Electric Guitar Pioneer Floyd Smith on 1930s Jazz and Django

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    One of the first electric guitarists on record, Floyd Smith played an important role in jazz from the 1930s through the 1950s. Born in 1917 and raised in St. Louis, he first went on the road in 1934 with Eddie Johnson’s St. Louis Crackerjacks. Two years later he joined the Jeter-Pillars Club Plantation Orchestra, playing both standard and Hawaiian-style guitar onstage. In August 1937 Smith used an electric guitar to solo on Jeter-Pillars recording of “Lazy Rhythm.” In 1938, while on tour with the Sunset Royal Entertainers, he was spotted by Andy Kirk, who recruited him for his Twelve Clouds of Joy. During his March 16, 1939, session with Andy Kirk, Smith recorded “Floyd’s Guitar Blues,” the first hit record to feature a blues-style solo played on an electric guitar.

    While serving in Europe during World War II, Floyd spent an afternoon jamming with Django Reinhardt in the Gypsy jazz guitarist’s Paris home. Upon his return, he rejoined Andy Kirk’s band for about a year, and then worked Chicago’s South Side clubs in a trio with Horace Henderson. He spent most of the 1950s playing in a trio with pioneering Hammond organist Wild Bill Davis, playing what he describes as “knock-down, drag-out swing!” He then spent six years with Bill Doggett’s band. By the mid 1960s, Smith had settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked around town with the Floyd Smith Trio.

    I first encountered Floyd Smith in 1979, when he sent me a handwritten letter clarifying his role in jazz history. Days after receiving the letter, on July 27, 1979, Floyd and I had an hour-long telephone interview. I used portions of this for my Pro’s Reply column in November 1979 issue of Guitar Player, but the Q/A below is the first time the conversation has been published in its entirely. In Smith’s old-school guitar vernacular, “Hawaiian” refers to playing while holding the instrument lap-style, while “Spanish” refers to playing while holding the guitar the standard way.

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    Hi. Is Floyd Smith there?

    Yeah. Is this Obrecht?

    Yes.

    So what’s goin’ on? I’m just hangin’ in there. I’m free to talk now.

    Great. Let’s start off with some biographical information.

    I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, January the 25th, 1917.

    Your father was a drummer?

    My father was a railroad porter and he played drums on the side. His name was William Smith.

    Is your middle name really “Wonderful”?

    No, that’s my nickname [laughs]. That’s my nickname. See, with the Wild Bill Davis Trio, it was Wild Bill Davis, Crazy Chris Columbus, and Wonderful Smith. So the trio was Wild, it was Crazy, and it was Wonderful. That’s how that came about.

    When did you first start to play instruments?

    I say about 1932. There was a fellow at school who gave me a ukulele, and I bought strings for it and I tuned it up and I got to playin’ it. And my father came home one day, and the front yard of the house was full of people and I had a hat full of nickels, and he didn’t know I could play it. He got my uncle, who had a little money, and my uncle took me downtown and bought me my first banjo uke. That was in 1932.

    What did you do after that?

    Well, I played with a lot of the white bands around St. Louis, featured, and in colored bands too. Dewey Jackson’s Orchestra – he was one of the old greats – Charlie Creath Orchestra, Harvey Langford. I played with a lot of the black bands, and I played with some of the white bands, including Isham Jones.

    How about Eddie Johnson?

    Eddie Johnson’s St. Louis Crackerjacks! Yeah. That was a guy that came by the house and asked my father could I go to Little Rock. And so my father said, “Yes – if you take care of him.” I got my suitcase and my banjo, and Eddie said, “No. Don’t bring the banjo. Bring the guitar that your uncle left you.” And I had never played it. But I played two weeks in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I was playin’ it when we went to the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit. That was July the 17th, 1934 – that’s when I first went on the road. That’s when I first saw Count Basie in Little Rock, Arkansas, after he had left the Bennie Moten band. I stayed with Eddie Johnson until about 1936, and then I joined a band called the Jeter-Pillars Club Plantation Band. This was in St. Louis. I recorded “Lazy Rhythm” with that band and “I Like Pie, I Like Cake.” And Jimmy Blanton was on bass. I played guitar.

    What kind?

    I think I had a Epiphone or something like that.

    Tell me about the Sunset Royal Entertainers.

