Roger Smith, Tower of Power keyboard player, shares his mighty sounds in Northern Nevada and beyond
When the Smith family moved from Texas to a new home in Sacramento, young Roger, only 10 at the time, soon developed an outside interest. Just next door lived a relative of blues organist Jimmy McGriff. The neighbors had a small band, and their jam sessions fascinated young Smith. He rarely missed a chance to run over and hang out whenever the band practiced.
“I began playing my first tunes on that guy’s organ,” the now world-renowned keyboardist said, “and when my Mom heard me doing some old blues tune like ‘Little Red Rooster’ or ‘Down the Road Apiece,’ she signed me up for lessons.”
By the time Smith turned 13, he had burned out on those lessons. He played weekends at his church for a while and even had a band in which he played stand-up bass and vibes while in college.
Smith traveled back to Austin, Texas, and put together a small band that played only original compositions. The band, Blind Melon, played gigs around Austin and opened at the Armadillo for headlining artists such as John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His personnel at one time included teenage Eric Johnson, now recognized as a guitar virtuoso and compared to such legends as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Smith had to seek parental permission to take the under-aged Johnson along when Blind Melon went on the road.
By 1971, Smith’s desire to excel and prove his talents inspired a bold entrance onto the stage with blues legend Freddie King.
“Freddie’s organist couldn’t play one night down in Austin, so I went to his hotel room and said, ‘Hey, Freddie, if he can’t play, I will!'” Smith recalled. “When Freddie said, ‘OK,’ I about fell right on my ass!”
After that first spate of professional gigs, Smith had gained a reputation as a keyboardist. King enjoyed many music industry contacts and introduced Smith to Leon Russell and Joe Cocker. Soon Smith began work with Cocker’s band, Mad Dogs and Englishman.
While back in his old California stomping grounds, Smith heard about a local Sacramento kid who had earned his own recognition as an up-and-coming guitarist. Mickey Valentino and Smith started jamming together with a young conga player named Lavar Burton. Burton left for Hollywood and appeared on Sesame Street, later playing Lt. Jordy LaForge, chief engineer aboard the starship Enterprise in the Paramount series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In 1983, Smith went to work with Reno vocalist Tommy Bell. Guitarist Bruce Conti, late of Tower of Power, left Bell’s band, and Smith hired Valentino, who stayed with Bell’s group for more than 16 years.
Smith’s history in Northern Nevada continued after he departed the Bell band, as he worked casino showrooms at Lake Tahoe. He lived at Tahoe for several years, then returned to Sacramento and began work on his first solo album.
In 1998, Oakland-based Tower of Power contacted Smith when their keyboardist left the group. Smith currently tours with the powerhouse funk and R&B group. Their next booking in the Reno area will be at Harrah’s showroom at Lake Tahoe Nov. 26-27.
Smith’s dynamic stage presence is celebrated. He doesn’t settle for merely taking the stage. When he sits behind the Hammond B3 keyboard, the first chords inform the audience that the stage has been commandeered, yet his rapport with the audience never diminishes.
“I believe I’m doing what I was placed here to do,” Smith said, “and when we’re in the groove, it’s really a sort of healing thing because at that time absolutely nothing else exists.”
In 2004, Smith released two solo recordings, Just Enough and Jazz Roscoe. Just Enough is a smooth-jazz selection featuring vocalist Carol Toca and performances by well known artists such as David Garibaldi, drummer for Tower of Power and recognized by Modern Drummer Magazine as the industry’s best R&B-funk drummer 1980-85. Other world-class musicians working with Smith on his seven solo albums include Ray Obiedo, guitarist with The Urban Latin Jazz Project, legendary jazz drummer Jimmy Robinson, the famous Tower of Power Horns and the Temptations.
“Working with Roger is a great experience,” Obiedo stated, “because he encourages us, and it’s like a bunch of old buddies hanging out and making all this great music happen.”
Obiedo described session work with Smith as a voyage of discovery shared by each contributing member. “It’s like we enter the studio, and Roger says, ‘OK, let’s get started! Just find the groove, and let’s have some fun here!’ and what happens then is usually much better than any of us expected.”
Smith spoke of a shared vision for his Jazz Roscoe series, planned to be five albums spotlighting various aspects of jazz.
“I spent years wearing my wife Kathleen’s ear off about the Jazz Roscoe concept, about how I wanted to bring in cats who didn’t need to be coached or to read charts prior to playing,” Smith said. “So, now I’m working with players who don’t need so much structure, but who can be free-wheeling, good improvisers, people who can really play and don’t need tutelage.”
Using what some producers might consider a seat-of-the-pants approach, Smith successfully laid out seven tracks during one day in the studio and later recorded three tracks, again in a single day, with Valentino and other Reno musicians for the first Jazz Roscoe album.
Valentino played for some of the sessions on Jazz Roscoe. He said, “It’s always the best working with Roger, because with his monumental experience as a pro and his great personality, we just want to play our very best. And we do!”
“A lot of guys can play their butts off, but the joy is working with great players who speak the language of jazz,” Smith said. “I just say, ‘OK, no thinking, here’s the tune, and watch me for the cues,’ and we’re all using the gifts God gave us.”
Although a consummate performer himself, Smith also produces and directs musical arrangements for other artists. He has been musical director on albums for Coke Escovedo and Club Nouveau and has produced albums for Willy Nelson, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Jeff Beck.
Smith is endorsed by several famous manufacturers of musical equipment, including Hammond Organs, Rapco cables and Audix microphones. He currently plays on a new model Hammond, the B3-P, and was presented with the flagship model by the company. This keyboard behemoth delivers 175 watts versus most stage amplifier ratings of 35 to 40 watts. Smith noted that one of his guitarists added a second amp to his setup just to keep up with the keyboard volume.
“It’s a real monster,” Smith said, his characteristic enthusiasm evident, “and when you kick it, the whole stage rocks!”
So what might the future hold for this local musical hero?
“For now I’m on the road with Tower of Power quite a bit, but when I’m not touring, I’ll keep on doing what I like best," Smith said, "which is the small club venue, so long as the clubs are willing to book our material."