From catching Tower of Power’s attention in a Lake Tahoe restaurant, to recording with the Dave Matthews Band and to getting his first professional job with blues legend Freddie King, Roger Smith has a penchant for turning happenstance into opportunity.
A native of Texas, Smith moved to Sacramento where as a sixth-grader he met jazz organ player Jimmy McGriff, who inspired him to learn the instrument he had first played in church. The initial tunes he played were blues, fortuitous because years later, when Smith was back living in Texas, he met King at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.
“Freddie came through and his organ player was sick,” Smith told Tahoe Onstage. “Ballsy me, I ran up to his room and go, ‘Hey Freddie. I’ll play.’ And I was just scratching the surface of playing. I could noodle around a little blues here and there but not anything stage value. And he said, ‘OK, man.’ And my heart just about came out through my mouth because I thought he’d just blow me off. I wound up on stage with him and the rest is history. Everything else just fell into place after that, gig after gig after gig after gig. That’s how my career got started.”
Tower of Power bandleader Emilio Castillo described Smith’s style.
“It’s a combination of jazz, soul and gospel,” he said. “He has that natural feeling that a lot of church players have. It’s not as if he’s a technician, per se. He can figure that stuff out but he doesn’t think that way. He just plays. He knows where to go and that’s a typical sign of a church player. He’s just one of those natural feeling musicians, very soulful.”
Smith has been recording since 1972, appearing solo, with Sunbear, under his pseudonym Jazz Rosco and with numerous artists including Poncho Sanchez, Jerry Jeff Walker and, of course, Tower of Power, which he joined in 1999.
Smith and his trio Sunbear had a steady gig at the Christiana Inn, today’s site of the Himmel Haus, when he was recruited by Tower of Power.
“We were up there at that time and we went and saw him play,” Castillo said. “Then we took him down and auditioned but there were certain guys who knew about him from before, Norbert Satchel, for one, our tenor player at the time.”
“Roger was a big fan of Chester Thompson (TOP’s original keyboardist) and the band Tower of Power, so he knows the genre. He knows what’s called for here and he just fits in perfectly. We love him.”
Besides working in Tahoe, Sunbear served as the house band for the television program “Soul Train.”
“We were like the ‘B’ band that would warm everybody up and rehearse the songs and put all the ideas together then they’d go cut the record with the ‘A’ band,” said Smith, who revealed an unspoken but obvious aspect of the show: Eighty to 90 percent of the songs were lip-synched.
“James Brown, Tower of Power and Earth Wind and Fire played live,” he said. “Everybody else had instruments up there but it (wasn’t cost effective).”
Smith made an unannounced appearance last summer with the Dave Matthews Band in the Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena at Harveys. Again, the pairing was the result of Smith making the most of happenstance.
“I was playing in Seattle and Carter (Beauford, the drummer) and I have known each other for quite a while, and unbeknownst to me they were there recording a record, ‘Away From the World.’
After confirming the studio was equipped with a B-3 organ and a piano, Smith said, “Cool. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“That’s how I wound up as the only guest artist on the record,” Smith said. “Dave and I have been close ever since. At that session, I asked if he would like Tower of Power to open a few shows for him. He said, ‘I can make that happen,’ and he did. I did some shows in Florida and whenever they were close and I was around I would end up doing the gig with him. That’s how the Tahoe thing came about. I was around. I told Dave I am going to come see you and he said, ‘Cool man, bring your rig.’ ”
Smith’s immediate future calls for a Tower of Power concert Saturday, Nov. 30, in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.
In 2014 Smith plans to release a third Jazz Rosco album and, in the summer, join TOP on tour with Journey and the Steve Miller Band, right about the time he debuts his own wine, Bump City Red.
“I love the complexity of wine,” he said. “It’s always intrigued me so over the last 10-15 years I’ve really been studying up on it a lot, and with the help of a lot of friends and a lot of vintners and people who own wineries who are good friends of mine, I am just learning how it’s done from picking the grapes, to stemming them, to crushing them to making sure all the yeast is correct, all the way to bottling.”
Tower of Power
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30
Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room