    Oh! See, when I was with the Jeter-Pillars band, we went to Cincinnati to play at a club called the Cotton Club. This was in 1938. Well, the Sunset Royal band come through Cincinnati, and they played against us one night. I liked their band so much, and they liked my guitar playing so much, so they asked me to join them. And I knew that that band was going into New York, and that’s what I wanted to do. Oh, this is gettin’ deep now! And I joined them, oh, I guess, around August of 1938, and we went into Philadelphia, where we played at the Nixon Grand Theater against the Dorsey Brothers. And the Dorsey Brothers bought five of our arrangements. See, our leader used to sing, and we answered him. Our leader was Ace Harris. And the Dorsey Brothers bought five arrangements from our trumpet player, and they recorded ’em. That’s how the Dorsey Brothers came out with [sings] “Marie, the dawn is breaking, just breaking for me. Oh, Marie. Oh, the way I like it, darlin’, I’m yours.” Well, those were all our tunes! And that was in ’38.

    Now, in 1954 I was in the Last Frontier with the Wild Bill Davis Trio, and this was the Dorsey Brothers’ last get-together. They was in the Last Frontier dining room, with Abbe Lane singin’, of the Xavier Cougat band. So at intermission, they used to come into the cocktail lounge and listen to us play all the time. So the waitress came over at intermission and said, “Mr. Smith, the Dorsey Brothers would like for you to come over there.” So I walked up to the table, and Tommy said, “Sit down.” I said, “No,” because I knew what was comin’ up. So Tommy says, “Floyd, Jimmy and I are trying to figure out where we know you from.” I said, “You know me from the Sunset Royal Entertainers in Philadelphia at the Nixon Grand Theater.” And I walked away from the table. ’Cause we the cause for them to get on records – I mean, to get something goin’. Let’s see. I stayed with the Sunset Royal Entertainers until Andy Kirk heard me in the Apollo Theater with the Sunset Royal Entertainers, and then I joined him Washington, D.C., January the 6th, 1939.

    Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, with Floyd Smith at far left.

    Tell me about “Floyd’s Guitar Blues.”

    Well, I’m gonna tell ya. See, I was playin’ Hawaiian guitar and Spanish.

    What type of guitar?

    Epiphone Electar. Yeah. That’s what I used to feature in the theater – Hawaiian. I didn’t feature Spanish [laughs]. So anyhow, we went into the recording studio – oh, February or March of 1939 – and Andy says, “Is there something that you wanna record on your Hawaiian?” I couldn’t think of anything, so the arranger, I gave him an introduction, and I said, “I’ll go for myself, and after I finish about four courses, then you play the introduction again and we’ll take it out. And we’ll call it ‘Floyd’s Guitar Blues.’” And it got very popular, because that was one of the first blues on electric guitar that was ever recorded. And on the other side of it was Mary Lou Williams’ “Twinklin’.” And about two or three months ago I got a royalty check – I think it was $1.20! – still comin’ in from the “Guitar Blues”! Yeah.

    How many copies did that sell?

    Oh, I don’t know. You know, back in them days, I think you only got a half a cent off a thing, and they had to sell a billion copies for you to get $2,000, which I don’t think I made that much out of it. ’Cause there wasn’t no royalties back 35 years ago.

    That was really one of the first electric guitar solos.

    Oh yeah, yes. On a blues. Yeah. Uh-huh.

    Did you know the other big band guitar players back then?

    Now let me tell ya. In the Howard Theater, Alvino Rey – his real name is Alvin McBurney – and he’s out of New Jersey. He was in Washington, D.C., and sat through 28 shows at the Howard Theater, watchin’ me – four shows a day, for seven days. This was in 1940. Glen Gray put out some things before he passed, called They All Swung the Blues, and on one of the volumes, “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” was in it. And guess of all people, who played the guitar solo? Alvino Rey! So he came down to Atlantic City on the Boardwalk about seven or eight years ago, and I was playin’ down there. And he sent word to me by one of his musicians and said, “Tell Floyd that I couldn’t get down there to see him because I work the same hours that he does. And I was awfully sorry that I played such a bad solo on ‘Floyd’s Guitar Blues.’” [Laughs.] See, I remember Alvino Rey when he used to play with the Harry Reser Clicquo Club [advertising] ginger ale. Oh, at that time [in the 1920s], he was just making guitar introductions [sings slow, sliding part]. Horace Hite.

