Tony Smith didn’t own a set of drums until he was twenty. But then, he quickly made up for lost time, and eventually made his reputation with Jan Hammer and John McLaughlin. Today, Smith lives in New York City. At the time of this interview, he was wrapping up his first album as a solo artist-composer, and preparing to place it with a major label. For after ten years of touring and recording with artists including Jeff Beck, Malo, Gabor Szabo, Loading Zone, Azteca, Papa John Creach, Ray Gomez, Hammer and McLaughlin, he’s begun to find the “self a leader needs to succeed.
MR: Was there music in your home as you grew up?
TS: My father, Allen Smith, is a professional trumpeter in San Francisco. He does the first chair spot when any big name comes to town: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald. But he’s not really a studio musician. At this point, he can virtually pick his situations. As I grew up, he was doing road gigs, session work, and club gigs. He did a Benny Goodman tour for awhile. And he was friends with Miles, Dizzy, Johnny Otis, and Cal Tjader.
Because my parents were divorced, that really wasn’t a direct influence. What did steer me was all the time I spent at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather was, and still is, a choir director. My grandmother played piano, composed, even made a few records and sang in the choir. I listened to the records they had around the house, too.
MR: When did you start playing an instrument?
TS: In the third grade, in the school band. I’d always liked to bang on things with my hands or a spoon, and it was obvious I was meant to play drums. But the band didn’t need any more drummers. I had a choice of trumpet or sax, and I chose trumpet, but every time the percussion section was empty, I’d be over there playing on everything I could.
MR: Did your father help you with the trumpet?
TS: Not directly, because I just wasn’t that inspired by the instrument. Learning it was just like going to math class. I never wanted to stand up and do a solo. If I had to, I’d just go into a practice room, write it out, memorize it and just play it out. Finally, when I was eighteen, and had graduated from high school, I said I’d had it with the trumpet; I wanted to play drums.
MR: So how did you start?
TS: Well actually, as a vocalist in an r&b band, while I was in City College. This, at least, got me out gigging around the music I wanted to play as a drummer. When I was twenty, my father worked out a deal for me with a friend of his who owned a music store. I got a used Japanese set for $350. I paid my Dad ten dollars a month to pay for it, but I wore out the drums before I was through.
MR: So you were self-taught?
TS: Yes. It took me a year to get coordinated, because I’m left handed. But I didn’t want to play lefty. I didn’t want to rearrange them just to suit my left hand. I wanted to be ambidextrous.
MR: What drummers did you listen to?
TS: For the basic things, I was listening to Greg Errico with Sly. In fact, I was with a band that would often open for Freddie and the Stone Souls, led by Freddie Stone, Sly’s brother. And their drummer was Greg. When he got with Sly, I’d listen to what he’d recorded, without even knowing that a lot of it was multitracked, and try to play along.
MR: When did you start working?
TS: I was twenty-two. I hooked up with an organ player friend of mine whose idol was Jimmy Smith. We found a guitarist who was into Kenny Burrell, and so I started listening to Grady Tate. We did wedding receptions, one-room parties. I was playing a very solid backbeat with a little jazz in it, but eventually I said, “There’s got to be something more.” I didn’t want to go to a teacher. I’d been to a teacher once, and paid him eight dollars a half-hour for about four lessons, and realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it. It was better for me to combine practice with the challenge of a new gig. So I took a gig with a Sly-type band called The Brothers And.
MR: Could you support yourself in a local band like that?
TS: Well, not really, but I was living at home. I needed the experience of coordinating my drumming with my singing. The band worked itself into being really tight and we even started doing some demo work. It was a good growing situation. But then, I had an accident and had to go to the hospital. While I was in, the band got another drummer. That took care of my singing and playing. It seemed really cold at the time, but it worked out for the best, because when I got out, I joined a more challenging group, The Western Edition. The horn players in it were really professional; the bass player had an incredible feel for rock and roll; there was a conga player; and there was Wendy Haas, the organ player now with Kenny Rankin. They were a completely different group. We started to do club dates, and the experience was taking me in an entirely different direction.
Then, after we were together about a year, the group broke up, and I joined Loading Zone, which at the time was a very well-known San Francisco band, with even some national exposure. Wendy Haas was on keys, Linda Tillery was the singer, Tom Coster was also on keyboards, Doug Rauch was on bass, and Bruce Conte, who later went with Tower of Power, was on guitar. It was smoking, and a big step up for me.
MR: All that syncopated, Tower of Power-type funk is a very special thing. What is it, technically, from a drummer’s viewpoint?
