An interview with Pat Smillie: I became entrenched in the local soul/blues scene. I don’t think music means as much to young people today – Photos

May11,2024

How has the Blues, Soul and Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

From a young age, maybe 6-7 years old, I was always interested in music. I did not come from a musical family, however, my Dad was a big fan of the early rock & roll he heard as a teenager. Over the years, he had collected a bunch of 45s by Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers (“Bird Dog”), Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. I remember listening to those singles and others. I recall his vinyl collection also included popular 70’s artists like Bob Seger (“Live Bullet’’), Willie Nelson (“Stardust”), Jim Croce (“Life & Times”), and George Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” (b/w “Isn’t it a Pity”).

Whenever we’d be out driving together in the family car, my Dad would tune the car radio to the local AM ‘Oldies’ station. During those car rides (between the ages 6 – 12 years old), I was exposed to the music of Motown, Chess Records, Atlantic Records and Stax/Volt. I was falling in love with music that was already 15-20 years older than I was. I learned all the lyrics to my favorite songs. I loved “Jenny Take a Ride” by Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels! I still LOVE that record!

Once I had learned the lyrics, I started singing along with all those old songs. It only got me more excited about making music! I was soaking in the energy of the early rock & roll pioneers. At the same time, I was taking note of song structure, the meter of the lyrics, and the rhyme scheme. Thank you, Chuck Berry!

As Bob Seger once sang, “Well, all of Chuck’s children are out there playing his licks…”

I LOVED that when Little Richard sang, he had a ‘squeak’ in his voice at the end of each vocal phrase.  It was like an emotional exclamation point. It would always catch my ear.  I’ve noticed Ray Charles and Delbert McClinton both have a similar quality in their voices.

As a teenager, I began building a collection of records, cassettes, and CDs. Years later,, I would eventually amass a collection of more than 3,000 titles – across a variery genres including rock, r&b/soul, blues, country, and pop music. I especially loved the voices of Ray Charles and Joe Cocker. Other favorites included: Mitch Ryder, Gladys Knight, David Ruffin (The Temptations), Dennis Edwards (The Temptations), Levi Stubbs (Four Tops), Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon, Otis Redding, and James Brown.

I first sang in public with my elementary school choir. Around 14 yrs of age, I started singing with a neighbor kid who played electric guitar. We’d rehearse in his bedroom and drive his parents crazy! By age of 18, I joined my first rock & roll band. We played blues/rock tunes by artists such Bob Seger, The Animals, Grand Funk Railroad, and Bad Company. In 1986, we won 2nd place in the ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition. During this period, I wrote some of my first original songs. I had become increasingly interested in the ‘sound’ and ‘production’ of the various recordings I had collected. I listened closely and made mental notes.

In Detroit, we had a legendary DJ named “The Electrifying Mojo” who worked the late shift at WJLB. I would tune into Mojo’s show religiously. I especially loved his “Lovers Lane” segment which featured 60-minutes of slow jams. Mojo played whatever he wanted to play. In doing so, he turned me (and many others) on to a lot of great music. Mojo would spin Prince, Rick James, Al Green, George Clinton, Donny Hathaway, and Isley Brothers. He would play ANYTHING and EVERYTHING! He might play a song by Kraftwerk, then spin “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, and follow it up with a 10-min live version of Hall & Oates performing “Sara Smile”. He’d then close the set with the J. Geils Band’s “Flamethrower”! It was ELECTRIFYIN’ & I loved it! Listening to The Electifyin’ Mojo really helped to expand my musical palette. It helped me to realize that multiple styles of music could co-exist and compliment each other (even within the same musical program). It was an important lesson.

In 1990, I traveled with friends to Chicago to attend the Chicago Blues Festival. James Cotton was incredible!  The city and it’s music left an indelible mark on me. In 1992, I made the decision to move to Chicago.

Once in Chicago, I became entrenched in the local soul/blues scene (particularly, on the South & West sides). I soaked up performances from Chicago legends including Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, Koko Taylor, Magic Slim & The Teardrops, Vance Kelly, Johnny Dollar, Mary Lane, Melvina Allen, and Wille D. & The All Stars. It was an incredible time to live in Chicago!

In 1996, I accepted a Wednesday night residency at the Checkerboard Lounge. I immersed myself in the culture and the scene at The Checkerboard. Through these experiences, I came to appreciate the music (and the musicians who made it) on another level. Those years helped to shape my performance style.