    Did you ever meet Charlie Christian?

    I met Charlie Christian in 1939. We played a one-nighter there, at Oklahoma Ballroom, and after the thing was over, there wasn’t nowhere else to go. Charlie was playin’ at a grille there – Blue somethin’. Somebody’s “Blue Moon” or “Blue Grille” or something like that. And Charlie was playin’ there. That’s when Charlie and I first got together because I had my guitar with me then, and we jammed upstairs. Somebody’s “Blue Room” – I can’t think of the other name. At that time we got to know each other. Now, that was in 1939.

    Now, we was in New York in ’39, and Mary Lou Williams said, “Floyd, I got gig – me and you and Benny Goodman – down at Café Society in New York.” So I go on down there, and they had a bad trio playin’ there called the Clarence Profit Trio. And, man, this was one of the Art Tatum’s back in them days! Clarence Profit could play. And had a heck of a guitar player named Jimmy Shirley, who’s a mailman in Cleveland now. So anyhow, we played this thing down at Café Society, and Benny liked what I was doin’. Benny and Mary was real tight, so it got around to having his agent trying to contact me to join him. He was getting’ up a small combination then. Now, I had acted a fool and signed a five-year contract to Andy Kirk and Joe Glaser in 1939. That took me up to 1944. All the guys in Andy Kirk’s band said, “Don’t you sign no contract just ’cause they want to sign you up, because you are hot!”

    Now, I come out of St. Louis, wasn’t makin’ no money, and 32 weeks out of a year work at about $90 a week sounded pretty good, so that’s what I signed for. So Benny had his feelers out for me. I think it was Willard Alexander or Morris Alexander – one of them Alexanders was his agent. And he called me all over the country, tryin’ to find out if I would join Goodman’s band. I stood him off for maybe a month or month and a half. And so we was playin’ a college dance up in Syracuse, New York, and I got a telephone call in the daytime on the bandstand, and they was callin’ me from Catalina Island, California. Goodman was playin’ out there at one of those resorts or something. One of them Alexanders called me and said, “Floyd Smith, this is the last time that I’m gonna call you. I’m offerin’ you $350 a week – and that’s final!” Now this was in ’39, and $350 a week, I don’t think no sideman was makin’ that kind of money. So I had to tell him that I couldn’t join, because I was under contract. So anyhow, Mary Lou and I recommended Charlie to Benny, which he got.

    Now, Goodman went on the Camel Caravan program, and my agent called me up and said, “Floyd, Goodman wants you on his program.” I said, “Alright.” So Joe Glaser called me. So I got my guitar and went to NBC studios, and in the studio is Charlie Christian. Always glad to see each other. Now, we rehearsed this program. So anyhow, they had me and Charlie Christian featured on “Lady Be Good.” The big band makes the introduction, and Charlie and I go to it. When we were sittin’ there in the studio after we had finished rehearsing this thing – I don’t know whether they called it “tapin’” in them days, or what it was –so anyhow, the speaker in the room I was in was open. Benny Goodman was talkin’ on the microphone, and I could hear him. And he says something about “Charlie Christian discovered Floyd Smith playin’ up on Sugar Hill in a gin mill!” And so then it dawned on me that Goodman was trying to get back at me because he had went out of his way to try to get me and couldn’t. So I walked right on out in the hall and I got on the phone and called Joe Glaser, and Joe Glaser said, “Look. You go back in there and you get your guitar and you go on to the hotel. I’ll send you your check, and you forget it.” He said, “I’m gonna call that Jew son of a bitch up and cuss him out!” And that was the end of that.

    So now in 1958, I’m playin’ in Boston at a club, the Palace Lounge. I was with Chris Columbo – we had a group then together, right after we quit Wild Bill Davis. Chris and I got a group together. So anyhow, who walks in but John Hammond. I saw him when he walked in, because he always looks like he’s smilin’, see? And so at intermission, the waitress came over and says, “Mr. Smith, Mr. Hammond wants you to come over.” I walked over to the table. “Sit down, Floyd!” So I sit down, and John says – he was up there doin’ something, I don’t know – he says, “Floyd, I often think about it. You know what? If you had joined Benny Goodman when Benny Goodman had wanted you, don’t you know that you would have been the style setter?” You know what I say, Obrecht? I think anybody that could have played good then, if they had of joined Goodman, would have been a style setter. ’Cause, see, he had the exposure to records, and he was about the top band at that time anyhow. Anybody that could have joined him – Jimmy Shirley, me, Oscar Moore, Leonard Ware. There were some bad guitar players! It’s like I said – anybody that could have joined Goodman would have been the top style setter, because everybody had to go after because he was in the top band, see?