TS: It’s hard to explain. To me, it’s a circular motion. And it’s like mathematics; every player has a piece of the pie, perpetually playing their own part. If you keep it up, it starts to lock into itself, and just take off. I heard a lot of it from David Garibaldi. At this one rehearsal studio, Loading Zone was always on one side of a wall, and Tower on the other. It’s subtle. Doug Rauch, the bassist, really taught me about it. He showed me a few things you can do to keep a sixteenth-note feeling while only really playing quarter or eighth notes. That way you can be subtle, and still sound like an express train—like two drummers. Bashing can wear you out, so you have to turn to technique. Like doubles and triples with your bass, paradiddles backwards and forwards, exchanging beats between hand and foot, and counter rides on the cymbals. It’s a matter of splitting yourself up; this hand does one thing, the other does another. When you hear it really propel a group like Loading Zone or Tower of Power, it inspires you.
MR: What happened after Loading Zone?
TS: I took a job with Gabor Szabo. Spider Webb had left Gabor, and Tom Coster who was with him then, recommended me. But after a year of mainly working up and down the West Coast, and no recording, I saw that not too much was going to happen, so I split. I’d done session work for Grunt Records, on Jack Bonus and Papa John Creach albums, which were my first recordings, and I wanted to keep my career moving. So, this was 1973, I auditioned for Malo.
MR: How did your style have to change, fitting into all that Latin percussion?
TS: I’m usually pretty adaptable, but it took me a few months to learn about clave. Francisco Aquabella, the conga player, taught me a lot. Latin is slightly on top while holding the time down. I was very tense for awhile, but Francisco got through to me. I learned to keep the time going, and to break it up within the clave. My chops picked up because it was an endurance thing, on the vamps especially. I had to play behind each of the soloists, and there were eleven people in the band. New rhythms were being thrown at me all the time, before I even got into the flow, but I’m grateful to Latin music. Because of all the offbeat rhythms, I was able to understand more complex rhythmic forms. The music’s also given me a sense of structure, and of the meaning of rhythm.
MR: What happened next?
TS: Pete Escovedo, the timbales player, asked me to join Azteca, which took the Malo experience another step further. They played a lot of 6/4 and 6/8, plus Latin, rock, and funk. It was a heavy test of everything I knew.
But when the band broke up, it left me at a crossroads. I was making good bucks, but I was still in school. All the road work had stretched my college out. I was 25, and the question was “Do I really want to be out on my own, away from the town I grew up in, a full-fledged professional?” I mean, I was getting a taste of national exposure already. I’d done two records with Malo, a record date with Santana, and written lyrics for and sung the lead on a single Columbia put out for Jose “Chepito” Areas (“Morning Star”). And, I had a chance to audition for Quincy Jones. It was time to make up my mind. So when Doug Rauch asked me to go to New York to play with Jan Hammer, I said “yes.”
MR: Was it a good move?
TS: It was scary. The drug scene was making San Francisco pretty crazy, but people-wise, New York was still so cold. The band, Jerry Goodman, Doug, Jan and myself, were going to live, work and rehearse on Jan’s farm, north of the city. And that was a lot more habitable. We worked all the time. I learned about odd time signatures and a way of drumming I had never considered before. Up till then, I’d played 4/4 or 6/8; I hadn’t tried 11/8 or 15/8 or 19 or 20. When I finally learned the system, my Latin experience helped me make connections, and besides, I never really liked drummers that played a rhythm and stopped on beat one. I like circular, super-imposing rhythms. And with Jan, I could do that. I would keep a four going on my left foot, and a seven or eleven on my high-hat or snare. It was a get-off!
MR: Jan’s a drummer, too; how did he work with you?
TS: He’d want me to learn the clave of the rhythm. You know, it’s not just Latin that has clave. We’d play it together. Or he’d play the rhythm on keyboards and I’d play it on drums. We’d start out simply and get more intricate, working for hours at a stretch. I remember one night he was teaching 21/8, and I was so frustrated, because it’s so complicated. It doesn’t follow the same patterns as a 7, 15, or 11. It isn’t like 11, where there are two bars of four and one bar of three, and you go right back into it. 21/8 is five sixteenth notes, and back into the four. And so I’d say to Jan, “Wait a minute—this always seems backwards!” One night I woke up playing the pattern on my chest! I ran down to the studio and did it on the drums before I forgot!
MR: But with all the work you did, how successful was the Jan Hammer Group?
