Grant Smith has been in the entertainment business for more than 45 years. Starting out in 1964 as a rock and roll drummer with The Missing Links, it wasn’t long before Smith found himself fronting his own band, a 7-piece R&B act called The Power. Grant Smith and the Power ripped up Toronto’s club circuit with their high energy sold-out shows throughout the years 1967-1970. By the middle of the decade, Smith had rubbed shoulders with many of the iconic 60s rock stars known to us today, and along with securing an MGM recording contract, Smith starred, directed and co-produced Red White and Hot!, a Vegas-style variety show featured at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. With a life-long talent for painting, this multi-media artist produced and acted in television movies, hosted the Miss Teen Canada Pageant and Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon, and made several appearances on everything from the Tommy Hunter Show to the Juno Awards. Spending considerable time in Las Vegas, Mr. Smith has worked as a singer for jingle writers, as a choreographer, and as an entertainer landing him numerous return engagements to Caesars Palace. Currently, Grant Smith has been on double duty writing his first novel and wrapping up his latest film project, a documentary exploring the phenomenon of the Elvis Presley fan. Mr. Smith joins me now with fascinating stories of some of the people he’s met along the way….
There’s stuff written about me on line, inaccurate stuff, but I never correct it. It doesn’t really matter what people say about me, especially people I don’t know, but my life drastically changed about 18 years ago when I had a stalker.
It was horrible. It was really horrible.
Was it someone you knew?
It was someone I’d spoken to briefly. She worked for a police department so she could easily find me. And she was fixated on me. Being a pop singer, I was used to this type of thing, so I laughed it off at first. But it wasn’t long before I realized how serious it was. I worried about my life and I had to move my family. As a consequence, I never really got on the internet. I’ve stayed away from it for the most part, but my wife created a Grant Smith and The Power fan page on Facebook and I was surprised to find 200 people had signed up in less than 24 hours. And then after ten days or so, we had something like 600 people, and fans leave messages. One guy in Windsor said he thought I was the cat’s ass after seeing me at The Junction. That was pretty neat. The message went on to say he named his first born after me! It sounded heartfelt, but I didn’t realize emotional things like this were associated with me.
On-line social networking sites make it easy to find people and communicate with them. Facebook is a phenomenon.
But to be honest, I’m not comfortable asking someone to be my friend.
(laughs) It does sound juvenile, doesn’t it?
Only six months after forming Grant Smith and the Power, the band began breaking attendance records all over Ontario. Journalists in 1967 described your shows as “finger-poppin’, hand-clapping high energy that drives little girls out of their minds”. The band was also described as “polished with skillful stage presentation and well-rehearsed choreography”. Were you trained at a very young age?
My mother ran a restaurant. I was twenty nine years old before I found out she could play piano. She also played the ukulele, the harmonica, and autoharp, but she was too busy to teach me anything. In 1964, I was the drummer with a band called The Missing Links and we played the bar circuit in Northern Ontario and Quebec, and intrinsically, I knew how people wanted to be entertained. While other musicians were concerned with how they played, I was more concerned with how people perceived what we played. People listen with their eyes and if they’re impressed with what they see, it sounds better to them. If they see a dirty looking, unkempt band with a lot of space between songs, it gives them an opportunity to think critically. If you can dazzle the audience with a non-stop show, it’s more entertaining. I knew to associate myself with good musicians, and my band was always clean and wore suits. It was a pre-requisite.
So you learned how to please people from watching your mother work in the restaurant.
Sure, it’s always about the customer. In any restaurant, if you’re a good host or hostess with good service skills, people will respond positively. It’s always been my job to please the public. Because of this, it took me a long time to call myself an artist. Generally, my idea of an artist is someone who focuses on one thing; the painter who searches all day for that magic moment when they get it right. But my interests are so eclectic that I never really focus on one thing. I’ve been a hard working guy all my life, and I’ve always gravitated toward musicians, writers and other creative people.
What age were you when you started to perform?
You say, “I always knew what a good show was”. Perhaps you were influenced by seeing Elvis Presley on television for the first time?
No. My earliest memory is of dreaming to be an entertainer. I would have been six, seven, or eight years old at the time, and used to dream of performing on stage as an old guy. Back then young people always wanted to be older. It was a rite of passage to finally get your first suit. I always loved playing the drums so my heroes were Cozy Cole, Buddy Rich, and Gene Krupa. And I also really like Charles Aznavour, the old ruffled up Frenchman that even in his 70s still gets the women. Aznavour sings ballads about broken hearts. He’s the quintessential French romanticist.
Are you a sucker for the romantic ballad?
I’m a sucker for brilliant song writing. Aznavour’s songs are very dramatic and theatrical. He wrote a song about a female impersonator who people looked down upon. This female impersonator takes care of his mother, scrubs floors and washes dishes, and people in the song think he’s less than a man for it. Standing up to the bullies, he asks them, “What Makes a Man a Man?” Now Charles Aznavour has recorded many albums, so it can be sort of a hit and miss. Like when he recorded a disco album when disco was huge in Europe. Aznavour’s disco is cheesy, but the song writing is still good. Europeans may have missed a few things in music on some levels, but they own the romantic ballad. They absolutely own it. Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour are all iconic international stars from France.
But I’m still trying to picture a young Grant Smith; a really young Grant Smith being blown away by some artist who set you off on your career as an entertainer. So many musicians tell stories of the first time they saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show for instance, deciding right there and then, “that’s what I want to do!”
I wouldn’t say I was blown away by any one particular artist, but I can tell you about seeing Frank Sinatra when I worked Las Vegas. At the time, Sinatra wasn’t even on my radar. I mean, I was an R&B singer and Sinatra was just this old guy to me, who had a few hits. He was not a role model for me in any way. But when I opened at Caesars Palace, he opened the same day. The entertainment director asked me, “are you going to check out Frank’s rehearsal?” I was like, “what are you talking about?” He tells me, “Sinatra’s rehearsal is at 4 o’clock. Go quietly into the big room, sit back and just watch.” With no idea what to expect, I went, and when I got there I saw a 44-piece orchestra.
