Gary James' Interview With The Musical Director Of
Saturday Night Live!
G. E. Smith
What a resume G. E. Smith has! He's been in the Hall And Oates band, served as the Musical Director of the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and either performed or recorded with people like Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and Dan Hartman. He was also the Musical Director of Saturday Night Live!. What an incredible musical journey G.E. Smith has had and for that matter, is still having!
Q - You played guitar for Hall And Oates.
A - I was there from the Summer of 1979 until 1985.
Q - I know of a guy who was offered that gig of either the guitarist or keyboardist in Hall And Oates, and turned them down! I think he probably regretted that decision.
A - Probably. When was that?
Q - I don't remember the year. I can tell you he went on to tour with Meatloaf and then he appeared on Saturday Night Live!. I don't know whether Hall And Oates put out feelers to different people or how that worked.
A - Well, they went through different periods. They had had a really successful period in the mid-'70s with "Sara Smile" and "Rich Girl" and then they made a record called "Along The Red Ledge", which Todd Rundgren produced. It didn't do well and they invested a lot of money into it and a lot of money into a very elaborate stage show and nothing happened. So, they were not broke, but kind of down again. That's when I came along. At first I was hired as guitar player and to drive one of the cars. We were driving around in cars, doing clubs. That was like the Fall of '79. That lasted for maybe three months and then things started taking off and for the next six years it was right up there. Big hit records all over the world and constant touring and making new records. Just had a great time. They are great guys. They treated me real well.
Q - You spent a lot of time backing other musicians on Saturday Night Live!, but you also put out your own CDs during that time. Did you do any roadwork in support of your CDs?
A - I was on Saturday Night Live! from '85 to '95, for 10 years and during that period I also played with Bob Dylan. So, I did a lot of traveling. A lot of back and forths from New York to wherever Bob was in the world. I made a couple of CDs, three maybe, but that was never really what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the sideman. I wanted to be somebody like James Burton, who was known as a guitar player who could join any kind of band and help it to sound the way it should sound and to honor the songs that people had written. It's always the first thing I think about: How can I make this song sound better? That's what I wanted to do and luckily enough, that's what I've gotten to do.
Q - That is different. Most sidemen dream of leading their own band.
A - Yeah. That's never really appealed to me.
Q - You grew up in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
A - That's right.
Q - Was that a "hotbed" of nightclubs?
A - I would say it was a "cold bed" of nightclubs. There weren't any nightclubs. There were resorts. There were like high-end resorts and vacation resorts. So, my first real work was playing in those bands when I was a teenager. When I was 15, 16, I would play in the orchestras at those places. It was great because I learned all the standards, all the American standards of Pop music. Then as the rock 'n roll thing started to happen more, there I was, a young man who could play Rock guitar, but who could also played the standards, so they can hire me and I could cover both things. So, that helped me a lot. It was a great education. I got to play with a lot of really good musicians, a lot of Jazz guys in the Summer, in the Poconos. They would play in these bands while they were there to make money. I got to meet them and learn.
Q - That was seasonal.
A - Yeah. And then I was going to school. I was just a kid. But I kept playing. I always had little bands with my buddies in high school and stuff. We would play the high school dances, proms. Eventually, probably by '68, a club or two opened up where the bands could play, but before that, no.
Q - Did anyone else come out of Stroudsburg to achieve the kind of success you have?
A - Not rock 'n roll. One of the astronauts, a guy named Byron Lichtenberg was from my neighborhood. He was a real brilliant guy, a scientist. Also, a guy, and I can't think of his name right now, the guy who stood in for Abraham Lincoln in the Army during the Civil War. During the Civil War if you had enough money, you could pay somebody 500 bucks I think it was and he could go to war for you and that's what all the rich people did. Lincoln of course is the President. He can't go to war. So he paid this guy 500 bucks and the guy was from Stroudsburg.
Q - Where did the first "break" come from that led to everything else? And when did it come?
A - In '71 when I was 19 I moved up to the New Haven, Connecticut area from Pennsylvania. A buddy of mine who was a keyboard player, and he had been in Vietnam in the Army and he came home and went to New Haven University on the G.I. Bill and he got involved with some musicians up there. Now, there was a big music scene up there. Lots of clubs. Lots of bands. Lots of things going on. So, he brought me up there in the Summer of '71 to fill in for their guitar player who had to have an operation and was going to be out for a couple of weeks and I just stayed. I got real involved with the bands up there. I was there for about six years and then the first thing that happened was, remember the Edgar Winter Group?
Q - I do.
