Interview by DJ Johnson
In February of 1964, the lives of young people and the path of pop culture were forever changed when The Beatles made their famous first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Had it just been The Beatles, it would have been simply a footnote that the band was from England. The next Sunday, however, another English band took the stage on the Sullivan show. The Dave Clark Five were greeted with the same kind of excitement and hysteria The Beatles had been stunned by and the next British band would soon experience. The DC5 changed it from an isolated incident to a suspicion. Something was going on. Within a month it was an invasion. The British Invasion.
For Dave Clark Five vocalist/keyboardist Mike Smith, it was more than a little shocking. Things were moving very fast and it was a lot to process, even for a young man with a high IQ and a fairly advanced philosophy for going with the flow. When you're just one of Her Majesty's anonymous subjects one day and a world famous rock star before the week's out, you've gotta feel like a deer in the headlights. Most of the bands this happened to lasted slightly longer than six months, but the Dave Clark Five matched The Beatles, staying together until 1970. They filled the charts with hits like Bits & Pieces, Glad All Over, and Catch Us If You Can, which are staples of classic rock radio today. All told, they placed 17 singles in the top 40, and they sold in excess of 50 million records.
Smith, who had just spent six years having very little privacy, slipped quietly behind the scenes, turning to producing and becoming quite good at it, and also became a fine writer and singer of advertising jingles. If that wasn't enough, he received a gold record for his performance on a soundtrack recording of Evita. While DC5 fans wondered "where is he now," the truth was he'd never gone away, he just did his work out of the public eye.
In 1976, Smith, along with former Manfred Mann vocalist Mike D'Abo, created an outstanding album of original songs written in the style of the music of the 1940s. Simply titled Smith & D'Abo, the album is filled with songs that have been covered by Rosetta Stone, The New Seekers, Ray Martinez, The Bumpers and Manhattan Transfer, among others. Long out of print, Smith's fans continue to await its release on CD in the US and UK.
[Pictured: The Dave Clark 5 with Muhammad Ali]
And fans, he has. There are Dave Clark Five chat boards filled with messages from people who know all sorts of minutia. Fans of British Invasion bands, in general, tend to hold the band in high regard, even though critics, who were always tough on them, continue to stomp and whine and shout "no, you CAN'T like them!" Garage rock fans, a tight-knit community loyal to the artists they crown as royalty, go crazy for the DC5, and Mike Smith in particular. The greatest compliment a musician can receive is the admiration of his peers, and after all these decades Mike is just learning how many future stars he inspired. A lot of things have been discovered lately, actually, including and especially the fact that Mike would like to take to the stage again. And so he shall. He's put a band together, dubbed it Mike Smith's Rock Engine, and they're heading for the east coast of America, the first show scheduled for March 12th at The Downtown in Farmingdale, New York. [See entire tour schedule at bottom of interview.]
As everything was being prepared for the journey to the States, I talked with Mike Smith via telephone, as I couldn't figure out which bus went to Spain and therefore didn't get to meet him and do the interview live. I decided to forego the sulking and just get on with it.
Cosmik: I'll get the freaked out fan thing out of the way first and say I'm totally jazzed to be talking to you, and also surprised to be calling you in Spain. Never would have guessed you lived in Spain.
Mike: At the moment.
Cosmik: Just at the moment?
Mike: Only at the moment. Later, who knows?
Cosmik: How did Spain become the home of the moment?
Mike: Because it is now about... mmm... hold on a moment... Ah yes, quarter to seven in the evening, I'm sitting here by the pool, it is a clear blue sky, my dogs are sitting by the pool, it's about seventy-odd degrees, and it's March the 3rd. That's why I live in Spain. [Laughs.]
Cosmik: Don't rub it in, now. But it sure sounds nice. Can't say I blame you.
Mike: It's very nice right now.
Cosmik: I've read that you're a classically trained musician. Is that vocals or piano?
Mike: Piano. I studied classical piano since I was five years old.
Cosmik: Until when?
Mike: Until I passed all my exams for Trinity college at the age of thirteen, but I was too young to go there. I was one of those clever dicks, you know, clever kids. I was a bit good at it, though I didn't know at the time. Anyway, I was too young to get into Trinity, and I suddenly heard this guy go (sings) "Well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell," and I thought, "Ooo, I like that." Then I was asked to play in a pub, and they said "Can you play this stuff?" I said "Well, yeah, actually. After Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, that ain't too difficult." So that's how I got into rock and roll.