What year would this be?
It was the mid-70s. So, I’m sitting there listening to this huge orchestra; a symphony orchestra which is a cacophony of sound when all of a sudden the doors fly open and Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s bodyguard walks in. And when Sinatra walked in behind him, everything stopped. The room went quiet, and the entire orchestra stood up.
I thought, “Well that’s neat. My band never does that for me!” (laughs) I watched Sinatra shake hands with all the guys in the band. But he didn’t waste much time before he looked at the conductor and said, “okay, let’s get started”. The conductor had his podium and Frank had a podium next to him. And Frank had the conductor’s scores. Have you ever seen a conductor’s scores?
It’s a 40-page continually-unfolding piece of music with everybody’s parts on it.
And this is what Frank is reading?
Yes. And I’m sitting back thinking, “ya right, that’s bullshit”. (laughing) I thought it was just for effect, right? (laughing) So they start the first tune and the conductor’s conducting and Frank’s following along, turning the pages. Again, I thought, “Na! Singers can’t read music!” At least I couldn’t at that time. But when they got through the whole thing and the conductor stopped, Frank looked up and said, “uh yea, okay, in Section B, bar 485, someone played a B flat. Who played a B flat? Who played the B flat??” Everyone in the orchestra looked at each other before a hand rose up, and then Sinatra said “No. It’s a B. It’s a B! Pencil that!” He goes through the whole chart. Sinatra goes through the whole chart pencilling in corrections!
“Okay, Section G bar 845, somebody is off early. It’s a G, and they’re off early! It’s one of the trombones... pencil that.” I watched the whole rehearsal and Sinatra did this with every tune. And then he left. I was amazed. It really opened my eyes. I’d never seen a big orchestra rehearse before, and I’d never seen a singer or anyone do THAT before.
It must have been awesome.
It was! So on opening night, after I finished my show, I went up to the sound booth to watch Sinatra. He did two shows, one at eight o’clock and one at ten o’clock. And when Sinatra walked on stage, everything just stopped. You could hear an intake of breath from the entire room. This was the first time I fully realized what the word thrill meant. All the hair on my neck and arms stood up. I’d never experienced anything like it before in my life. I felt I’d seen it all before and was disappointed too many times, ya know? But when Sinatra walked out on that stage, the feeling in the room was palpable. It was unbelievable. And then a huge standing ovation erupted which went on and on and on. When the audience finally quieted down, Sinatra didn’t speak more than twenty words, going from one song to the other, singing for about 40 minutes. I couldn’t have named five Frank Sinatra songs at the time, yet the songs were all familiar. And that’s because I’d heard them a million times, but never really paid any attention before. Now, every song is an institutional part of my memory.
Having an experience like that would leave an enormous impression!
But when I met him, I wondered if he was telling me the truth.
What do you mean?
When I was introduced to Sinatra at the reception, he said, “nice job kid. You’re doing a nice show.” Whether he actually came to my show, I’m not sure. He may have watched from the tech booth. Many of the stars, who didn’t want to make a scene by coming into the audience, would watch from the booth. Sinatra may or may not have watched my show, but Sammy Davis Jr certainly did, and so did Tom Jones.
Tom Jones? Really?
I was brought to Vegas to be introduced as Tom Jones’ bright new star, ya know? But Tom Jones was the biggest prick I’d ever met in my life. I think he had short man’s syndrome. He never let anyone taller than himself stand beside him. And I’d never seen anyone ruder to his fans. He was rude to me. He was rude to everyone. Jones didn’t like introducing me, and he didn’t like having me go places with him either. So I ended up telling him to fuck off in the middle of a Connie Stevens show.
Connie Stevens would do late night shows for the staff. It was about two o’clock in the morning when Tom Jones and his entourage, including myself, arrived at the show. Coming through the audience, the spotlight fell on us and Stevens introduced him. But much to my surprise, I also got introduced. And Jones didn’t like it. But then it got worse. Jones thought I was trying to steal his chick! His chick was a gorgeous Cuban showgirl who was so beside herself to be in the presence of Tom Jones. Before the show, Jones and Rocky, his bodyguard, got her really drunk on champagne and then were nothing but rude to her. She couldn’t speak any English, and they made jokes knowing she couldn’t understand them. When we got to the Connie Stevens show, she leaned into me and said in a thick Cuban accent, “I’m going to be sick… please, I’m going to be sick”. I thought, “uh oh, I don’t want her to vomit on me. I got my good stuff on!” (laughs) She was obviously in distress and Jones was ignoring her, so I stood up and started to help her out. With two thousand people in the room looking on, Rocky gets up and yells, “where are you going with her?!” It was so humiliating that I completely lost it. I was just trying to help the girl out after all, so I told them both to fuck off, and stormed out of the show! And let me tell ya, the next morning, I couldn’t believe the article that was printed in the Hollywood Reporter. It was eight inches long, two columns wide, and basically read, “Tom Jones extends hand to welcome Canadian singer who tells him to **** off.” The guys in my band were pissed, and Mathers, who originally brought me to Vegas, was incensed. I thought, oh no, my career’s over. Mathers called me to his house and even though I kept telling him, “I didn’t do anything! I wasn’t trying to steal his woman. I was just trying to help her out. Give me a break!” Mathers shouted, “NO! IN THIS BUSINESS YOU KISS EVERYBODY’S ASS! YOU KISS EVERYBODY’S ASS UNTIL YOU’RE ON TOP AND THEN…. EVERYBODY WILL KISS YOUR ASS!” When Mathers finished yelling, I turned to him and said, “Well ya know what? YOU CAN KISS MY ASS!” (laughs). I come from a family of real people, ya know? And this just didn’t compute for me. Back at the hotel, nobody would talk to me. I was like a pariah, totally shunned. The band kept saying, “We’re fired. I heard we’re fired!” I kept telling them, “until you hear it from me, we are not fired, and we go on at 10:00.” We were playing Nero’s Nook, a classy 300-seat lounge, and you know what? When I came down at twenty minutes to ten, there was a line-up of people there to see me! People who thought it was great that someone told Tom Jones to fuck off (laughs!). I never heard another word about it. In Las Vegas if there’s bums in the seats, nothing else matters.
