G.E. Smith Teams With LeRoy Bell on New Album

“I’ve been looking for a singer for 30 years,” says G.E. Smith, the legendary guitarist for Bob Dylan and Hall & Oates. “I wanted a very specific kind of voice, sort of like Paul Rodgers’, with a little grit in it, a voice that could do rock’n’roll and blues and Motown. My wife Taylor listens to a lot more stuff on the internet than I do, and she said, ‘Listen to this; this might be what you’ve been searching for.’ Right away I knew this was the guy. I didn’t know him and I hoped we would get along, but this was the voice.”

The voice belonged to LeRoy Bell, 68, who had had a top-15 pop single, “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night,” as one half of Bell & James back in 1979. Along the way, Bell had written songs for Elton John, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight and more. Smith, also 68, was convinced as soon as he heard the video. He invited Bell to fly from Seattle to Long Island to see how they might work together.

As they sat down in Smith’s music room at his home in Amagansett, the host asked the guest if he was working on anything new. Bell picked up his acoustic guitar, hit a reverberating chord and moaned, “Uh-huh-uh-huh.” Pretty soon he was singing in a kind of Bill Withers soul chant, “I can hear babies cry; Mama’s hands are getting tied.” When the chorus came along, Bell testified, “How I miss the way we were, America.”

The song became the centerpiece of the newly released album from G.E. Smith and LeRoy Bell, Stony Hill. The video for the song, showcased here, is a black-and-white montage of scenes from America’s past and present: a cavalry charge, D-Day troops landing in France, mushroom clouds, protesters thronging in the streets under picket signs, chain links rolling off a conveyor belt.

In the midst of it all is Bell, standing on a grassy hilltop, moaning “Uh-huh-uh-huh.” Sporting a broad-brim hat, shades and a salt-and-pepper goatee, Bell looks and sounds like a prophet in the wilderness, warning, “No dreamers anymore; democracy is out the door.” Soon he is sitting across a chess board from Smith with his deep-creased face and pulled-back hair. Smith answers Bell’s every knight attack with a pawn countermove and every bluesy moan with a stinging electric-guitar lick.

“The song says that even though things are bad,” Smith explains, “things are going to get better, like Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Keep on Pushing.’ LeRoy does not write from a hopeless stance. We only did two live shows before the virus came along, and by the time the second chorus came along, the audience was singing along to the ‘uh-huh-uh-huh.’ That moan is an affirmation, an old blues thing, even though the song isn’t a blues.”

That’s not the only song on the new album that addresses the nation’s state of permanent crisis—riven by partisan divides over policing, immigration, climate change, government health care, corruption and the response to the coronavirus. Smith and Bell tried to find ways to deal with these issues without turning the songs into speeches. Both “America” and “Under These Skies” address America as if it were a longtime lover that has betrayed the narrator. The singer still loves his partner but demands that she change her behavior.

Those two songs were written by Bell, but Smith and his wife Taylor Barton co-wrote “Take Cover,” an allegory about the elites battling each other like an eagle and a snake while ordinary citizens scramble for cover like smaller animals in the desert. “Change Is Coming Now,” co-written by Smith and Bell, turns the Sam Cooke song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” inside out. In this case, the approaching change will be rising water or gentrification that will push working people out of their neighborhoods.

“These songs are broader than just our current political situation,” Smith says. “You want to be artful and subtle when you talk about this stuff. The best lyrics speak to people but also allow people to have their own ideas; that generates thinking in people. ‘America’ does that by being imagistic: ‘Mama’s hands are getting tired.’ Whatever your life experience is, it speaks to that.”

When Smith started playing guitar in the early ‘60s, the folk-music revival was in full swing, and the first songs he learned were folk ballads such as the traditional “Black Is the Color” (made famous by Joan Baez) and ‘Codine,” {cq} written and recorded by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Smith has played them ever since but never got a chance to record them till this album.