Unfortunately, I was also suffering with substance abuse issues. I realized I was in trouble. In 2015, after 23 years in Chicago, I decided to move back to Detroit to be closer to my family. I would eventually get sober in 2019. The past 5 years have been a creatively fruitful period for me. I’ve released 2 albums and I’m starting work on a 3rd record. Life is easier this way.

How do you describe your music philosophy and songbook? How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

In recent years, I’ve been more focused on my songwriting. I’ve also been reading a lot about creativity. I’m currently reading Rick Rubin’s book titled “The Creative Act: A Way of Being”. I recommend it.

As artists, our job is to pull inspiration from the world around us. You have to have a certain awareness of yourself and the world around you, yet still be open enough to receive the song. You have to be tuned-in.

Oftentimes, I’ll get ideas for a simple melody (or a lyric) while taking a walk in the woods, or while driving in my car. For me, it’s a combination of being in motion while also being somewhat distracted by a mindless/automatic task. Somehow, that combination sometimes helps to bring song ideas to the top of my mind. When it happens, I’ll sing or hum the idea into my phone to record and save it.

After recording the ‘seed’ of a song idea into my phone, I’ll just leave it there and I won’t think about it for a week (or so). After I’ve recorded 5-6 different ideas, I’ll eventually go back and listen to them to see they still make any sense. If I’m lucky, 1-2 of the ideas will still sound good to me. Next step, I’ll play 1-2 of my best ideas for my producer, Josh Ford. He’ll flesh out the chord changes, suggest some ideas for the arrangement, and/or write a bridge. Josh is a very creative person. At the end of our writing session, we’ll record a quick acoustic demo for each song. I use these rough demos to continue working on the lyrics & storylines of the songs. After, I complete the lyrics, Josh & I will reconvene to record a 2nd demo with the completed lyrics and arrangement. These demos are shared with the other musicians a couple weeks prior to the recording sessions. Together we do a lot of pre production work. I think, that time is well spent, and it makes for a stronger album.

In terms of maintaining any spiritual and/or musical stamina, I think they have to go hand in hand. Personally, I find that sometimes I need to take a couple weeks away from music and show business. At times like these, I’ve learned to grant myself a little grace. I’ll take in some outside experiences. Sometimes, I need to focus on something else to get my creative juices flowing again. I’ll read a book. I’ll work around the yard. Or, I’ll pick up an extra shift at the warehouse. Whatever.

Most importantly, I try to get A LOT of sleep. I usually take a nap on the afternoon of a show. Nobody likes a sleepy lead singer! In addition, I drink a lot of water. Staying hydrated is crucial. Since I’ve gotten sober, I don’t stay out late drinking after the show. These days, I just go home (or to the hotel room) and get in the bed!

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far? Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There have been a handful of pivotal moments (or highlights) that I can point to that have influenced my career…

First off, meeting and performing with Chicago guitarist/vocalist, Vance Kelly & The Backstreet Blues Band from 1994-1996. Vance was generous with his stage time and mentored me. He helped me start building a repertoire of songs and he had an incredibly tight band. THANK YOU – Vance Kelly (guitar & vocals), the late great Erskine Johnson (organ), Johnny Reed (bass), and Mark Diffenderfer (drums). I learned that if I have a tight band behind me, I can lose myself in the performance and really get down! It also became apparent, that if I could get down, then the audience would usually respond in kind.

Second, I was fortunate to have a good working relationship with Nick Miller at Jam Productions – Chicago (one of the Midwest’s largest independent concert promoters). Nick hired me to open high profile shows for Robert Cray (2005) and Bob Seger (2011). The Seger show was held at AllState Arena (in Rosemont, IL) and I sang to nearly 18,000 people! It’s the biggest audience I’ve played to (so far).

Third, moving back to Michigan in 2015!! My first regular gig in the Detroit area was as a featured vocalist with Motown session guitarist, Dennis Coffey.  Dennis held a Tuesday night residency in Detroit at Northern Lights Lounge for many years. I sang at Northern Lights for 5 years up until the lounge closed due to Covid-19. In addition, I have performed and recorded with Detroit guitarist, Jim McCarty (a founding member of Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Cactus, and The Rockets). Jim McCarty has been featured on two of my recent recordings: “Boulder City Breakdown” (2019) and “Broke Down Chevy #2” (2021).

SOBRIETY! Over the years, I slowly began to realize that my substance use had become a problem. I had legal problems. I was broke. My performances were erratic and my bookings had started to drop off. Looking back, I can see how the drugs and alcohol had stunted my creativity. I was unable to create new art. I was living in active addiction. I was isolating. I was always stressed out about money. As a result, I failed to release any new music for almost 12 years (2007 – 2019).