Ha, what a story!
But ya know, I didn’t really want to work in Vegas after that. I was disillusioned. I finished my contract and went back one more time, but I just didn’t like it there anymore.
This was the time of the Rat Pack, right?
All the big casinos were basically owned or operated by organized crime figures. And there were really no black people. Sammy Davis Jr. was black and Billy Daniels was half black, and there were a few other black acts, but they didn’t stay at the casinos. The only other black people you saw besides a few performers were the cleaning staff or the support and service staff. These were also the times when, as long as you were gambling, even if it was just nickel slots, you got free booze, free food and all kinds of giveaways. But when Las Vegas got eaten up by large corporations concerned with social responsibility, it all came to an end. Booze was still offered for free for a little while longer, but only if you were playing craps or 21, and the drinks got smaller. Eventually, the free booze stopped altogether and the demographic began to change. Las Vegas lost its cachet, and became family-oriented when places like Circus Circus were built.
Hollywood loved to glamorize Las Vegas. Did Vegas really look the way it did in the original Oceans 11 movie?
It did. Yes, it was just like that. When I first started working the Strip, it was just a blacktop highway with gravel shoulders and these individual structures. There were no sidewalks, and all the big casinos on the Strip had a mile of desert between them. Then the road got paved into 6-lanes with big wide sidewalks and every space was filled with Orange Julius souvenir stores, mini gambling casinos, and everything else. Walking for blocks and blocks, it felt like Yonge Street to me. It really lost its cachet. My wife has never been to Vegas and she would like to go, but I’m reticent now. I was down there with a convention about five years ago, and I couldn’t wait to leave. It was like being at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition).
Back in those days, it was real show biz. Even the term show biz is rarely used anymore.
Show business is all a facade. The audience sees the sex, the glamour and the glitz, but when you’re inside it looking out, you see the backs of everything. You see the sticks and props and things that hold everything up. From the front you see a gorgeous million dollar pipe organ, but from the back it’s just cheap-formed plastic. That’s show biz.
The curtain pulled back to expose the Wizard.
Yes, a perfect metaphor. It did have the glamour you mention, but it was sin city. It was like an episode from a gritty cop drama. Prostitutes were everywhere, but the ones inside the casinos were the ones who made the cut. All other prostitutes were escorted out. If they came back, the cops would take them to the desert, rough ‘em up, and leave them there. And that’s if they got off lightly. The cops had tight control of Vegas because there was so much money involved. To work as an entertainer, not only did you have to have a visa to work in the States, but when you worked in Clark County, which is where Vegas is, you had to go in for a mug shots, fingerprints and always carry a sheriff’s card with your picture on it. People would come into the shows and ask to see your sheriff’s card. If you didn’t have it, you were cuffed. And I tell ya, the security in the hotels was amazing. People would get lost in the world of chandeliers and mirrored ceilings, but what they didn’t realize was… standing over the mirrored ceiling, on a catwalk, were guys walking back and forth watching the pit bosses. The pit bosses watched the dealers, and the floor people watch the customers. The security was unbelievable.
I’d like to hear more about Sammy Davis Jr. Why was he the best entertainer you ever met?
I watched Sammy perform a number of times and it was never the same show. He never had a rehearsed show. He had the same opener and the same closer, but other than that, it was an entirely different show each time. Whatever his audience called out for, he did. Behind him there’d be 26 or so musicians with a light on their music stands, so the audience could sort of see them, right? Sammy would start to talk about something or other and Howard, his musical director, would sense what was coming and direct the orchestra to turn the sheets to the right arrangement. But then someone in the audience would spontaneously call out for Candy Man, and you’d see the band start whipping the pages furiously back and forth, trying to find Candy Man. It was so funny. The band never knew. You could actually hear the flutter when they all tried to get on the same page. Sammy was great. He could read an audience. He knew exactly when to eat a heckler, or make something big and special for that certain someone. He knew how to personalize his show. He was a small guy, but he was a big entertainer. That was Sammy. The only other entertainer that impressed me similarly would be Liberace.
Liberace! Now there’s a showman!
I worked with Liberace at Caesars Palace. He was the kindest man. In Vegas, the main dressing rooms consisted of an outer room with a bar and a couple of couches, and then there was the dressing room where you actually showered and changed clothes. It was normal to want privacy with your friends and families after a show, right? But Liberace always left his dressing room door open. After the show there’d be a lineup of little old ladies, some younger, but mostly little old ladies, and Liberace would talk to each and every one of them individually, until there was no one left in the lineup to talk to. He would be wearing a smoking jacket or a robe, but after everyone left, he would shower and change and then head over to the Caesars restaurant, where he’d go around to all the tables and talk with everyone there! He was such a generous man. Liberace would give watches to people. He gave me a watch! Liberace’s fans meant everything to him. And Liberace would write nice little notes and give gifts to the gaffers and to the lowest of the crew. And as far as his shows went, they were always terrific. Liberace was an internationally renowned concert pianist before he came into show business, and I never saw anyone do quicker changes than him. He’d be out there with a gold lame tuxedo, finish the number, go back stage and in seconds be back in a blue suit, blue socks, and blue shoes. In literally seconds! He had it down to a science. Liberace would go into the audience and show women his rings. And then he’d look at their rings and say, “oooh, aahh, that’s a lovely one! But I didn’t have to do what you did!” (laughs) Liberace was so obviously gay. And people just loved it.