    Did you sense anything special about Christian?

    Oh, I say he could play! But now the only thing about it, see, Christian was a Spanish guitar player. I played Spanish and Hawaiian. And I featured both of ’em – I was terrific on the stage on both of ’em. Now, this is another thing: Eddie Durham said in his column, says, “If Christian was still livin’ today, there wouldn’t be nobody around to touch him.” I’m not gonna go with that, ’cause I see it like this: time goes on. He might have got to a certain zenith and never went any farther. You know, some musicians get to a certain point, and they get stagnant right there after they there a certain time. So I wasn’t goin’ along with Eddie Durham’s thing about if Christian was still around – no. Because, see, Wes Montgomery lives here [in Indianapolis]. And Wes and I was very dear friends. And Wes used to come over and see me every time he would come home. And he would always say, “Floyd, the guitar was made for you. I look up to you. That’s the reason I come over to see you.” And he would come over and talk things. And Wes Montgomery could play – honest to God! And then on top of that, Obrecht, Eddie Durham could play! Yes, sir. Eddie Durham could play back in them days. I first met him in 1938 when he came through St. Louis with Jimmy Lunceford’s orchestra. So that’s the reason why I don’t know where that other thing come from about Omaha.

    Did you ever jam with Eddie Durham?

    No. No. No, never had the opportunity. One time he came through Camp Lee, Virginia, with this girls’ band – he had a girls’ band, you know, during the war, the Sweethearts of Rhythm. And he had a National guitar that had a neck on it so high I couldn’t play it, so I didn’t try to play it. And I used to wonder how he played it [laughs]. [Note: During World War II, Eddie Durham gave up the opportunity to go to Europe with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, choosing instead to become the first musical director of the all-woman International Sweethearts of Rhythm.]

    What other guitarists did you know or play with back then?

    Oh, man, you could have got killed in New York with guitar players! There was Billy Moore, Leonard Ware, Jimmy Shirley, and one of the greatest guitar players – I don’t know if he’s still alive – in the world, that set the pace for everybody, was named Teddy Bunn. You ever hear that name? He was in Honolulu for a long time. He worked with Louis Jordan. At least forty years ago, he had a group that came out of St. Louis called the Five Spirits of Rhythm. Leo Watson was with him – he used to try to play his trombone and scat-sing with Gene Krupa years ago. Oh, man, Teddy Bunn was the originator of the thumbpickin’! You look around – you find somebody out there with something about Teddy Bunn. ’Cause he was the original thumbpicker. I mean, this son of a gun forty years ago was playin’!

    .

    What kind of guitar playing were you doing?

    Well, I was always jazz.

    Were you trying to sound like a horn at all?

    Not really. Not really. I tried to play me. I tried to sound more like a band, because I started playing chords, band-type. I was always a foot-swinger. I never cared about a whole lot about technique. But I always like to try to – just like with the Wild Bill Davis Trio. Man, I wish you could have heard us.

    Were you playing rhythm lead, or both?

    Both! Yeah, both. Oh, my lord. Shucks!

    Would you build most of your solos around chords?

    Well, I would usually start out with single string, and I’d wind up in chords. And here’s another thing, Obrecht: Every time you hear this expression “One more time,” I started that. I started that in 1951 in Washington, D.C., with the Wild Bill Davis Trio. See, we was playin’ “April in Paris.” And when we would play the tag on it, it got such a round of applause I told Bill – we was at the Chrystal Cavern – I said, “Bill, let Chris make [scat sings a line]. And we repeat this thing and call it ‘one more time.’” I say, “Every time we finish it, holler ‘one more time, one more time!’” And that’s how that thing got big.