Cosmik: You were thirteen, not old enough to go to Trinity, but that was old enough to play in pubs there?
Mike: No, that's not old enough to play in pubs, but in those days nobody gave a damn. In those days life was much safer.
Cosmik: How much resistance did you have from your family when you suddenly announced you were going into rock and roll?
Mike: Ahhh... I think mom and dad would like for me to have been a classical pianist, because that's what I started, but looking back now I'm not sure I would have had the dedication - or the talent, I don't know - to be a classical pianist. They were a bit disappointed, but I was having fun, so they went along with it. "Okay, you go and do it, if that's what you want." So I did.
Cosmik: You were lucky. A lot of people would have thrown a fit.
Mike: You can't make somebody do what they don't want to do, especially if it were a guitar or a bass or a trumpet or a trombone or whatever. Especially if they're going to be good at it. It takes a certain dedication, and you've got to love what you do. I was fortunate. I loved playing the piano and I never had to be made to practice. I drove everybody mad because I never stopped practicing. But you can't make somebody do it if they don't want to do it, because they will never be good at it.
Cosmik: So you were ready to make a switch and that was that. I can see how being made to stick only to what you'd been doing could just stop the desire cold.
Mike: I knew kids who used to go to my teacher and had been going for years more than me, but they weren't doing well only because they were being made to do it when they didn't want to do it.
Cosmik: Classical music is so incredibly technical for the player that it seems like rock and roll must have been... I don't want to say you had to "dumb it down," but wasn't it hard to separate from classical and play in a style that calls for less technical skill?
Mike: No. It's amazing, there are people who say "Wait, you play classical piano but you play rock and roll?" Yeah! But the difference is rock and roll is feel. It's not technical, it's feel. You cannot be taught feel. Classical piano, you learn to read the notes, the music, how the master wrote it... You learn to do that. With rock and roll, it's down to feeling the music. Now you can read as many books as you like and you can listen to as many records as you want, but unless you have feel for rock and roll, you will never play it. Or never be believed, let's put it that way. You can't be taught, because it's not in books.
Cosmik: You're not just reciting something from a sheet of paper.
Mike: Not at all. With rock and roll and with jazz, you have a form, and then you play what you want within it. If you come to one of our shows and listen closely, then come to our show the next night somewhere else, the solos will be different. Nothing's written. It's just how you feel that night.
Cosmik: Going back a bit, from first playing pubs at the age of thirteen, how long was it until you met the guys in the Dave Clark Five?
Mike: I think I was about eighteen. Well, I met Lenny [Davidson], the guitarist, before that. I used to play with everybody, just to play. If I could play I'd play, I didn't give a damn [who the band was]. Then I joined a band called... I think it was called The Impalas, but I'm not positive. I'm sure I'll be corrected on that by somebody. In it was a guy called Lenny Davidson, and we were playing a few pubs, and David [Clark] came and saw us play and said "Would you like to join my band?" And like every true musician, I said "How much?"
Cosmik: [Laughs] Oh man, we've got an honest one here!
Mike: Yeah, we discussed where we were going to play, what we were going to do, and he said "Do you know a guitarist who would like to join us?" I said "Well, I think the guitarist I'm playing with is pretty good." And that was Lenny. So Lenny came and joined us and off we went.
Cosmik: I was pretty little, but I still remember the first time I saw you guys. Vividly.
Mike: When was that?
Cosmik: Ed Sullivan, your first time. The British Invasion really grabbed me. The Beatles had just changed my life and then you guys showed up and I was just mesmerized by the whole thing.
Mike: So was I! [Laughs] You think you're the only one? No, no, no, me too!
Cosmik: [Laughs] Really?!
Mike: Well I didn't know what was going on. I'd never been on a plane before. On Friday I was told "Pack in your job," on Saturday I flew to America, and on Sunday I played in front of 70 million people! That's a bit hard to get your head around, you know.
Cosmik: Were you scared to death the first time?
Mike: Oh no, I was only doing what I'd been doing all my life. I don't know how long you've been a reporter, but you do your job, and it's a job no matter how it is [that day]. I don't care if there are five people, fifty people or fifty-thousand. Doesn't bother me. I just want to have a good time. That's what rock and roll's about.
[Interviewer's note: I decide to appear professional by NOT telling him that when I interview my personal heroes, like him, I actually am petrified, and therefore can't relate to the notion of performing in front of 70 million people without breaking a sweat.]