Yet Liberace went to such extremes to deny he was gay. I guess the denial stemmed from the generation he came from.
All through my career, people thought I was gay. People still think that today. One of my most popular songs was called My Wife The Dancer. (singing) “I met a girl who told me she was a dancer... a prettier girl I have never seen before... I went to the theatre to see her… what a shock (boom) when I opened up the door! (boom sha ka boom sha ka boom) She was doing the bump, the bump, the bumpity bump…” The guy in the song thought he met a real dancer, but she turned out to be a stripper. So I would do this whole strip routine with a boa, and I could be very feminine. I would pick the one guy in the audience who seemed to hate me the most, and go over and sit on his knee. But I’m part English, and there’s a theatrical tradition in Britain where men will dress up like women in farce musical comedies, like Dame Edith.
And Benny Hill.
I like upsetting people’s sensibilities. I don’t care if people think I’m gay. My family knows what I am. I know who I am. And my wife gets a big laugh out of it.
Before your time in Vegas, Grant Smith and the Power played places like Toronto’s Hawk’s Nest, the Broom and Stone in Scarborough, and the Jubilee Auditorium in Oshawa. Tell me about those days.
Guys like George Olliver and I started out playing high school dances for two thousand kids. We made really great money playing high schools. Student council presidents booked us because they wanted a good dance. And we gave it to them. It didn’t take long before we realized how to make money. Rather than argue with high schools about getting $500 as opposed to $300, we’d offer to play for $250 with 70% of the gate. If we got 2,000 kids at $4 a head, 70% of that was a pretty good pay day. We did this all over Ontario. But by the end of the 60s, everything changed. The rock festival phenomenon happened. Kids in parts of Ontario, particularly in Toronto, could now see performers like Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish…
All on the same bill.
For ten dollars! Kids could see several bands for twelve drug-fuelled hours at a time, for only ten dollars. This really changed the market. So high schools were out, and I started working night clubs. I’ve always been fortunate to have a good following and Toronto was full of great venues. Le Coq’dor, Friar’s Tavern, the Savarin, the Hook and Ladder; professional rooms that brought name acts in from the States. I started playing them and did very well. I’m a good entertainer and I have no compunction in saying that, because I am. I have a dynamite show. I do outrageous things occasionally, but not in a negative way. I’m a funny guy. I was an entertainer before I was a singer. When I became a front man, I really couldn’t sing too well. I moved and danced so much, it really didn’t matter, so I developed the facility to yell. I wasn’t as good at singing as I was at controlled yelling. But as I kept doing it, I became a better singer. I felt confident calling myself a singer after enough people told me I was. At some point I had to believe them, but I’m never completely satisfied with my work.
A perfectionist rarely is. But as an athletic front man who turned a room into an excited dance hall with your boyish sex appeal, I still can’t help wondering about your role models. I can’t seem to get the image out of my mind of little Grant Smith learning how to do it from watching Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show.
I always thought Elvis was good. I thought a lot of performers were good. And I loved James Brown. But those who have role models, often want to be them. When I was learning a song, I’d sing along with the record like everyone else, right? But I didn’t consciously try and copy the singers. I always had a strong sense of self. I mean, a lot of these acts I’d never seen. I only ever heard them. When I was young, my mother listened to Nat King Cole and would pick me up and dance me around the house. And my father was a soldier in an infantry unit with the best marching band in Canada. I became enamored with the drums. But there was one fateful night in particular that changed everything. I heard rhythm and blues for the very first time. I was probably in grade 7, and it was after my older brother moved out and I inherited his bedroom. Along with inheriting his bedroom, I also inherited his silver-toned record player and a bunch of Bill Haley and the Comets records. On this night while lying in bed, I could hear music, faintly. Just the high end of the music, but it didn’t seem to go away. I got up and stuck my head out the window. Being summertime, the window was wide open, but the sound wasn’t coming from out there. And it wasn’t coming from downstairs either, because no one was awake. It took me a while to realize the record player was still on. And what it was doing was picking up radio signals. The record player had a metal tone arm and when I picked it up, the sound came in more clearly. I thought this was really neat. Within a night or two, I had it all figured out. I got a piece of wire and after wrapping it around the cartridge, I would lay in bed with the other end of the wire in my mouth. I discovered that if the wire was wet, I was a better antenna. With the wire in my mouth, I heard the Righteous Brothers for the first time on WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee!
What young boys don’t get up to in their bedrooms late at night!
WLAC would come in and out, and the dj talked like a real southern guy. It all came together for me listening to this radio station. Unlike the way rock and roll was mixed at the time, R&B had a strong back beat and a strong drum presence in the music. Rock and roll drums were not mixed for the front of the music, like R&B was.
Do you remember what that first song was coming through the wire in your mouth?
“My Babe” by the Righteous Brothers. It was also the first time I heard Sam and Dave, Bo Diddley....
But you still had no idea what these bands looked like?
Nope. I would only have been around 12. And I had no knowledge of the existence of rhythm and blues before this.
And you owe it all to your brother for moving out of the house. (laughs)
I owe it all to my mother for kicking my brother out of the house! (laughs)
I’m the youngest of six kids, so I remember wanting the better room. And I remember wanting the record player. But I must say, I don’t recall ever putting wires in my mouth!
I was a really smart kid. When I was in grade 3, they were trying to figure out what to do with kids like me. Later, with eleven other gifted students, I was shipped off to a teacher’s college where we partook in experimental subjects and what became the new math, like negative numbers. Nobody ever took negative numbers before. We also took Latin and all kinds of psychological tests and exercises. And then I ended up going to school in Germany where my father was stationed in the army. And while at that school, I learned French, typing, and more advanced math. When I got back to Canada and entered grade 7, I was really ahead of the other kids in my class.