    So now, in 1954 we was in Birdland with Count Basie. “April in Paris” arrangement was made by an Indianapolis guitar player who passed about five months ago, named Bill Jennings. So Wild Bill Davis makes the arrangement for Count Basie when we in Birdland. So now, at the end of it Basie says, [imitates Basie’s voice] “One more time.” Then he says, “One more once.” And then Milt Buckner came up with “Another one like the other one.” They had everything taken from that one expression. Somebody came out with a moving picture called “Let’s Do It Again.” Well, it was all come out of “One more time,” which I started! And I know you heard of Chris Columbo. Now, Chris Columbo was [drummer] Sonny Payne’s father, who passed in Los Angeles. Yeah, that was Sonny Payne’s father. He was with Harry James for years.

    After you joined Kirk in 1939 . . .

    In ’39, and I went into Army. May the 23rd, 1942. I was in the service until November 1946. I served in the ETO – not as a musician. I was a first sergeant with the amphibious truck company [laughs]. That’s where I met Django!

    What?!

    Now, after Paris was liberated, I was walkin’ down the street in Paris, and I run into a black news correspondent named Ollie Stewart. He worked for the Baltimore Afro-American, a black paper. And I said to Ollie, I said, “Ollie, you remember me?” He said, “Sure, I remember you! Andy Kirk’s band at the Royal Theater in Baltimore.” I said, “Ollie, I’m trying to find Django Reinhardt’s house.” Ollie says, “Floyd, I’m goin’ there now.” This was in ’44. So we go to Django’s house, and he opens the door. Ollie says, “Django, Floyd Smith.” And Django grabbed me and hugged me and pulled me right on in the house. And he went right to the wall and he took two guitars off the wall and handed me one and he got one, and we went to it. So now this went on for about two or three hours. And I had to go back to camp. I was stationed about 25 miles outside of Paris. And he cried, and oh, he just cried, ’cause he had heard so much about me. He didn’t speak too good of English. So now to make a long story short, Obrecht, I was in the dentist’s office in New York. I was playin’ with Bill Doggett’s band then – I think it was around 1960. So a trombone player with Ray Charles, George Washington, he said, “Floyd, I just saw an article in Saga magazine, where you and Django played together in Paris!” I said, “Yeah.” He gave me the address, and I went over and I got it, and I’m gonna send this to you. I’m gonna get it to you just as soon as possible. [See the Epilog at the end of the interview for this article.]

    How many times did you meet Django?

    Just once. Ollie wrote about it Saga magazine, and he said that he was so disappointed that there was no tape recorders, no wire recorders, or nothing around at that time that he could have recorded Django and I playing.

    What kind of stuff did you play?

    You know, Django was always kind of up-tempo swing. We did some “Lady Be Good,” “Sweet Sue,” and “Chinatown.” You know, he was always a boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop type of guitar player.

    Did you play guitar while you were in the Army?

    No, sir, I didn’t! No, not at all. I came out of the Army in November 1946, and I went right back to Andy Kirk’s band for about a year. I quit the band in Chicago. I was too shook up from all that war and going back to playing one-nighters. I quit the band in Chicago and I organized a trio in Chicago and I worked on the South Side for four-and-a-half years. Fletcher Henderson’s brother was playing in Chicago, and he liked my playin’, so I joined him, Horace Henderson, and that’s when Wild Bill Davis came through Chicago and heard me play with Horace Henderson, and I joined Wild Bill Davis in 1951. I was with Bill Davis from about September 1951 ’til about September 1957.

    Where did you gig?

    All over the country! That was the beginning of the Hammond organ era, and we was awfully hard to book because all the club owners always associated the organ with the church. Joe Glaser didn’t want us. I think Moe Gale took us over, and they started booking us. And every place we played, we packed it! So now Joe Glaser wants us.

    What kind of music were you playing?

    Oh, we were playin’ knock-down, drag-out swing! Man, we would have a joint. The people was clamorin’ for us all over the country. Wild Bill David Trio – my lord, have mercy!

    What happened after you left Davis in ’57?

    Well, Chris and I quit Bill ’cause Bill got around to not payin’ us nothin’. I went with Bill Doggett for five years. He was another Hammond organ man. He had about six pieces.

    What have you been doing since then?

    Well, I left Bill Doggett in 1964, and I came to Indianapolis for a gig, and I been here ever since.

    Do you still play?

    Oh, yes. I have a trio here, the Floyd Smith Trio. We play most for the hotels around here and private cocktail things. We gig six nights a week.

    From your viewpoint, how do you think guitar playing has changed over the years?

