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VOL. 35 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 21, 2011

Still shakin'

Building brand, maintaining loyal following keys to success for Nashville's legendary show bands

By Tim Ghianni

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A couple hours before embarking on a two-day journey to play a wedding in the Hamptons, a costumed superhero steps from a black E-450 Super Duty Ford bus while his band blankets a crowded corner of Centennial Park with brassy, thumping, Earth, Wind & Fire funk.

This caped crusader leans back, nodding to the beat as scores of HCA employees finish their company barbecue and settle into folding chairs. A soft smile lights the face of this relatively unassuming man in a skin-tight superhero suit.

It’s almost show time for Tyrone Smith, one of the biggest stars in Nashville’s under-appreciated show bands scene, an R&B-based genre that makes more noise and money at weddings and corporate gigs than many honky-tonk heroes and Americana darlings make in beery saloons or listening rooms.

Perhaps better known as “Super T” for the small portion of his sets dedicated to stirring up the crowd while dressed in his Superman suit emblazoned with a “T” rather than an “S,” this retired elementary school gym teacher has performed for presidents and potentates, even hollering on a few occasions for his pal George W. Bush to “work that body” to the band’s full-throttle Motown.

The Tyrone Smith Revue and The Jimmy Church Band are the two best-known providers of this flavor of Nashville music born in the heyday of the Jefferson Street R&B scene before Interstate 40 bisected the neighborhood and virtually silenced the music.

While Nashville has a sizable contingent of R&B-tinged show bands lifting hearts and feet at bar mitzvahs, weddings, company parties and the occasional frat social, Church and Smith have for decades set the marks of excellence with horns, harmonies and tasty guitar licks filling ballrooms with sensory explosions of sound.

“These are two guys who are out there really working it and who are renowned for what they do,” says Michael Gray, curator of the 2004-05 Night Train to Nashville exhibit, which focused on Nashville’s R&B heritage, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“They keep busy and keep booked. These two guys don’t get the respect they deserve.”

A few minutes before he conquers the HCA employees with a half-hour “everybody stand up” set, Smith – yet to flip the switch to his on-stage persona – relaxes in plaid shorts and T-shirt and speaks humbly about how the black bus brandishing the massive “T” and “Tyrone Smith Revue” logos. The bus travels more than 200,000 miles annually, toting star and band to any nook, cranny or first-family wedding where paychecks await.

“You have to love it to do it,” Smith says, clutching the bag that contains the Super T suit. “When I hit that stage, the band pumps me up.”

He excuses himself. “Gotta get ready so we can do our stuff before their meeting” – and ducks toward the back of the bus to change. Usually “Super T” only appears for 45 minutes of the Revue’s Springsteenesque musical marathons. “We play for 2½ hours before we take a break, and then come out for another 2½,” Smith says.

Tyrone Smith relaxes before going onstage to entertain HCA employees.

-- Photo: Tim Ghianni

But today’s HCA gig is not for Tyrone Smith, the crooner or the James Brown-like bandleader in elegant show costume. The corporation – “they want to salute their heroes,” he says – has hired Super T and his playful bump-and-grind, punctuated by a revivalist’s howl to “get up and dance,” while his top-flight band of players and singers churn a never-ending beat.

“Gotta keep their feet moving the whole time,” Smith explains of the bass-heavy underpinning for a show that, for the uninitiated, could be compared favorably to that of filmdom’s The Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue, but minus Belushi and Aykroyd caricatures and with a real child of the city out front.

As that thumping beat builds toward climax, Smith steps softly across the parking lot and ascends the steps toward the stage.

Only when he grabs the microphone is the transformation complete. “I am Super T,” he happily hollers to the corporate employees. “I came all the way from Bellevue …. We’re getting ready to get this party started.”

Stutter-stepping and high-kicking, he negotiates the entire stage front, commanding all to “work that body… work that body…” to the soulful beat that first inspired him in decades-ago Memphis, where he and childhood chums Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire) and Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & and the M.G.s) played for tips in rough-and-tumble blues joints on the Mississippi’s west bank.