Ralph Miller, the trumpet player in Grant Smith and the Power is described as a driving force, and William “Smitty” Smith was recruited on grounds he could play bass on the pedals of his Hammond organ. Tell me what it’s been like fronting this band. I mean, there were a lot of musicians who played with The Power. How many are still in the band?
None of the original guys from The Power are still in the band. A couple of them are no longer in the music industry at all, and yet some have gone on to have pretty good careers in music. And a few of them are now dead. But great musicians came through my band because I knew how to pick them. And when you get a little success, you’re a magnet. When I first heard Fred Mandel, a young Jewish kid playing in a garage band, I offered him a job and he came on the road with me. He got his education playing with me, and then went off to play with Elton John for seven years. He’s now a studio musician living in L.A. Coming through my band was like coming through Ronnie Hawkins’ band. It was a finishing school where musicians learned that they had to practice to maintain a certain level. They were also taught not to chew gum on stage, to be on time, clean, and not to fuck around in hotel rooms. Many bands at the time thought it was cool to trash hotel rooms, but I never did. I did not think it was cool. I fired guys for disrespecting the property of people who were paying me money. But life on the road could have me drinking too much, smoking too much, and partying too much too. One year I was particularly burned out so I told the guys, “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.” I couldn’t say when I’d be booking the band again. So during that time, Steve Kennedy, Smitty, Wayne Stone and Kenny Marco who were my rhythm section, formed Motherlode who ended up with a huge selling record called When I Die.
Was that the same song that David Clayton Thomas wrote with Blood, Sweat and Tears?
No. (Grant sings it for me and it’s clearly not the same song). But speaking of David Clayton Thomas, I recorded a whole album of his material. It was never released, but I remember when David told me about the song Spinning Wheel. This was before Blood, Sweat and Tears, and when David played the song for me, I thought to myself, what a piece of shit! What goes up must come down? Spinning wheel got to go round? Talking about your troubles, it's a crying sin, ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin? I was trying to be a serious lyricist, and thought this was a piece of shit! (laughing) David told me I could record any of his stuff, except Spinning Wheel. I thought, thank god! Now I don’t have to tell him I don’t like the song! What great intuition I had, huh? (Spinning Wheel went on to become an enormously successful song, still heard regularly on radio today).
What about women on the road?
Oh yea, there were women on the road. But I never interfered with the personal lives of my musicians. I mean, some of the women on the road were in the band. But women weren’t really suited for the ruthlessness of the road. Not at that time.
Grant Smith and the Power played Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre in 1968 opening for The Hollies and Spanky & Our Gang before heading to the US as a support act for Janis Joplin, Traffic and Rare Earth. What are some of your memories of Janis Joplin?
Janis was always really loaded. Because she was erratic, she had serious management control around her. I didn’t see a lot of her on the road, but I got to know her in New York. And she liked me. She appreciated that I wasn’t an ass-kisser. And she liked my band. When she was sober, Janis was a quiet, vulnerable, soft-spoken chick. But alcohol turned her into a loud, fearless, man-eating monster.
Did she try to get you to drink with her?
We didn’t hang out a lot, but we we did drink together. When she was recording in New York, she would come see me play. We’d have lunch. I think I was a respite for her from the people she hung out with. I wasn’t like other people who treated her like a goddess.
Have you seen the film Festival Express? Janis Joplin’s partying ways are well documented in it, along with members of The Band and the Grateful Dead.
Yes. That was a strange era. Everybody thought the new 60s sensibility was the way to go. And many thought it would go on forever and ever. But it was just a brief wave. I’m eternally glad I came up through it all, but I was never a flower child. I was an R&B act. However, nobody could help being affected by the greater sense of openness at that time, the acceptance of others, and the free love. Sex was rampant.
As a band that formed in Yorkville in the 60s, you were there at a time when some of the most influential music was being made. Are there any artists from that period that you got to know prior to the mega-success that led some of them to iconic status?
Joni Mitchell was an artist that everyone knew would become something. Incredibly talented and foxy looking, Joni had a special air about her. On any weekend in Yorkville, there would be eight bands playing within a two block radius; each one with their own style and following. But on a social level, we mixed with everyone. It felt like we were getting away with something. And it was such a good time! We were making very little money, but living on two submarine sandwiches a day was easy to do. Renting an apartment in Toronto was only $100 a month, or you could rent a room for $15 a week. And a bag of pot was $15.
But unlike others coming up at that time, you already had the experience of touring the United States.
My experience was envied by some of the guys, but most of them were shooting for the hit record, the big recording success. I was influenced by the R&B acts still performing covers; performing covers in new ways. But if you didn’t write your own material at this time, publishing companies weren’t interested. By then, it may not have been such a great time for me had I not already had the level of success I did. I was very fortunate.
Tell me more about your first band and how you got started.
I got kicked out of school when I was 16. I had two factory jobs; one lasted a week and the other lasted three weeks. One day when I was laying about watching tv, my mother who spent most of her time in the kitchen, came out and hovered over me. She had cut an advertisement out of the paper and was dangling it in front of me. “If you don’t get this job, you’re going to have to find another place to live!” As she walked away, the ad fluttered down and landed on my chest. I picked it up and it read, “drummer wanted for comedy rock and roll band. Must be willing to travel.”
Comedy rock and roll?