Cosmik: See, I would be thinking, "Okay, five, fifty, fifty-thousand..." but seventy-million would totally intimidate me.
Mike: Nah, doesn't make any difference. Doesn't bother me. Never has done. In fact, a few of the interviews I've done people have asked if I'm nervous about coming back and playing after all this time, and I say "No, why should I be? A professional doesn't get nervous." It's what I've done all my life. For me, it's enjoyment. We get out there and we play rock and roll. I know how to do that, and how to have fun, and I just want everyone to join in and do it with me.
Cosmik: Dave Clark was obviously the leader of the band, and I'm sure he handled a lot of details. What was it like to be in a band with a clear leader at that level of the business?
Mike: All I know is I used to say "Where are we playing next?" He'd pop me in the car, take me, put me on the stage and away I went.
Cosmik: He took care of everything?
Mike: Well I mean we had road managers and tour managers and all that, too.
Cosmik: Yeah, touring was crazier then, too.
Mike: It's only in the last twenty years that I really got to see America, because on the tours we never got to see anything of America. We were always locked away. We could never get out to see anything. We went all over the place and never saw a thing. And it's only in the last twenty, maybe twenty-five years that I've gone to visit friends in America and actually got to see it. I like America. I have great fun there.
Cosmik: It must have been crazy for you because everyone had the fever. You were the first ones from Britain after The Beatles.
Mike: We were a week after The Beatles [on the Ed Sullivan Show]. They were April the 3rd and we were April the 10th or something like that.
Cosmik: And that instantly became the hot items in everybody's record collections. The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five.
Mike: Well the Beatles did some good stuff. Really good stuff. I have most of their records. I really like them. We did our first TV show together in 1963, which was called Thank Your Lucky Stars. Top of the bill was a guy called Del Shannon, then there was an English girl group called The Breakaways, then an English guitarist called Bert Weedon, and then there were these two really rough looking rock and roll bands called The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five, and that was the first time we met. And we chatted, you know, "What are you guys doing?" "Yeah, what about you then?" Just a bunch of normal guys.
Cosmik: By then you were both obviously getting pretty big in England, so they were probably just about as dazed by it all as you were.
Mike: Oh yeah, they didn't know what the hell was going on, nor did we. They were just making music they wanted to make, like we were. That's what we all knew how to do and what we wanted to do.
Cosmik: Pretty damned good music, too.
Mike: Well... it seems so. I'm very flattered that people still play it. It's amazing.
Cosmik: Classic rock stations are the money makers, which is proof that the 60s music has held up, and we still love the bands, but did you ever imagine that you'd have the kind of fan base you do this many years later? It's huge.
Mike: No. No, not at all. Like I say, I'm extremely flattered that so many people remember the band and our songs. I'm coming back to America... thirty-five years since the last time I toured, and there's all this excitement going on. So many people coming down to the shows to see me. Famous bands. And I can't believe it. A couple months ago, we got an e-mail from [Miami] Steve Van Zant and Bruce Springsteen saying "We're inviting you to our show in London, would you please come over?" So we flew over, me and my wife, Charli, and we saw the band and the whole show, then we went back to the hotel for food and drinks and they were saying it was such a big influence on them when they were kids. I said "Uh... why?" They said they'd never heard anything like our lot before, because it was the original wall of sound, if you like, even with our little amplifiers in those days. Max Weinberg, the drummer, and Stevie said "we just sat there and went 'My God, the sound!'" And I've got to be honest, I never heard one concert in America.
Cosmik: Yeah? Because of the screaming?
Mike: In all the three or four years we toured there I never heard one show. They heard more than we did because all I ever heard was screaming.
Cosmik: I've seen so many artists in interviews citing you as a huge influence.
Mike: And I never realized that until the last couple years. Billy Joel, Tom Petty... Billy Joel said "I saw Mike Smith on Ed Sullivan and I decided I wanted to be a keyboard player and a singer." Well, if that's the kind of influence I gave, then good, it wasn't too bad, because some good talent came out of it.
Cosmik: You've got crossover fans you're influencing now, and a lot that don't play but know everything about you. You have the British invasion fans, you have the garage rock fans, and a lot of kids who weren't even born when the DC5 were playing, and they find each other on the Internet in all these chat rooms and talk about the band like they've never come off tour.
Mike: Oh, it's amazing.