    Oh, I don’t know. I can’t go along with these knock-down rock guitar players. They don’t know anything about the guitar. They just playin’ a gob of somethin’ else. ’Cause I bet you can’t find a one of ’em that can play you “Body and Soul” or play anything decent. I mean, I have to respect ’em for the efforts that they put forth on the instrument, but I play some legitimate things, not downright twangin’ and layin’ on the floor and kicking your feet up and all like that. I play more of a commercial-type rock, because my audience are between the 30 and 60 age bracket. I mean, I admire some of ’em for what they can do, but some of ’em has prostituted the guitar. And it wasn’t meant to be played like that. There’s too much to get out of the instrument to just lay on your back and kick up your feet and all.

    You know, in Atlantic City, B.B. King, he used to play two weeks out of the year at a club called the Wonder Bar. So he would get off early. So this night B.B. King came up to Grace’s – I was playin’ there with Bill Davis – and he sit right up front, him and two young ladies. So when we took intermission, I walked over and he stood up and said, “Hi, Floyd. Soundin’ good as ever!” I said, “B., you done been through Indianapolis a hundred times. Man, I know that you’ve heard that I was there and probably wasn’t doin’ anything. Why didn’t you ever give me a job?” He said, “Floyd, let me tell ya. My guitar player plays an hour before I come on the stage. Floyd, if you was on my bandstand, you’d play an hour, and there wouldn’t be nothin’ for me to play when I got up there!” [Laughs.] He said, “There wouldn’t be nothin’.”

    But you know what, Obrecht? I’m to the guitar what Louis Armstrong is to the trumpet. Kenny Burrell loves me. See, we were in Washington, D.C., at a club called the Blue Mirror. I was in there with Wild Bill Davis Trio, and that’s when Kenny joined Oscar Peterson. And they followed us in there, and Kenny came to the club the night before they was supposed to start playin’ there. At intermission he came over, said, “Mr. Smith. I want to introduce myself. I’m Kenny Burrell.” I said, “I know who you are.” He said, “I used to sit in the Colonial Theater in Detroit when you was with Andy Kirk, and watch you when I was a little boy.” I got so many guys, and it hurts, Obrecht. See, I’ll be 63 in January, and to know that I pick up all of these books and magazines and you never see where you were mentioned, and you was one of the pioneers of this thing! And that disgusts me when I read about all the organ players, and they never mention Wild Bill Davis. Bill Davis caused it all.

    What have been your favorite instruments over the years?

    Now, Obrecht, now in my den – I’m lookin’ in there now – I got 11 guitars. I got a D’Angelico that was made in 1936 and sent to me in St. Louis. I have a Gibson 225 – that’s 1939 vintage. Single cutaway – in fact, one of the first cutaways made. I got the last National outfit that the National made. National used to give me an outfit every year.

    Did you have a contract with them?

    No, no. Just verbal. I been using a Gibson 335, and I retired it for a while. I’m using a Guild now. They gave me a Guild here about six months ago. It’s a white job with two pickups, and it’s a hollowbody. I can’t think of the model number, but it’s inside the instrument. I never looked in it. Let’s see what else. I got a 12-string Univox – I play that sometime. And I got about five amplifiers in here. That’s about all. Oh, I got a whole gob of junk here. I’m using a Fender Twin Reverb amp now.

    What kind of picks do you use?

    Well, you know what? I got a pick I been using for 25 years. It’s a tortoiseshell pick. I had two of them, and one finally broke. And I can’t find them no place! I’m holdin’ on to this one that I got. I was playin’ at a club here and I dropped it, and it went down between the stand! There’s a split on the bandstand, and the boss run over: “What’s the matter? You hurt yourself?” I said, “No, sir. My pick done went down here between this hole in the bandstand.” He said, “Well, can you make it till tomorrow?” I said, “Yes.” Shoot, the next day he had the porter move that bandstand and get that pick out of there [laughs].

    You’ve had the same pick for 25 years?

    Shucks, I got both of them. One is broken. One’s in the kitchen on my dining room table, layin’ there now.

    Do you keep it someplace special?

    I keep it up on the top of the neck of the guitar, in the strings. But I watch it.

    What kind of strings do you put on your guitars?