I called the number and an audition was set up. I passed the audition and was on the road the following week. This was the start of my career. And I immediately set about changing the band (laughing). It sounds like a shitty thing to do, but the slapstick comedy was stupid, and outdated. The band consisted of three brothers from Denmark. Their father was a professional musician, but decided to move the family here to become beet farmers. But once the boys started playing in a band on weekends, they decided playing music was far more lucrative than being beet farmers. Their father went back to Denmark and the boys went on the road. We were called Zeke and the Moonshiners. They were really good musicians, but after about a month or so, I convinced them to drop the comedy and change our name to The Missing Links. We covered material by Roy Orbison and Frank Ifield. We were a good rock and roll band, made better by travelling to Todd’s Mens Wear in Detroit to buy suits.
Did the band just tour Canada or did you cross borders?
It was just Ontario and Quebec then, but (and George Olliver will disagree with this), we became the first white act recorded by Chess Records in Chicago. (laughing) It was never released, but I have the acetate of it somewhere. Recording at Chess was not a good experience for us. There was definite cultural animosity. I mean, we were a white band playing Roy Orbison stuff! But we got the deal as a favour for our manager. We travelled to Chicago in a 1958 Ford Fairlaine and when taking a break from the recording, we stepped out of the studio to find our car sitting up on blocks with no wheels (laughing). Welcome to Chicago, boys! We got a van and began working for an agent. Agents had a circuit and if you worked with an agent, you worked all his clubs. There were shitty clubs, mediocre clubs, and really nice clubs. I wanted to chase the money, so we had to travel a lot to play the really nice clubs. We’d travel from Northern Quebec to Thunder Bay and from Thunder Bay to Belleville and Belleville to Montreal and Montreal to Windsor. It was 1964, and we made more money in one week than my father did in an entire month. It was great!
What was it like travelling with The Power? It must’ve been chaotic with so many musicians on the road.
I kept it lean. I had one road man, sometimes two. If I needed extra, I would hire casual help once we got there, or have our agent hire someone ahead of time. The equipment wasn’t as big back then and we were a lot more mobile, but there did come a time in the 60s when equipment started to outpace the talent. Acts became enamored with the larger sound. I always hated it. I held off miking the drums for the longest time because I knew if I miked the drums, I’d have to compensate for everything else. This was before everyone started cutting holes in their drums , and all the shit they do now. I’d only put a mic in front of the bass drum. I was always conscious of sounding too loud. I didn’t want to exceed a certain level.
Having completed a tour of the US, Grant Smith and the Power recorded a version of Keep on Running by the Spencer Davis Group at Art Snider’s Sound Studio. The 45 became a hit single.
We got pitched Keep on Running by the publishing company after Spencer Davis released it in England. Multi-track recording was new at the time, so I was excited about recording at Art Snider’s Sound Studio. Art Snider was a producer connected to pretty much everything, and the studio was located in Don Mills. The studio was also known for its engineer, Greg Hambleton. Keep on Running was good for our career but the song has haunted me my entire life. We had just come off the road and I was asked to lay down a ghost vocal with the understanding I would do the final vocals after everything else was completed. But one day, l got a call from my bass player telling me the record had been released and was being sold at Sam the Record Man. I went down to Sam’s and sure enough, there was my record! When I finally got a hold of John Irvine, the producer, he told me, “oh, the ghost track was good enough, don’t worry, it was good enough, it was good enough!” I was so disappointed. I didn’t get to record the vocals the way I wanted to. And when the song became a hit, I had to listen to it all the time. I was so pissed off! (laughing)
What was Tony Orlando’s involvement with the recording?
Tony Orlando was a huge recording star in the 60s, similar to Frankie Avalon and the era of syrupy pop songs. But after he took a job with MGM Records as an A&R man, he came to Trudy Heller’s looking for talent . Trudy Heller’s was THE place in New York for the jet set to be seen. And my band was playing there. Orlando came to see us a few times. We liked each other. He would hang out with me and my bass player, and eventually offered us a deal with MGM. The deal led to the recording at Art Snider Sound Studio. Not long after he left MGM, Tony Orlando hooked up with Dawn and had a hit with Tie a Yellow Ribbon. I just talked to Tony last year when he was playing at Casino Rama. He looks great. Obviously a little heavier, but...
Does he still have the moustache?
Yup. Tony looks funny without the moustache; at least to me he does. I saw him without it once, and his lip looked like it was a yard long! Orlando’s a nice guy and he was instrumental in signing a lot of acts for MGM.
Back when James Brown played the Apollo Theatre, the audience was mainly black. But later, his audience looked mostly white. What happened to cause such a noticeable change in the demographic of the audience.
Well, the black audience never went away. It was always there. But as R&B became more financially viable and more popular a commodity amongst white people, the larger venues started booking the black acts. But black audiences didn’t go to the larger venues. The Apollo Theatre for example, is quite small.
What was it like for Grant Smith and the Power playing black clubs in America?
I didn’t work many, but I did work The Sugar Shack in Boston. The only white people you’d see there would be the fat blonde chick and her pimp. After booking me, some black clubs would be totally surprised to find I’m white. On the back of the album cover there’s a picture of William Smith, who’s black, and they naturally assumed he was the singer. I’d get there and tell them “no, I’m the singer. Smitty isn’t even in the band anymore”. But we did well. Unlike some of other bands who looked like they just pulled a needle out of their arm, my band was always clean. Clean and fresh faced with Beatle haircuts, wearing white shoes, white socks, and suits.
Again, I’m thinking James Brown. I like how the JBs always had to have their eye on Brown, waiting for his hand signals. James Brown, I believe, was also very perfectionistic with his band. Have you met James Brown?
Yes, I have. And we shared the same stage. The first time I played with James Brown there was racial tension between me and his band. He was surrounded by guys who were very jealous of success. They came from places of poverty. They were very protective. If there was a common dressing room, it was their dressing room. James Brown was a nice guy, but the first time I talked to him, I couldn’t understand one word the man said. (laughs) And if he was talking with his entourage, he was even harder to understand. He spoke very fast with a heavy Georgia accent.