TS: The records weren’t doing much. Some said, there was no continuity of direction. Some songs had lyrics and some didn’t. Doug and Jerry eventually left and we got Fernando Saunders to play bass and Steve Kindler for violin. We worked harder on the second record, especially on a melodic concept which Jan felt was the key to pop success. But we were up in the country, isolated from the mainstream, and maybe the results sounded like it. Finally, Fernando and I moved down to New York. It meant some scuffling, but it was the right idea.
MR: Then Jeff Beck called Jan?
TS: Right. Jan had been working with him on Wired. And afterwards, Jeff asked the band to tour with him. But then, some negative things started to happen. They were no reflection on Jan or Jeff, believe me, but having three soloists was crazy— the thirst for equal time and all. Steve Kindler left. Jan was pursuing a new rock and roll direction. He was using his portable synthesizer like guitar, except the instrument couldn’t play chords, so I think the music that resulted was kind of flat sounding. And then after the tour, some things went down between Jan, the management, and the rest of the band, making things seem down for a while.
MR: Then you joined John McLaughlin?
TS: Right. Fernando and I tried to ride things out for awhile. We got an offer from John to go to Europe with only a few days notice. There wasn’t even time for more than a hour or two of rehearsal. I couldn’t even arrange to have my drums sent over, so I used a rented set. The band was John, Stu Goldberg, L. Shankar, myself and Fernando. Even with all the last-minute stuff, it was amazing. The energy level was so high, and it just kept getting higher. The music got tighter, and my playing • started to get really strong. Some of the sets were three hours long.
MR: What kind of music were you playing?
TS: It was fusion, but also, getting away from fusion. And John, because of his heavy jazz background, was pulling stuff out of me I didn’t know I had. Like he was saying, “Pull out your Grady Tate influence, your Greg Errico influence.” The crowds were great. After each set, I’d be mentally and physically exhausted. Offstage, John was always listening to tapes of Miles and Coltrane saying, “Check this out! Check that out!” It was cool though because it was great music.
MR: What did McLaughlin want you to “check out?”
TS:Coming back to the big 4, instead of the 2/4. The big back beat, the fast sixteenth jazz rhythms on top, and all the polyrhythms underneath. John wanted something different all the time. Before a set, he’d change things, and then, he’d change things onstage. But I was always ready. If John wanted to surge ahead, I’d jump out behind him. If Shankar wanted to break out, I’d go with him. Man, behind those solos the energy was intense. John will talk about colors, which is obviously very hard to do at times. And I’ll ask him what he means, and he’ll say, “You know, use the colors.” After a few minutes of this, I’m really confused. Then he’ll smile, and say, “I want you to play the way you play.” But by tearing down your ego with all the confusion, somehow the music flows right through you. That’s probably why, of the records I’ve made, the one I most enjoy is the group album with John (Electric Dreams). It came out the way it was supposed to; I’m happy with my playing. The tunes, and the feelings, are all different, which gives me a chance to do lots of different things on the drums.
MR: We’re now up to what year?
TS: Well, I finished another tour with John in the summer of 1979, and then the band and the concept broke up very amicably. I took off six months to get married. The day I got back into town, I went into the studio to rehearse with L. Shankar for his album. So, we went on the road for two weeks, which I loved. It was Fernando and myself again, who by now, as a rhythm section, are just locked.
MR: And from that you went on tour with Judas Priest?
TS: It was with Ray Gomez, actually, but yes, we did open a lot of gigs for Judas Priest, which obviously was another growing experience for me. The crowds boo the opening act when their boys are on next. And some people throw things. We were playing in San Bernadino, my home area, and it felt really different, really good. Suddenly, out of nowhere a rock hits me in the mouth! It was like Ali hit me: I’m playing, but I’m dazed. And after a while I didn’t know where I was, and we got offstage. And then things really started to fly.
But, I learned, again, from the experience. Because if you can get over to an audience like that, I guess you’ve established your ability to reach a mass market. And you don’t have to go down to their level, you just have to know where they’re coming from; give them their groove, then you can take them with you. Just before I went out with Ray, I was really working on getting my tunes together for a record deal. But my circle of experience really wasn’t complete. With Ray, I got a change of pace by working in a group with another bass player for the first time in over four years.
MR: Maybe now we could get into some technical stuff, and your equipment.
TS: I should probably say from the outset that my philosophy is very basic. With Jan, I used two rack tom-toms, two floor toms, a snare and four cymbals. And I would have never moved on to anything else until I had some feeling of mastering that. I’m not comfortable with a lot of extra gear, anyway.
