got a job at the Morrison Hotel, and then served as the first Black bartender at the Carousel. 

Smith had also started gigging in Chicago as a bassist, and he wanted to learn blues guitar. In local clubs, he was inspired by the likes of Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist), Freddy Robinson, Louis Myers, and Otis Rush—many of whom he’d also befriend. He wanted to sound like Albert King and B.B. King. Now and then he learned what he could from Lenoir, Robinson, Sumlin, or Robert Lockwood Jr., and Sumlin talked him into taking lessons at Lyon & Healy.

The experience was a disappointing one, though, and Smith said he only got through about an hour and a half of instruction. By coincidence, though, he fell into his first long-running gig through Lyon & Healy: guitarist Roy Buchanan also taught there, and via Smith’s cousin Jeff he recruited Smith as a bassist. Smith stayed with Buchanan’s trio for a year or so, playing mostly jazz. On the occasional blues numbers, he’d sing—and in the KAOS interviews, he remembered an old woman in the audience who loved his performances and encouraged him to give blues guitar another try.

Smith cut his first blues record for the famous Cobra label in 1959, shortly before it shut down, but it was never released—the label folks felt Smith sounded too much like Magic Sam, one of the reigning kings of electric blues, and Sam was also working with Cobra. Smith didn’t yet feel confident playing blues, and he briefly fell back on a rock ’n’ roll style. 

In the early 60s, Smith kept recording, though most of the singles that resulted sold modestly at best and are now difficult to find. In 1960 he cut a single for Bea & Baby subsidiary Miss Records with Tony Gideon of the Daylights, which the label sold to Chess the following year. In 1962, still in his rock phase, he released a home-recorded single credited to Byther Smith & the Lover Boys via the tiny EDA imprint. Other records came out on labels such as Cruise and Apex.

In 1962 Smith got his first Stratocaster, having already bought a couple Silvertones. By then he was gigging regularly as a guitarist in Chicagoland, and he put in some formative stints on rhythm guitar with Otis Rush at Pepper’s Lounge. He also played with Howlin’ Wolf when Sumlin was in the hospital and filled in as Muddy Waters’s bass player when his regular guy was working a swing shift at a steel mill.

When Smith lived in the south, he’d played with gospel groups (the Five Singing Bells, the Five Tilton Stars), and he was willing to try just about any style he thought might move records and get his name out there. In 1965 (or possibly 1969—Smith’s sometimes conflicting memories are difficult to corroborate) he joined a gospel group called the Chicago Travelers, spending about five months with them as a backup singer and appearing on a handful of releases. 

By the late 60s, Smith had been playing music seriously in Chicago for more than a decade, and he became disillusioned with what he saw as a lack of progress in his recording career. He sold his gear and dropped out of the scene, but he couldn’t stay away. He liked having fun onstage and mingling with crowds too much, and his wife encouraged him to start playing again.

The 70s were kinder to Smith. Pianist Sunnyland Slim repaid a favor by appearing on Smith’s ’74 single “So Unhappy” b/w “Money Tree” (the latter of which is a Detroit Junior number that first came out in 1960). Chicago-based Be Be Records released this rockin’ slab of electric blues, and because the label’s founder was from Sweden, the single did surprisingly well there too. “Money Tree” became one of Smith’s trademark tunes, and he’d recently released what would turn out to be another enduring favorite, “Give Me My White Robe,” a two-part single on the C.J. label with gospel-influenced lyrics.

In the mid-70s, Smith began a long association with harpist Junior Wells. “The way it happened, Buddy Guy was going overseas and he got me to play in his place at Theresa’s Lounge,” Smith explained in the KAOS interview. The next time Guy went out of town, though, Wells didn’t. “He came down there and he brought Sammy Lawhorn in there, and he said, ‘I’ve got my guitar player, so you don’t have to play.’ But Sammy got drunk—I didn’t go home—and when Sammy got drunk, and Junior didn’t have no guitar player, he asked would I come sit in with him. . . . He said, ‘Why don’t you just leave your stuff here in case Sammy doesn’t show up tomorrow night, or if he comes in here drunk.’” 

Smith didn’t drink or smoke, and he had a reputation as reliable, which this incident cemented in the mind of Theresa’s proprietor Theresa Needham. She hired him for the club’s house band, and when Wells started his own group, Smith became his regular guitarist (it helped that Lawhorn left to tour with Muddy Waters). 

Smith’s network helped Wells find musicians when he needed them, and though Wells was certainly a mentor to Smith, the two also became friends. Wells’s idiosyncratic timing onstage also helped Smith learn to follow older blues musicians who tended to play more intuitively. He’d subsequently demonstrate these skills backing the likes of Big Mama Thornton (for a 1975 Canadian tour), Hound Dog Taylor, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker.

Not till 1983 did Smith finally put out his first proper LP: selections from a set of 1981 demos released as Tell Me How You Like It on the Texas-based Grits label, then a few years later in the UK via Red Lightnin’. (The complete version of those demos came out in 2004 on Delmark as Hold That Train.) Big Shot Smitty and Gritty Soul followed in the next couple years, and Addressing the Nation With the Blues dropped in 1989. 

In 1995, Smith retired from his job at Economy Folding Box Corporation after a quarter century, which let him focus on music and tour further afield. He played in Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Norway, and Sweden—and released several more full-lengths for the Delmark, JSP, and Black and Tan labels, among others. Smith’s last album, Got No Place to Go, arrived in 2008 on Fedora Records. After headlining the 2013 Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, he retired from touring in 2015.

Byther Smith passed away on September 10, 2021, at age 89. Despite his tragic and difficult early years, he lived a bountiful life, leaving behind a rich and varied musical legacy matched by very few.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

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