    Well, what I do, I been using Black Diamond 764s, but what I do, where the first string belongs, I got a banjo D. And I tune that up to E, so that makes that much thinner. Then I take the guitar first string and I put it where the second string is. So now my sixth string on the guitar is the normal fifth string. I do this so you can bend them without any effort.

    When you bend the string, how many fingers do you use?

    Oh, I can bend it, I’d say, almost a half an octave. I usually use my ring finger.

    Do you back it up with the other fingers?

    No. I just usually use my ring finger, because so much slack in these strings.

    You like to bend strings?

    Oh, well, lot of times for effect. I don’t be getting’ no rock and roll stuff. Like, I get up on the D, going [scat sings a run]. You know, go up to the D natural on the third string and, well, you would put it about the fifth string and you would bend it up to D and then come down [scat sings the riff] off of D natural. And that’s the way I use it. A lot of times I’ll be playing something like in the key of G, and I’ll get a D on the B string [scats sings] – you know, just effective things.

    How do you like the action on your guitar?

    I love the action on both my 335 and the Guild. I love it. I don’t do no filin’ or nothin’. I use that stuff you put on – Finger Ease. I use that. I usually spray my necks pretty good with that before I go on a job or go on a gig. But my strings are relatively close to the neck. I don’t get too far away, because you lose a lot of depth if you get right down on the neck.

    Do you practice?

    Never. My instrument is just like meetin’ a fresh woman. Just like goin’ out there and see a gal – whoo, looka there! So when I go on a gig, my instrument is fresh to me. I never practice. Something might come across my mind, and I go out on the front porch and [laughs]. Now I wish you could see all these guitars sitting up here in my den. Yeah!

    Have you written very many songs?

    No, not really. I had two or three novelty things, but nothing that ever paid me anything.

    Floyd, what would you say were the high points of your career so far?

    I think the high points of my career was when I was with the Wild Bill Davis Trio, because we had the high-point trio in the world. Oh, let me tell ya. See, we broke up in ’57 in Atlantic City. Now, about 18 years later, 1972, Bill Davis called me here. He says, “What you been doin’?” I said, ‘Waitin’ for you to call.” After all them years. So he says, “Can you go to Europe with me?” I said, “Sure.” So Chris Columbus and I – the original trio – we went to Europe. I met him in New York at the airport. We flew and we got to l’Orange, France, I think it was, down near Marseilles. So we never rehearsed or nothin’. The night of the first concert, we set our stuff up, went on back to the hotel. 8:00 that night we was on the bandstand, the place was packed, and the master of ceremonies said [in French accent], “Bonjour, monsieurs, madames. From America we bring you zee original Wild Bill Davis Trio, with Chris Columbus on zee drums and Floyd Smith on zee electric guitar.” Bill Davis brought his hands down, and all hell broke loose! Now, we hadn’t seen each other in 18 years. ’Course, he never did call no tune no how. So, man, we hit this first tune, and when we finished playin’ it, the people was standin’ up, screamin’! And Bill Davis walked out from around the organ and Chris Columbus walked from around the drums, and they put their arms around each other. We was all standin’ there cryin’. I got the recordin’ on tape the cassette guy tape.

    So we did about six weeks over in Europe, and we got back to New York and we said, “Well, fellas, it sure was nice to have gotten back together again.” So I shook Bill Davis’ hand, because I was catchin’ a plane for Indianapolis, and Chris Columbus lives in Atlantic City, and Bill Davis lives in Long Island. I was home about a week, and I’m sittin’ up listenin’ to the television set, and my telephone ring. The voice said, “Wonderful Smith?” I said, “Yeah.” I knew who it was. He said, “What you doin’?” I said, “Waitin’ for you to call.” He said, “You ready to go again?” I said, “Yeah.” And one week from that night we was back in Europe doing that same six-weeks tour again. That’s what they liked. See, now, I went to Europe this winter with Wild Bill Davis. We went to Switzerland and Germany and, uh, someplace over there.

    Have you played any of the jazz festivals?

    No. We did some little festivals in Switzerland. It wasn’t the Montreux – I think it was outside of Zurich. Utrecht or someplace in there. Oh, we set ’em on fire.

    Do you like European audiences?

    Oh, yeah. They are very more receptive than the American audiences. Yeah. And they love me. I turned it out over there.

    Do you still keep in touch with any of the guys you knew from the big band days, like anyone from Andy Kirk’s band?