When and where was this?
It would have been nineteen seventy something at Glen Park Inferno in Buffalo. I played six nights a week for approx 200 people in the small room. On the weekend, I would move into the bigger room and open up for the bigger acts. And one of them was James Brown. And Brown smoked that audience of white college kids. He just smoked ‘em! I also played with Parliament Funkadelic when they were still called the Parliaments, back before they dropped acid (laughs) to become the Funkadelics! Back when they did nice choreography, and wore suits.
What was George Clinton like?
He was a good cat. When I first worked with them they dressed in Todd’s Men’s Wear. All the black acts dressed in slick looking suits back then. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were exactly the same. Patent-leather shoes to go with the hair, and suits.
But perhaps it’s not always the acid that changes the image. What about the Elvis Presley syndrome? Give a poor boy a million dollars and watch his attire rapidly escalate to the outrageous.
I am so infused with Elvis-lore right now. I’ve been working on a documentary for three years. After hearing about the Collingwood Elvis Festival, I went there to shoot some footage. The festival has been growing bigger every year, so I wanted to document it. I didn’t know what I would get, but in my usual subtle way I marched into the festival office and spoke to the person in charge. I requested backstage access, and she graciously gave it to me. And it was what you’d call a Rambo shoot; no script. We finally have the thing composed now, and the nitty gritty of the final edit has begun. I’m editing from 40 hours of interviews.
But why Elvis? Hasn’t everything been documented on Elvis already?
The film is about the Elvis fan, the phenomenon of the Elvis fan.
Did you have to secure rights and permissions from the Elvis estate?
Elvis Presley Enterprises would like to exert more control of the Collingwood Elvis Festival. And when they heard about my documentary, they sent me a cease and desist letter. But there’s nothing of Elvis in this film, other than what people say.
Incredible. I don’t know how Elvis Presley Enterprises controls it all. It must be an enormous task. Elvis is everywhere!
I spoke to a copyright lawyer, and I’m told we have nothing to worry about. But nonetheless, I’m putting a warning message at the beginning of the doc which says, “the following program contains scenes which are Pelvis in nature”. (laughs) I became fascinated by the Elvis fan when I met Presley in Vegas.
You met the King of Rock and Roll? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s met Elvis Presley before!
Well there’s not much to tell. It was just a handshake. Back in the 70s, the entertainment director at Caesars Palace took me to watch his show from the tech booth. I looked at Elvis as a charismatic guy who was a good entertainer. And one thing Elvis would do is head to the casino after the show. Not to gamble, but just to walk through for PR and photo opportunities. You know, a shot of him leaning on the crap table, or something like that.
How was he dressed when he walked through?
He looked just like Elvis would; wearing leather and a high collar. The casino would be jammed with people waiting for him. While they waited, they’d gamble. It was all part of the casino culture. And the buzz he created was absolutely amazing. I was introduced to Elvis as “Grant Smith from Canada, and he works here”.
So what did his handshake feel like? Did you feel the weight of the rings on his fingers?
I don’t really remember, but he did have rings on. Elvis looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “pleased to meet you”. Over the years, I became more and more amazed over the Elvis fan and how they came in all shapes and sizes; like the Jewish lawyer with a painting of Presley on his office wall. Or the Elvis fan spewing endless Elvis trivia. Truck drivers, letter carriers, doctors, and doctors who live in Japan, are all Elvis fans. It’s amazing. There are three English words that are apparently known all over the world: Jesus Christ, Coca Cola and Elvis Presley. But I realized the Elvis of today is totally whitewashed and a sterilized version of what he once was. Elvis Presley has taken on a religious reality. I captured footage of a woman with a shrine in her bedroom. She has an alter with pictures of Jesus, but in the centre is a photo of Elvis. It’s actually Presley’s face photo-shopped on the body of someone else, dressed in robes with a halo. She says Elvis is the intermediary when she prays to God. She believes Elvis can speak to God on her behalf. She told me, “Elvis was such a good person, a holy person. Elvis led a perfect life. He donated to hundreds of charities. And the problems he had in life and the reason he died was because he gave so much to his fans.”
Didn’t it make you crazy listening to this?
I don’t wish to denigrate the Elvis fan; I just want to document what it is. Some people I asked said, “I don’t want to be interviewed if you’re going to make me look like a freak.” And there was an agonizing decision I had to make over one guy I interviewed. He was this obese guy with emphysema, diabetes and oxygen tubes in his nose. His house was full of Elvis paraphernalia; Elvis key chains, Elvis watches, Elvis lunch boxes, Elvis blankets, Elvis towels and he knew every bit of Elvis-minutia. He knew the address of every place Elvis ever lived; he knew Elvis’ teachers and friend’s names and he even knew Elvis’ father’s boss’ name!
And we wonder why Elvis is dead!
I spent two hours interviewing this guy in his house while his wife waited in the kitchen. His wife would only come out occasionally, and when she did, I got bad vibes from her. She was very protective of her husband, and she really didn’t want me there. After the interview was done, well, the guy died. And his wife tracked me down to ask me not to use his interview in the documentary. It was too embarrassing for his family, and she didn’t trust me to use her husband in a sensitive way. It was an agonizing decision, but I told her I wouldn’t use it. It’s too bad. It was unbelievable stuff. There’s a property manager in Niagara Falls who summed it up perfectly. He said, “the thing about the Elvis phenomenon is everyone has their own Elvis. You’ve got your Elvis, he’s got his Elvis, and I have my Elvis, and they’re all different. The most important thing is, we can get together and share the good feelings our individual Elvis’ bring to us, in a communal way.” I thought this was a good take on it. I also found that the majority of Elvis fans, whether male or female, said it was their father that first turned them on to Elvis. Not one of the people I interviewed said they were introduced to Elvis by their mother, or brother or sister, but always the father. I found this interesting. Wait till you see the documentary. It’s amazing. It’s got all the necessary things for a religious movement; artifacts, precious relics, shrines, pilgrimages, preachers and disciples.