Cosmik: I checked out the Bits & Pieces chat board and it's pretty wild. Everything from "I love this song" to "Where is he playing" to, I swear, a woman who was using you for lotto numbers. She said "I would like to see if Mike will bring me some luck this week. I'd like to play his birthdate and birthweight. I know his birthdate. But does anyone know how much he weighed?"
Mike: Oh my God. [Laughs]
Cosmik: Two questions: Can you believe this, and if she wins, are you going after half?
Mike: Oh... Can I believe it? No. And if she wins? Yes. [Laughs] Definitely! Listen, if it brings fun to people, then that's okay. That's okay.
Cosmik: It's pretty funny [Laughing].
Mike: I know, it's amazing! And the facts that these people can come up with... You know, that I was wearing blue socks on April the 5th, 1966. "I was WHAT? I don't even know where I was, let alone what I was wearing." They're amazing, some of the facts that they know.
Cosmik: It seems like it could get to be like being a former Star Trek cast member being asked things like "Why didn't you use your phaser on the rock beast in episode blah blah.." Only with you it's, what, socks, apparently?
Mike: [Whispering] "I have no idea. Maybe just because that was the only thing that was clean at the time, that's all."
Cosmik: Or nothing was clean and you stole Lenny's. [Laughs]
Mike: [Laughs] Exactly! Exactly! You've got it!
Cosmik: So you're a bandleader now, with Mike Smith's Rock Engine. The reason I asked about working with Dave Clark and him being the clear leader of the band, I was wondering if there were things you picked up from him about how to handle that kind of job.
Mike: No, I don't think so. I'm as fussy now as I ever was then.
Cosmik: Your "fussy style" was already there, then? You didn't need to learn it from anyone?
Mike: Well, I'm particular. It has to be right. If it takes an hour to get it right, then it takes an hour. If it takes four hours, then it takes four. But you will get it right. When you put a show on, people are paying money to come and see you, so you make sure the show is good. People go out and work all week for their money, so when they come they don't want to see a shoddy show. They want to see something that's professional, and rock and roll can be professional. You don't have to be blowin' out your brains and drunk and on drugs to be a rock and roller or blues player, you just have to be a good musician and have a feel for it. So I feel if people are going to be good enough to come and see me, I'm going to be good enough to put on a reasonable show for them.
Cosmik: Good philosophy. Where do you think it came from?
Mike: Well that's the way I am. Maybe that comes from my classical training. There is no second best. "You either play it properly or you don't play it."
Cosmik: Which explains why more bands don't have that philosophy, I s'pose. How did you come up with the name Rock Engine? Does it have special meaning?
Mike: I was trying to think of a name for a band, and I wanted everybody to know it was my band, so I put Mike Smith first, of course, and then I thought "well, what is rock and roll? It's energy." It's high energy rock and roll, and if you come to the show you'll see what I mean. I thought "And what has high energy? An engine has high energy. So it's a rock engine." It's an engine that rocks. So there was Mike Smith and his Rock Engine, and I said "No, no, that's all superfluous. Let's just have Mike Smith's Rock Engine, and that says it all."
[Pictured: Frank Mead]
Cosmik: You have Frank Mead on Sax and several other instruments. That guy's worked with McCartney, Jagger, Al Green, Pink Floyd, Squeeze, Albert King, Albert Collins, Eric Clapton and everybody else worthy of his playing. Did you have him in mind for your band from the beginning?
Mike: No, it was a matter of meeting guys who were like minded as me. I said the idea of this band when it started, but to play music you enjoyed. You gotta enjoy rock and roll. Now, if money comes from it, then fine. Good. Nobody's going to say no to money. But the origins of this band were that you've got to enjoy playing rock and roll, and that's it. And from that, I met the guys in the band and said "Well, this is the kind of music you're going to play, so if you like that kind of music, then we stand a chance of getting together." Fortunately, Frank, Doug, Paul and Kurt, they all love rock and roll. They all love playing. They're all high energy. And that's it. Away we went. Frank is good, and he's fun as well. He's a good laugh. Well, all the boys are, it's not just Frank. All the boys are a good laugh.
Cosmik: Are they all based in Spain?
Mike: Frank's in London, but we're all based out here. Frank comes out here and we rehearse and play here.
Cosmik: Obviously the band has the same instrumentation as The Dave Clark Five. You were talking about the kind of music you were playing. Is the idea of the show to play DC5 songs, or are there other songs, too?