“The longer we played, the more money people would throw at us. I guess that’s why I still play so long now.”

The Tyrone Smith Revue has been churning out that grinding beat with bass and brass punctuation for about 40 years.

Most famously, this staple of college frat parties throughout the South grabbed national headlines by playing at Jenna Bush’s wedding near the lake at W’s Crawford, Texas, compound.

It wasn’t the Revue’s first encounter with what then was the world’s most powerful family. The Bush daughters – Jenna and Barbara – latched onto The Tyrone Smith Revue in their college days, particularly during Jenna’s time at the University of Texas. The revue performed at a White House Christmas Party, as well as at “the big” inaugural ball at Bush’s second coronation.

“It was the Texas-Wyoming Ball,” says Smith, who, when not squirming and squealing like James Brown or belting it out old-school in front of his large band, reverts to the soft-spoken gentleman who still misses the inner-city youngsters he taught and coached.

The lean 68-year-old can be caught on YouTube hollering to a bridegroom that “George W. Bush ain’t got nothing on you,” during a feverish reception.

Other video shows his “move that body” exhortation in action, as a line of blond and blue-eyed bridesmaids unashamedly do just that, shaking and shimmering body parts scarcely disguised beneath glistening gowns.

“I’m working two shows a week on the weekend,” Smith says. “Some weeks I’m doing more. A couple of weeks ago, I worked every night, Tuesday through Saturday, in Alabama, Knoxville and Mississippi.

“I’ll tell you, man, I was wore out.”

He laughs, but he also delivers with his 11-piece band that includes four horns, a five-piece rhythm section (drums, bass, lead guitar, keyboard and percussion) and a powerhouse female vocalist who adds flavors of Billie Holiday or Beyonce, allowing the front man and audience to catch collective breath.

Jimmy Church performing

-- Photo Courtesy Of The Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum

As soon as the HCA gig is done, the outfit scrambles into the black bus for a two-day trip to a tonier section of Long Island, where the Revue has a club gig Friday and the Saturday night wedding.

His show, like that of the legendary Jimmy Church Band and several less-prominent outfits – has deep cultural roots in the heritage of Jefferson Street. Indeed, at about the same time Tyrone Smith was working out his kinks with various outfits while a student at Tennessee State, Church already was ripping it up with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox, Larry Lee and Johnny Jones in the New Era, Del Morocco and other clubs.

Church also worked the southern “Chitlin Circuit” with acts like Jackie Wilson, a close friend and mentor.

“When I was young, I favored Jackie, so he used to have me riding in his limo with him. We’d get places and there’d be all these girls and he’d tell them that I was Jackie Wilson,” says Church, never one to duck the ladies attentions.

As show bands grew along Jefferson Street, backing some of the best acts in the business, Church learned lessons, both good and bad, from fellow performers. From Billy Cox, he learned a bit about playing bass. From Cox’s Army buddy, Jimi Hendrix, he learned how NOT to perform.

“Without (guitarist) Larry Lee in that band, we wouldn’t have sounded like nothing. Hendrix was doing all that kind of stuff,” says Church, whose hard-charging, choreographed shows all these years later show a dedication to discipline.

“People wanted to hear music, but Jimi kept doing that (stuff), so Larry kept playing a big old chord to make the band sound like a band.”

The free-flying and free-falling Hendrix learned some of his charismatic skills by simply paying close attention during his Jefferson Street show band experience with Church and pals.

Church laughs for a moment as he remembers Hendrix as “a good cat. He was real humble. He stayed high. I didn’t know nothing about no drugs.”

“We played Clarksville (where Hendrix and Billy Cox first teamed up as 101st Airborne paratroopers) one time and Hendrix broke the speaker. He kept playing. He was into the fuzz tone before it first came out.”

When Church, 72, formed his own show band – with a full complement of musicians and the bountiful sights and sounds provided by a cadre of female singers – he was determined to provide high-caliber, ear-pleasing music, dosed with showmanship and discipline. The band bears no resemblance to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This is a show band with drum-punctuated, horn-exploding purpose.