Compared to show business in the 60s and 70s, what are your thoughts on music today and are you surprised by the implosion of the record industry?
It’s hard for me to comment on music today. It’s like standing on the outside looking in. I don’t really listen to today’s music. But the singers on some of those shows like American or Canadian Idol are tremendous singers. But I think I like it because the songs chosen for them to sing are old R&B songs.
Grant Smith (left), George Olliver (centre) and Glen Hill
There are many musicians who don’t go out and support their own. If you don’t listen to music around the house, do you go out to see music in your community?
I like the Chick n Deli. It’s an older crowd and I can hear music there from my era. I don’t go out much, but the Deli is a few blocks from my house. And Robbie Lane likes to get me up to sing a few. There’s really only one reason musicians don’t go out to support each other. It’s economic. They can’t afford it. Through my career, there were always places I could play, six nights a week. I was at the top of the heap of whatever heap I was in. There were a lot of opportunities, and I always made great money. Bands today play for nothing, or they play for the door. As a result, they can’t afford much. In my day, Toronto had more live gigs than any city in North America. We had Paul Shaffer working at the Bermuda. Greed was the number one reason the industry fell apart. The best way to satisfy greed is to take things down to the lowest common denominator, so you can sell more units. And doing that will destroy the artistic content of anything. If profit is the prime motivation in any industry, it will eventually self-destruct. And it may have seemed like our salvation at the beginning, but when music moved to the internet, the quality got lost. It’s shit content now. And it’s got very insular with musicians making and selling music from computers and marketing their music from computers. If you don’t get feedback from an audience, it’s like masturbation. But the music business will re-invent itself because it’s an innate part of the human condition to have music, to perform music, and to listen to music. And when it comes to the show, I have as much concern over how good the meal is, how good the lighting is, and how clean the washrooms are, as I do over the music. I try to ensure that everyone who leaves at the end of the night will say, “What a great night! I had such a great time!” I always have to achieve this level to maintain my enthusiasm for it.
Hearing you say this really appeals to me. I don’t know how many shows I’ve been to where the music may be at the level of quality I expect, but the door person will be rude, the bartender will ignore me, and the washrooms will have no toilet paper, and none of the hand driers work. I hate that.
Anybody who’s rude in my camp is gone. The only person who can be rude is me. But if somebody makes me rude, they’ve really accomplished something. And then, they’re gone.
Greed may have destroyed the business, but I also think the industry played a role in destroying some of the artists. Look at Jimi Hendrix for instance. From what I’ve read, Hendrix could never say no. I think he was taken advantage of by the record companies and, just like so many other artists, this led to his death.
I don’t think anybody should blame another person for what happens to them. Ultimately, you are your own responsibility. I’ve been through drugs myself. I’ve done every drug imaginable, but I would have done drugs whether I was in show business or stock car racing.
But you’re not as easy to take advantage of. People like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were. They’d let themselves be taken advantage of, and then go off and drink themselves to death. The music business should take some responsibility for that.
Jimi Hendrix was a death waiting to happen. I tell ya, I never saw anyone take as much as acid as Jimi Hendrix.
You’ve met Jimi Hendrix?
Yes, when I was playing Trudy Hellers. Trudy Hellers was a really expensive and exclusive place in New York City. Normal people did not go there. The audience consisted of fucked up sons and daughters of wealthy people who had nothing better to do but get stoned. It was that slice of life that people used as an example of what was wrong with America. It was one of those places that always made the society pages... “so and so was seen at Trudy Hellers”. But one night when I was working there, a couple of groupies came in. They talked endlessly about how close friends they were with some famous people. I thought they were full of shit, but when they invited me and another guy from my band back to their apartment to get high, of course I went. But it wasn’t because I cared if they were friends with celebrities or not. I just I wanted to get high. The apartment was in a fabulous old brown stone right at Central Park, and once there, we immediately got smashed on hash. Then the girls told us that Jimi and Noel Redding were coming over. The only reason I knew they were talking about Jimi Hendrix was because of Noel Redding. And I thought, yea okay sure, Jimi Hendrix is coming over, right. We continued drinking and getting totally smashed when, ding dong! And in walks Noel Redding and Jimi Hendrix.
Oh my god. What was your first impression?
I wasn’t star struck, but when Jimi Hendrix walked in, it was like he stepped right off his album cover, with the big hat, fur vest and rings. And Noel Redding had that huge afro. They introduced themselves, sat down, and then Jimi brought out a folded piece of paper with tons of acid on it. I was always a cautious guy, so when Hendrix passed the acid around, I split my hit in two and only took half. Hendrix took two. Time, as well as acid has warped some of my memory, but it didn’t seem like very long before Hendrix asked if we wanted more. I watched Hendrix take six hits of acid. I was getting off pretty good with just half a hit, and Hendrix took six hits of acid in an hour, or maybe an hour and a half. And he still looked the same. He didn’t change at all! He was so laid back, and didn’t say much.
Were the girls crawling all over him?
Nope. Everybody was just really stoned. Music was playing. And I kept staring at him. I just kept staring at him in disbelief. He took six hits of acid! And he didn’t seem to change. I changed (laughs). It was strong acid. I hallucinated. But I can’t recall anything more remarkable happening.
Hendrix didn’t pull out his guitar and start wanking it right there in front of you? (laughing)
After three or four hours, I was pretty fucked up, so I left. But ya know what? I saw Hendrix perform when he was still Little Richard’s guitar player. The reason I remember him was not just because he played left-handed and played the guitar upside down. What I remember about Hendrix at that time was… he wore a suit.
All photos courtesy of Grant Smith.
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