    No, I don’t even have any idea where they are. Andy Kirk works in the musician’s union in New York. Mary Lou Williams, she’s on the board of some college down in North Carolina.

    Floyd, what advice would you give a young person who’s starting out on guitar and wants to have a life in it?

    Oh, my gosh! I’m sorry you asked me that. Because if I had a son – oh, I got a nephew! Let me tell you. I was in St. Louis about ten years ago, and I had a little nephew there. He was eight. Wasn’t no music or nothin’ mentioned about him. So my other nephew came up here last summer to visit, came to Indianapolis, and we got to talkin’. And he said, “You know what, Uncle Floyd? You got a great nephew down in St. Louis that’s playin’ his butt off. Since you left down there ten years ago, he done picked up the guitar and he’s playin’ better than anybody in town. He’s 18 years old now, and he tells everybody that you’re his uncle. And then on top of that, he plays and looks like you.” I got to get out there to try to see him. If I go, I’m gonna take a couple of good guitars that I got and just make him a gift, you know. Because I know he ain’t playin’ nothin’ too good.

    Did you ever learn to read music?

    I taught myself when I went into the Doggett band. I had to teach myself. I mean, I’m not one of them sight things, but give me a little time and I’ll get it together. And I’m in days now where if you wrote it for me, I couldn’t damn near see it without my glasses. [Laughs.]

    When you were playing with the bands in the 1930s, what kind of life was it?

    Oh, man, that was just like – ohh! You don’t even think about that! Sometime with the Sunset Royal band – man, we broke down in Cambridge, Ohio, and stayed in the alley for three days before we found out that the manager of the band hadn’t told the garage man he wanted the bus fixed. [Laughs.]

    Was a lot of it living hand-to-mouth?

    All hand-to-mouth. You had a lot of fun, you got a lot of gals, and you drink up a lot of wine, a lot of whiskey, but you didn’t make no money. It’s altogether different now – everything is money when you go out on the road now.

    How many hours did you work a night?

    Oh, only four. That’s what a dance was.

    Then what would you do the rest of the day?

    Travel in a bus, tryin’ to make it to the next gig! Dirty, nasty, greasy. [Laughs.]

    Did you make a lot of friends in the bands?

    Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

    What did you do to kill the time on the bus – play cards?

    Well, most of the time it was so hot, and you just ride along from one town to the next. Stop on the side of the road and eat some bologna and soda pops, and go on to the next town. Yeah.

    Floyd, this has been great.

    I’ll tell you what – I’m gonna find this Django thing, because I want you to have that. Okay? I’ll get that too you right away, Obrecht.

    Thanks a million, Floyd.

    You’re welcome! Have a good day now.

    Epilog

    Floyd Smith did loan me a copy of the June 1963 issue of Saga magazine with Ollie Stewart’s article. In it, Stewart recounted their meeting at Django’s house in 1944: “I introduced the two men as one guitarist to another. Then Django simply handed Floyd a guitar and took another one from the wall himself. Django gave ‘Sweet Sue’ the once-over-lightly, then Floyd took over and treated ‘Sue’ in a different key. After that he and Django both jumped on the tune and gave it a face-lifting. I’d heard Django at the Bal Tabarin, but even for all the loot they gave him, he never played like this. After a few minutes he was crooning to himself and patting his foot like mad. You knew he had found a kindred spirit. They exchanged guitars for ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Lady Be Good,’ and took turns decking out ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ How long they played, I just don’t know. You don’t hold a watch on great moments. All they got out of it was satisfaction – and a nod of approval from the other guy. All I got out of it was guitar fever, and it still hasn’t gone away. When it was almost dark Floyd and I made a reluctant departure. Django came to the door, and nobody said anything but ‘So long.’ Everything else had already been said.” Floyd Smith passed away in March 1982.

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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      2 comments on “Electric Guitar Pioneer Floyd Smith on 1930s Jazz and Django

      1. Fernando Ortiz de Urbina on said:

        The name of the grill where Smith and Christian jammed is probably “Ruby’s Grill”. That was July 10, 1939, according to Leo Valdés’s chronology.

        F

      2. barbad on said:

        Fantastic interview, he made an interesting point about whether any of the other guitar players from back then would’ve been as highly regarded as Christian if they joined up with Goodman

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