MR: What did you use with McLaughlin?
TS: Rentals. Any set with two tom-toms and two floor toms. And my own Paiste cymbals.
MR: And now?
TS: Well, while I was in Australia with John, I used different sets of Tamas, similar to the set I have in New York. The set you see here in the apartment is a combination of drums I’ve accumulated over the years. It’s small enough for my apartment and to record on my four-track, plus, it’s mobile. And I like the sound. The Tama snare is metal, it gives you a loud sound, good for rim shots. It’s a full snare. Whatever you want to do with it, it’ll come across—punctuation marks, wood-block rolls—and there’s no ring.
MR: Why the tape on top?
TS: I like a lower and tighter sound, but I wouldn’t need to deaden it that way in the studio. In this apartment, it’s a different story.
MR: What kind of heads do you use?
TS: I like Evans Blue Xs, because the overtones are really non existent. It depends on how you tune them. I usually tune tighter on top than on the bottom, and use the bottom for more tonal quality.
MR: Tell us more about the Tama road set.
TS: It’s seven tom-toms and nine cymbals. It’s really an ideal set-up because you can do rolls from the high to low rack toms, and from the cymbals to the two floor and rack toms. It makes it all so much easier. I like going from high to low with different tonalities of low, and this setup gives me that. I even have a 10″ tom, like a bongo or timbale tom except with a bottom head. It has this incredible, high sound.
There’s a 10 x 6 tom mounted with an 8 x 12. All my toms have bottom heads. A 9 x 13, 14 x 14, 15 x 14, 16 x 16, and an 18 x 18. The bass drum is 24″. I’m using the Tama foot pedal and hi-hat. I really recommend the bass pedal! You can make any number of adjustments from where you sit. I’ve never been as satisfied with a pedal. It’s right with your foot. The ball of your foot rides on it all the time; it’s comfortable and flexible, even though it looks massive and is extremely durable.
The hardware is Tama, also. It’s durable, heavy; they call it Spartan. Each one of the cymbal stand legs not only has rubber pads, but if you’re on a floor where things slide, you can flip them over, and you’ve got a double metal spur, so nothing moves! And although these stands are tough, they’re incredibly light. They’re aluminum, and they have counterweights.
MR: What do you like about the drums?
TS: The shells. The Tama drums and shells are wood. Every one is bonded together, not glued; they’re put together diagonally, not straight-ahead, so they allow for the bend. They get a tight sound as a result. And they’re like three-quarter-inch thick.
MR: So you want a rock sound more than a jazz sound?
TS: I want every sound! These drums can accommodate them all.
MR: How about cymbals?
TS: I use Paistes, on the road with this set. The hi-hats are 14″, and there’s an 18″ China-type gong. Then there’s a small, 8″ bell, a 20″ medium crash, and a 16″ fast crash. And, a 22″ Chinese type, a 22″ dark ride, and another 18″ fast crash. And then I use a small 10″—a funky little ragtime cymbal. I beat the heck out of it.
MR: And sticks?
TS: I had one pair I really loved—the Regal 5B, wood tip. Then Regal changed hands and started making them a different weight, which became a problem. If the whole construction, right through the tip, isn’t solid, I’ll break it. There have been times I’ve broken twelve pairs of sticks in a single performance. The tips would snap off and the stick, (whose make I won’t mention) was completely hollow inside. I don’t like using plastic tips, because they give a “ping” sound. It’s too metallic, and the tips fly off like bullets!
So, I’m still looking around. Tony Williams used to use some Gretsch sticks, and I had two pair, and they were great and so I gave one pair to Tama to see if they could come up with something. I also liked the old Pro Percussion 2Bs. They’re pretty durable.
MR: What drums have you recorded with?
TS: Whatever I was using at the time—except on Electric Dreams. There I played (percussionist) Alyrio Lima’s Gretsch set, two tom-toms and one bass drum. We kept changing snares. I used to half-kiddingly call myself the Drum Doctor. If I didn’t have my set, I’d see what was at a gig, get some tape and tissue and tools and try to make the set sound as good as possible. I just like the challenge. But that’s why I like very good drum sets, too. I just want the drums to give me back what I play. Then it’s up to me to do the creating. It’s not what it will do with you, but what you can do with it. I have had too many people say to me, “You can’t get anything out of this.” But nothing is really impossible, and there’s value in everything. That’s why I’ve worked so many different kinds of gigs over the years, too—and learned from them all.