A - "Free Ride". The guy that wrote the songs in the band, the guy that wrote "Free Ride", was another Pennsylvanian, from out here Harrisburg. A guy named Dan Hartman. Dan was starting a solo career; this was in '77 and he had recorded a record. Played everything on it. Sang everything on it. A very talented guy. He actually had a hit, a big hit on the record called "Instant Replay". It was a Disco song. He needed some people to be in a band to go to Europe and just do a lip-synch tour doing TV shows. So he had seen me play in a club up there. He thought I could play all right and I had a weird face and that worked for TV, so he hired me. We got along great and had a really good time doing that. Made a record, and then through him and his manager, a guy named Steve Paul, who was really big in the Rock world back in those days, I just started meeting people and started going into the city all the time and that was in the late '70s when CBGBs was going. I saw The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Damned, The Dead Boys, The Clash. I saw all this stuff. I loved The Clash. One of the best 'live' bands I've ever seen.
Q - How much preparation time did you have to put in for your Saturday Night Live! gig? Were the rehearsals every day?
A - It depended on the show that week. It depended on how much music was on the show that week, the comedy skits and did the guests, the musical artists, need a band or did they have their own band? If The Pretenders came on, Chrissy Hynde had her own band, right?
Q - Right.
A - She didn't need us. But, a lot of people came in who needed a band to fill out or they would have some people. I got to play with just a ton of people whose music I'd always loved. Everybody from Elvis Costello to Al Green, Bryan Ferry, Rickie Lee Jones, Anita Baker. All kinds of music. It was great.
Q - Did you get along with all the musical guests? Did anyone give you any trouble? I won't ask names.
A - The musical people were all great. The musicians in the Saturday Night Live! band, in my band, were just the best people in New York, aside from me. I was just like this bar band guitar player who knew a lot of songs. These guys were real musicians. Only with the NBC corporate money could anybody afford a band like that. A regular guy couldn't afford a band like that unless he was Paul McCartney. But, because we had all that budget from NBC, we could hire the best people. Howard Shore, who had been the original musical director on Saturday Night Live!, helped me put the band together because by '85 when I came in, he was doing film scores by then. He had already been off the show for five years. He's done all the music now for The Hobbit movies. He's an orchestral genius. He really helped me in the beginning. I met him in the late '70s when I first came to town and got around Saturday Night Live! and knew the people there. So, Howard really helped me put the band together and we got to backup everybody. It was really fun.
Q - Now you have your own guitar line?
A - Well, it's not totally a guitar line. Fender, I've always played a Fender Telecaster since I was a kid, and Fender eight or nine years ago said, "Let's do a G.E. Smith Tele". I had some design ideas that were slightly different. We put those in. They still sell 'em. It's not the biggest selling guitar they ever had, but they still sell some.
Q - What do you do to promote it? Do you do in-stores at music stores?
A - Not really. I did a few things at the beginning when they first put it out. But they have a huge line and they've got a lot of celebrity endorsers with guitars. Clapton's got one. Jeff Beck's got one. Once they get it launched and rolling, they just concentrate on their new ones.
Q - What are you doing these days?
A - Well, I just spent the last three years on the road with Roger Waters doing "The Wall", all over the world. It was apparently the most successful solo tour ever, by a solo artist, financially. We did 219 shows all over the world. I've done what were supposed to be big tours before. I played with Bono. I played with Elton John. I did some work for Mick Jagger. This was gigantic. We had 177 people on the road. Played everywhere. Did the United States and Canada twice. We did Europe twice. We did South America. We did Australia, New Zealand. It was just fantastic. To huge audiences. We did nine nights in Buenos Aires, 65,000 people each night. It was a huge tour.
Q - There's a huge audience for Rock music.
A - That Pink Floyd music has a huge, huge fan base like nothing I've ever seen. I think maybe only The Stones, U2, I can't really think of anybody else besides those two who would have that kind of fan base all over the world.
Q - Maybe Springsteen.
A - Maybe, yeah. Yeah.
Q - When you're out there, does anybody ever say, "Hey! Are you that guy from Saturday Night Live!?
A - Sure.
Q - They recognize you all over the world from that show, don't they?
A - They do because it's been on reruns now for years. They have seen me and I think television is still the most powerful thing in the United States as far as getting somebody's face out there. I was on hundreds of times on the show over the years, so yeah, people recognize me. Just enough. They just wanted to say "Hi!" They don't want to tear me apart. If you are walking down the street with Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan or David Bowie, people want a piece of them. That's the downside of that kind of thing. Of course they are rich, but they can't go to movies. They can't go to the supermarket. They can't have a normal life.
Q - And they have to have bodyguards.
A - Yeah. Anyway, I don't have that. I just have the nice thing of being in New York and a cop will see me and say, "Hey, G.E., how you doing?" I love that! You want to have that. You want the real people. Those are the ones you want to know you.