Mike: Oh no, no, no, there's only about twelve to fifteen songs of The Dave Clark Five, and the rest are all other rock and roll, i.e. Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, but then we do some contemporary stuff, more modern stuff that I've written, and by other people as well. And it's hard and it's steaming.
Cosmik: Wouldn't happen to be anything from Smith & D'Abo, would there?
Mike: There is, actually, yes! There's one song from that called "Free As A Bird" which we're playing.
Cosmik: Fantastic! We're trying to figure out if it's ever going to get released in America.
Mike: About three months ago Sony got in touch with me from Japan, and they've just re-released it out there. Who knows what's going to happen? I think that was a great album. Michael and I had a great time together making that album. We wrote all the songs as a tribute to the writers we liked, like Cole Porter, Gershwin and all that business, when they had melodies and lyrics that meant something. So we wrote an album in that style. We got a lot of covers from that: The Carpenters, Manhattan Transfer, Rosetta Stone... But I think some of the songs still stand on their own, and that "Free As A Bird" is one I'm very proud of and I enjoy, so we're going to do that on stage. I'll tell you no more. [Laughs.]
Cosmik: Yeeeah, well I got one secret out of you, anyway. You know, I've just never understood why that's not available here.
Mike: Well, who knows what the future brings. I've been approached by a couple record companies to do some recordings. I said I'm very flattered, very honored that they should ask me to, but at the moment I'm doing this tour. I can only put my brain in sync for one thing at a time, and this tour is very important. I have to get this tour right. When the tour is over, I'll discuss record deals and all that, thank you very much for calling me, but I can't discuss that at the moment.
Cosmik: How has it been, going through the whole band thing again?
Mike: Great fun! Great fun. Teaching the guys the old songs has been fun because Paul is only 30-something, so he wasn't even around when I was having hits. But they're great musicians anyway, so they have a good feel for what we're doing. But it's great [laughs] "What's this song?" "Well, it was number one in America, it sold about two million, you know..." "Oh... right... okay." [Laughs.] Then off he goes. No, it's great fun. Hard work, needless to say. I mean singing rock and roll is not easy. But now [the preparation] is all done and I want to get out there and do it, and have some fun.
Cosmik: Yeah, it's almost showtime, Mike. Do you feel ready?
Mike: Oh yeah. Let's just say I'm quietly confident that the people will enjoy themselves.
Cosmik: Are you still on good terms with your old bandmates?
[Pictured: Lenny Davidson, Miami Steve Van Zant and Mike Smith]
Mike: Yeah. Well, I haven't seen them for years. I saw Lenny two or three months ago. I was invited by the BBC to go to the Number Ones of England, and I turned up and Lenny was there, and it was great! It was great to see him, because I hadn't seen him in something like thirty years. We were talking about old times and we had a few beers together. For me, I think he was a very under-estimated guitarist. I know everybody dismissed our stuff as pop, but if you listen to Lenny's playing, he's one of the few guitarists who didn't copy anybody. He was original. You listen to those songs we did and he had his own sound and his own style. He didn't try to sound like B.B. King or anyone else. I admire that. Even after The Dave Clark Five he went back to study, and he has degrees in guitar and violin, and he teaches. I think that's very admirable.
Cosmik: It is. And I agree about his sound. It had such a cool drive to it that I always loved. By the way, I actually have a picture of the two of you, taken a few months ago. You guys look pretty happy to see each other. It's a neat thing to see.
Mike: I did invite Lenny to come on the tour, because I like his playing so much, but he has a business, and to be away three or four months rehearsing, then touring for one, that's five months away from his business, that's crazy. So he couldn't do it, unfortunately, though he would have loved to. Maybe in the future. Who knows?
Cosmik: Okay, now I need to ask you something you've semi-sorta answered, except that it does involve the current tour. Will there be a live recording from this tour, a CD, DVD, anything like that we can look forward to?
Mike: The only thing I can think of is that we'd do a recording and bring it home, then remix it here, because live recordings are not very good, most of them. There may be a place we can record it at, but I'd bring it home to Spain and remix it before I'd put it out.
Cosmik: I was hoping for a live album and a DVD, ASAP, you know?
Mike: Oh, man, that takes large companies to do that sort of thing.
Cosmik: I know, but I'm over on the west coast of America, and you're only playing on the east coast, so I'm out of luck, see?
Mike: Where on the west coast are you?