Finally, in 2018, I began writing songs with guitarist / producer, Josh Ford (aka “Motor City Josh”). Together we wrote 5 of the 6 songs that comprised my 2019 E.P. “Lonesome for a Long Time” (Fat Bank Music). In 2021, I released a collection 8 songs titled “Last Chance” (Fat Bank Music). Josh and I are starting work on a new project (tentatively titled “Double Nickel”). It’s been a great collaboration!

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the SOULFUL (if, sometimes, imperfect) vocal performances that were recorded during the early 60s through the late 70s. For example, nowadays, Joe Cocker would never be allowed to release his classic version of “You Are So Beautiful” with the cracked note at the end. NEVER. But, as it turns out, we all know that Joe’s cracked note is the highlight of the recording!

I miss the sound & feel of musicians playing real instruments in the same room, at the same time. Just like the ‘Funk Brothers’ did in the Motown studios. Too many of today’s projects are created by musicians who record their parts separately (in separate studios). After recording their part, the musician will simply email their track back to the producer. The producer then assembles the various tracks and sets them to a quantized beat. Typically, the producer also pitch corrects the lead singer’s vocal track with AutoTune. The problem is that by recording in this manner, the producer loses the magic and ‘happy accidents’ that can occur when seasoned musicans play together and communicate on the studio floor.

Finally, I must admit that I’ve never understood the appeal of tribute bands. I hate tribute bands. I’m told that tribute bands can pay well – so I would never begrudge a musician for trying to make a living. However, I just can’t understand the audience for such a thing. Personally, I think its crazy that a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute artist can make a living on tour. I saw the REAL Stevie Ray Vaughan in concert (TWICE) – yet, I have zero interest in ever seeing a SRV tribute artist. ZERO! I’d rather stay home and listen to Stevie’s albums.

In my estimation, tribute bands currently occupy approximately 75% – 80% of the available stages and festival slots in the Metro Detroit area. These shows often draw sizable audiences (who just want to hear ANYBODY perform the band’s catalog). In fact, tribute acts are now performing in premier rock clubs that were previously known for booking original music exclusively. It’s sad to me. Fewer and fewer musicians are writing original music.

Do you think there is an audience for Rock/Soul/Blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

I hope so. I know there definitely still seems to be an older (caucasian male) audience who love guitar-centric blues rock. Artists like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram & Joe Bonamassa have established large followings.

As far as a younger audience finding the music, I can’t really say. When I tune into the Grammy awards (or other award shows) I am unfamiliar with most of the current nominees. Furthermore, I don’t hear any music on those shows that reminds me of my own. Yet, on a recent tour, we performed in Washington D.C to a bunch of college-aged kids and they were very, very, receptive to our high-energy live performance.

Nowadays, with YouTube (and various other streaming services) it is easier than ever for young people to discover the music of previous generations. It literally only takes a couple clicks to discover an artist’s entire catalog.

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the soul/blues? What is the role of music in today’s society?

How we listen to music has changed remarkably with the advent of digital technology and streaming. Listening to an entire vinyl album (on your headphones) on your home stereo in 1974 is a very different experience from downloading a curated playlist of ‘jogging music’ to your device in 2024. People have shorter attention spans.

I don’t think music means as much to young people today.  Music, as an art form, has been taken for granted. People expect to get it for free! There are no liner notes or musician credits to be found. Over the last 20 years, music has become a more of a background soundtrack for people who are busy doing 100 other things at the same time (shopping, running errands, working out, etc.)

As a young music fan, I remember saving my money and then digging through the crates at a local record shop for 60-90 minutes before eventually purchasing a couple albums. I’d rush home, rip open my new purchase, stare at the cover art, read all the liner notes, read the names of all the musicians and songwriters, and then I’d listen to the whole album (both sides). I’d take it all in. I listened to the songs all the way through till the end. I listened to one song at a time. It was a wonderful ritual. I felt invested in the artist and their new music. It made me proud to be a fan!

For example, whenever Joe Cocker would come to my town, I would buy tickets to see him. Period. I was a super fan! I probably saw Cocker in concert 6 – 7 times!!  Unfortunately, I don’t think young people today experience music (or fandom) in the same way. For example, many kids have never camped out for concert tickets (or even attended a live concert). So, regardless, as to how music’s role has changed in our society, music’s role in my own life has not…I am and always will be a music fan! It’s who I am.

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