“I recently found this pamphlet from the 1930s, Songs of the Hill Folk,” Smith says, “and it had lyrics for ‘Black Is the Color.’ I’d always wanted to rock that song up. We had recorded it with me singing it, but Taylor said, ‘We should really have LeRoy sing it.’ So we re-recorded it in his key. I don’t know what the songwriters meant, but I always thought it was a white guy in love with a black girl, like code. For LeRoy to sing it, he brings something else to it.”

Bell also got an early start in the music business. His uncle was Thom Bell, the legendary songwriter and producer who worked with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to define the Philly Soul sound of the ‘70s. The uncle produced career-defining albums for the O’Jays, Stylistics and Spinners and wrote such enduring songs as “Betcha by Golly Wow,” “I’ll Be Around” and “La-La (Means I Love You).” He recruited his nephew as a staff songwriter for Philadelphia International Records and secured a record deal for the duo Casey & Bell (Casey James and LeRoy Bell) with A&M Records in 1978.

Smith’s own career breakthrough also had a connection to the Philly Soul scene. In 1979, about to marry Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, Smith was hired as lead guitarist and van driver for Hall & Oates, the Philly soul stars, who were trying to rebuild their careers in New York. It was perfect timing, for in 1981 the duo began an amazing streak of a dozen top-10 pop singles, including five #1’s, in just five years. It made Smith’s reputation.

“I can play the guitar,” Smith says with a shrug. “There are a million guitar players out there who are better technically than me, but people seem to like the way I play. But I’m not as good a singer as I am a guitarist—if I were, I’d be a lot more famous than I am. I started playing when I was five, got serious when I was seven and by 11 I was gigging. Along the way, I’ve gotten to play with a lot of the great singers: Daryl Hall, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. I wanted to have a singer like that in my band; I knew if I found that singer, it would come together. LeRoy is that singer.”

Smith left Hall & Oates to become the leader of the Saturday Night Live house band in 1985, a job he kept for 10 years. During that time, he also toured with Dylan and Roger Waters’ The Wall Live tour. Smith was the music director for the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, a 1992 tribute to Dylan at Madison Square Garden. Unlike many people, Smith defends Dylan’s singing.

“Bob is not Frank Sinatra,” Smith says, “but he has a unique voice. This new record he put out has got people excited again. He’s tremendously expressive, and he’s famous for changing the way he sings the songs, pretty much every time he does them. He sings songs with a lot of lyrics, and his phrasing is incredible, always spot on. Phrasing is very important to me as an instrumentalist. I’ve always listened to jazz horn players from the 20s and 30s who had the same phrasing.”

Playing drums on the album is Simon Kirke, famous for being a founding member of both Free and Bad Company. He’s now a Long Island neighbor of Smith, who calls him “the master of the big, English tom-tom fill.” Kirke, who still tours with Bad Company, can’t afford to make this new act his priority, but Smith can. The guitarist/producer finished mixing the album in February and was making plans for the supporting tour when the pandemic lockdown came.

Everything ground to a halt. The live dates were cancelled, and BMG delayed the album’s release till June. In the meantime, Smith has been doing a deep dive into the lap steel guitar, something he’s always wanted to do but never had to time for. He’s also doing a lot of songwriting, but he’s unsure what the future holds.

“We’re all out of work,” he says; “the industry has been devastated. I’ve heard that as many as 60% of the small venues have gone bankrupt and won’t reopen. Those places work on a two-week margin, and it’s been three months now. The entertainment business has been very fragile. Even when they do open up, a 300-seat venue can’t open at 40% capacity; they’ll still lose money.”

But he hasn’t lost faith in his new duo. He’s been waiting 30 years for a vocalist like Bell, and he’s not going to let go of him now.

“A lot of people can sing well but still not give the lyrics what they deserve,” Smith adds, “but LeRoy does. He can express a lot of emotion without going over the top. When I pushed him in the studio, he knew just what I wanted. It’s always so much easier for me as a player if the song’s a good song. You’ll come up with good parts, because the words and melody will tell you what to play. If it’s a bad song, you end up fighting it, searching for something to play.”

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