Mike: Oh! I remember Seattle! I remember staying in a hotel there when we did a show, and the hotel was over the water and we were fishing out the window.
Cosmik: The Edgewater Inn.
Mike: And catching sharks. The Edgewater? Is that what it was?
Cosmik: Yep, that's where all the big groups stayed. A week before you were there, The Beatles were fishing out those windows. It was a major feature of the hotel.
Mike: We had a good time there.
Cosmik: Those sharks are called "dogfish." There's a Frank Zappa song from the 1971 Fillmore concert album called "Mudshark," a whole side long, that's centered around weird happenings at the Edgewater. Pretty kinky stuff.
Mike: We actually caught a shark and put it in the bath, and we got up in the morning and found it wasn't too happy, actually, so we threw it back in. We just wanted to look at it, you know? We couldn't believe we caught a shark out our bedroom window. That was amazing to us. I don't remember much of the 60s, but I do remember that. [Laughs.]
Cosmik: Kept you from wanting to go swimming, too, huh?
Mike: Oh yeah, and it was a bit chilly as well.
Cosmik: Yeah, tell me about it. Okay, shifting gears here... There's a documentary called The British Invasion that's going to be released this year, and all I know is that you're involved. What level of involvement did you have with that?
Mike: Well, that really got me into this. Stephanie Bennett is the lady who's responsible for that, and she's responsible for me getting back into playing again, because I haven't done TV or interviews for thirty years. After The Dave Clark Five I decided I wanted a private life again. All those years of being with the DC5 and then Mike D'Abo and all that, I didn't have one. So I had thirty years of peace and quiet, and then Stephanie came along and, smooth talker that she is, she got me to do this show. I flew to London with my wife and I did the interview, and then she said "Would you play the piano and give me your life story on piano?" I said "Well how far back do you want to go? Do you have that much tape?" And she said "Go from the beginning." So I started from when I was five beginning classical piano, I went right through the rock and roll days, Dave Clark Five days, Mike D'Abo days, Evita days, up to now, and I really enjoyed it. It was fun. So that actually got me up and running. I thought "Hey, that was good. I want to do some more of that." So she's got a lot to answer for, that lady, but it is coming out soon.
Cosmik: Sounds amazing. The whole British Invasion dazzled me, so I can't wait to see it.
Mike: Nor can I. I haven't seen it yet, so I'll be interested to see it as well.
Cosmik: Do you know anything about its length? Is it short, covering the surface, or is it long and comprehensive?
Mike: As far as I know it's supposed to be like three one-hour specials, but for all I know it may have changed. I don't know, I'm not privy to that.
Cosmik: I've noticed reading over the old reviews, and even current overviews, critics haven't necessarily been kind to the Dave Clark Five.
Mike: No, they were very critical of us.
Cosmik: Some still gripe, but the fact that the music still plays constantly on classic rock radio says something, I think. How do you see the band's place in history?
Mike: Um... That's very difficult to answer. I agree with you, we never got very much praise from the press when were around. They always condemned it for one reason or another. It was bubblegum, it was pop, it was this, it was that. But we made hits, and a lot of people have very fond memories of us, and I think some of our music was extremely good. Not all of it, of course, but no one's made good records all their lives. How do I see us in history? Well, I don't really know. I think you have to ask other people that. We were a very popular band and we had great fun and we brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people. Musically, so it would appear from what I've heard recently, we influenced a lot of people, which I was not aware of. If we did, then good. If it did good, then I'm happy. That's all I can say, really.
Cosmik: You've had an amazing career with the Dave Clark Five, then what most people don't know is you've had a very successful second career as a producer and a very successful third career writing advertising jingles and even singing them, and you've probably done more than I found during research. That's quite a life. A lot of events along the way. What are the memories you wouldn't trade for anything in the world?
Mike: Wooo... I've got a few. The first one that springs to mind is meeting Ella Fitzgerald at Basin Street East. Hers was the second record I ever bought, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, and I met her in 1964. She was a lovely lady. Beautiful. And I think, for me - I mean it's all subjective - she had the voice. I met Frank Sinatra, who was another one of my heroes, and Dean Martin. I was at Dean Martin's house. I had all their records. Playing at McCormack Place in Chicago, that was wonderful.
Cosmik: What was particularly special about that?