“I’m still in the mix now because of it,” he says. “You got to have a show man. You gotta sing it just like the record goes. People want to hear the song just like they heard it on the record they bought.”

Too many artists, he laments, stray from the original when they take the stage and disappoint the audience.

“You do it like it goes,” he says. “You don’t add nothing. You show up on time and do your job and people will come to see you.”

Church and his outfit were called on plenty as the house band during the Night Train to Nashville exhibit, and they provided musical accompaniment for R&B legends like Frank Howard and The Commanders, Clifford Curry, Johnny Jones, Robert Knight and Earl Gaines.

“Jimmy Church was central to the exhibit story, given that he began recording for Nashville’s R&B labels in the late 1950s, frequently appeared on the locally produced TV shows Night Train and The!!!!Beat in the ‘60s, and contributed so much to the live music scene,” says Gray, an R&B scholar as and curator of the Hall of Fame exhibit.

“For decades he has been leading one of the tightest bands in the country. The Hall of Fame has been fortunate – on many levels – to have The Jimmy Church Band anchor many of our Night Train to Nashville festivities. Many of the veteran artists that we have wanted to showcase no longer have their own backing bands, but every one of those singers knows and respects Jimmy and feels comfortable sitting in with his group.”

The versatility of this veteran show band in switching from backing Philly-fashioned doo-wop to Nashville pop to hard-core blues to Motown is testament to Church’s talent as bandleader, as well as his business acumen in keeping a talented corps together for decades.

A visit to YouTube demonstrates Church and his whole outfit playing, for example, In the Midnight Hour. And it stays true, vocally, in backbeat and in spirit to Wilson Pickett’s version.

Staying true to the music is one of the reasons that, while many music acts have suffered during the double-dipping recession, Church and Smith have been able to keep trucking along.

While weddings are filled with something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue, they also are often accompanied by large receptions. Brides and grooms want music that offers no surprises, that stays true to the original, that is danceable.

Because Church and Smith stay true to the originals, there is no shortage of work.

Lee Maxcy of Nashville-based Prime Source Entertainment Group, which books Church and Smith for many of their gigs, says the recession has cut into some things, but adds that fathers don’t scale back on their daughters’ weddings.

“I’d say 60-70 percent of our business is weddings,” Maxcy says. “The band is the most important thing for these kids. Their friends want to have a good time, they want to give them a good time.”

Malcolm Greenwood, of Brentwood-based Big Events, a wedding and corporate events planning agency, says 95 percent of his weddings have bands.

“People want to be entertained. They do a lot of old-school ‘70s music, because that’s what it’s all about: Having a good feeling about it, having fun.”

One YouTube video shows Church’s band playing a 2002 bar mitzvah at West End Synagogue, slipping from a lively “Havah Nagilah” to the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World.”

But it’s not all old and traditional for Church or Smith.

Church, for example, reaches back to get Satchmo and Pickett but also keeps track of today’s popular flavors.

“We do Beyonce, Pink all the stuff those kids want to hear, from the Supremes to the Pointer Sisters all the way to Rihanna,” he says, crediting his sultry female vocal corps for the diversity.

“Always know you gotta give people a show.”

Decades ago Church learned how reproducing popular classics and giving people a show crosses all racial and cultural boundaries.

“What really helped me was what happened when white kids saw our show. I was so scared. Going to Ole Miss to play for these white kids. They’d never had a black band before.”

With the girls dancing, the horns blaring, the tuxedo-clad band leader smiling and singing, The Jimmy Church Band was pretty well launched onto the mostly white college circuit that night.

“The kids were extremely nice. That got us a lot of work. People would ask ‘Who was that black band?’”

Even today his audience remains “99 percent white,” but times and venues have changed.

“Ninety-eight percent of our gigs are weddings,” Church says. “We play the old version. I get gigs on top of gigs because we play ‘Mustang Sally’ like ‘Mustang Sally’ goes.”

And there’s just one result when the show bands churn out their music with flair and fervor.

Heck, even George W. Bush couldn’t resist Tyrone Smith’s command to “Get out there and dance …. Move that body.”

Mission accomplished.

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