Mike: Well, the venue was unbelievable. It was a big place, modern, and it had a rising stage, and we were in the pit, the stage came up, it was all blacklight, and we were playing Peter Gunn, and it hit the audience, who were in the darkness, and they just went nuts. Good lighting, good sound. Also, I met my wife there, which was nice, as well.
Cosmik: What year was that?
Cosmik: The same person you're married to now?
Mike: That's right.
Cosmik: Well that's a rarity.
Mike: Well, no, we didn't get married then. We met then, but we only actually married two years ago. We got together three or four years ago, but we married two years ago. I had a career, my wife, Charlie, was in films. She worked with Elvis and knew him very well. She's got pictures with him. But she was pursuing her career and I was pursuing mine, so we split up and got on with what we had to do. Then about four or five years ago we got back in touch.
Cosmik: That's really cool. The odds of that happening are a million to one. And you met at an unforgettable show. Kind of a destiny thing all around.
Mike: I've actually got a picture of [meeting Charlie], which is even more phenomenal.
Cosmik: Wait, something you said just got my curiosity up. Ella Fitzgerald was your second album?
Cosmik: What was your first?
Mike: Grieg's Piano Concerto. That was the first piece of music I had.
Cosmik: Ah! Pretty eclectic, going from Grieg to Ella.
Mike: Well, I was studying classical piano, but I was also listening to Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra, I was listening to opera... I have no prejudice against any music. If you want your music to get better, you must listen to other people's music. At my house you will hear classical piano, jazz, opera, country, rock, you will hear everything because you learn from that.
Cosmik: How 'bout reggae?
Mike: Reggae? Yeah! Sure, I love reggae! I love listening to the rhythms they do. It's another thing to learn from. If you think you know it all, then give it up, because you don't know it all and you never will.
Cosmik: If you stop looking, then you don't really love the the music anymore, I think, because half the joy is in the search.
Mike: That's it, exactly. I sit down at the piano and play every day. I always have done. And every day that I sit down to play, I discover something new. I go "Geez... I never thought of that!" Because you're just relaxed and playing and there it is. "Wow, what was that? I've never done that change before, and using that in the bass." It's a wonderful feeling of discovery, something brand new. But if you think you know it all and you don't need to try anymore, give it up, boy, because you don't love it anymore. If you want to get better, you have to keep searching, because there's always people better than you, there's always a faster gun. So learn. Learn. If you let your fame overtake your talent, then you've lost it. I think there are too many egos in this business, unfortunately, and the egos overtake the talent. Suddenly the egos get in the way of their music, and the music deteriorates.
Cosmik: Aaaand then they go away.
Mike: And then they go away. [Laughs.] Exactly. All I know is music. That's all I've ever done all my life, and I still don't know half it. I still listen to the same piece of music I heard years and years ago and say "I never heard that bit before." You know, there's a cello in this spot or a double bass in this passage, and I'll think "I've listened to this so many times and I've never quite heard that." Or a piece of rock and roll. I'll think "Yeah, I know all the chords, I know all the notes," and then one day you put your headphones on and "Hey!... I didn't hear that before! Wow! That's amazing! He passed on an F-minor to the A, and he was on an E-flat for the E... Wow! Yeah, NOW I know why it made that sound. That was brilliant!" And I'm going back to stuff like Louis Jordan here. The early stuff, the 40s. Boy, they were clever. But I have an inquiring mind, and I haven't lost that. I like to listen and I like to learn. When I lose that, I will give it up.
March 12th: The Downtown,Farmingdale, New York
March 13th: The Regent Theatre,Arlington,MA
March 14th: Mohegan Sun Casino, Uncasville, Ct.
March 15th: The Van Dyck,Schenectady, New York
March 16th: B.B. King's Blues Club, New York, New York
March 18th: Turning Point, Piermont, New York
March 19th: Water Street, Rochester, New York
March 21 & 22nd: Casino Rama, Orillia, Ontario, Canada
March 25th: Huber Opera House, Hicksville, Ohio
March 27th: Grand Theater, Dubuque, Iowa
March 28th: Star Plaza, Merrillville,Indiana
March 29th: Moondog Coronation Ball,Cleveland,Ohio
March 30th: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland,Ohio
For info on Mike Smith, the DC5 and more, check out Mike &
Lenny's Bits & Pieces Magazine
online. We'd like to thank the webmasters and there, John and Lynn Briggs, for the use of some of the
recent photographs of Mike seen in this interview.
Mike Smith's Rock Engine is represented by: www.tciartists.com.