So long, 'mad wizard'
Raiders' drummer Michael 'Smitty' Smith dies in Hawaii
BY PAUL DUCHENE
You'd probably have had a hard time catching up with former Paul Revere and the Raiders' drummer Michael "Smitty" Smith the past five years, even though he was semiretired.
Smith, who went from Beaverton High School to the rarefied world of national television and rock 'n' roll tours as the madcap drummer for Portland's biggest rock band of the '60s -- and maybe any other decade -- was still living the rock 'n' roll life.
At 58, he was working by day in a lumberyard and playing music at night in Kona, Hawaii. But last Tuesday, his long, strange trip came to an end.
Smith's death, which occurred from internal bleeding after he was rushed to a hospital, left his friends in shock.
"It's like losing a member of the family. I can't believe it," Paul Revere said from his home in Boise. "He was there from the beginning, and he had that strange, wonderful sense of humor. He was such an individual, always off on some new adventure. I'd hear from him a couple of times a year, and I'd never know his phone number. He'd be a tugboat captain on the Willamette or beachcombing in Lincoln City."
Michael LeRoy Smith was born on March 27, 1942, in Beaverton, where his father, Howard Smith, still lives.
Smith met bandmates Paul Revere and Mark Lindsay when they came to Portland from Boise in 1962 following their national hit "Like, Long Hair." While they were checking out Portland's Headless Horseman teen club, where "Mark had to go inside because I was too old," Revere recalled, they met the irrepressible Smith.
Smith knew enough local musicians to fill out the band's lineup.
"He helped me find the best talent in the Northwest," Revere said. Manager Roger Hart came on board next when a teller at his Lake Oswego bank told him, "You won't believe the name of this rock band that's just opened an account." Hart, who was a deejay at KISN at the time, was looking for a band for a teen dance. "I hired them for $150," Hart said.
The band had a West Coast hit with "Louie, Louie," recording it a week before the Kingsmen did. But they were handicapped because their label, Columbia -- which they would stay with for 12 years -- didn't distribute it on the East Coast.
"Mitch Miller, who was a head honcho at the label at the time, said, 'This is Columbia; we don't release things like that'," Hart recalled. So the Kingsmen's version became the definitive recording of Richard Berry's song. It was that band's high point. "We got the hit; you got the career," Dick Peterson of the Kingsmen told Hart.
The hits keep coming
In 1965, everything clicked for Paul Revere and the Raiders. Revere came up with the idea for the colonial uniforms, the band landed on Dick Clark's ABC-TV show, "Where The Action Is," and the hits started coming: "Steppin' Out," "Just Like Me," Kicks," "Hungry," "Good Thing," "Him or Me," "Too Much Talk," "Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon," and some lesser songs until 1971's blockbuster "Indian Reservation," which hit No. 1.
"That was the biggest-selling single Columbia had to that date," Hart said.
The lineup for those years included Revere, Lindsay -- who wrote many of the hits with producer Terry Melcher -- bassist Phil "Fang" Volk, guitarist Drake Levin and Michael "Smitty" Smith, the drummer.
Rolling Stone writer David Fricke is a longtime Raiders fan ("the first album I bought was 'Spirit of '67'") who wrote the liner notes for a recently released greatest hits compilation .
"I owe them a lot just to be where I am," he acknowledged. "It was a turn of the karma wheel. After everything they'd done for me, I had a chance to give something back."
Fricke said the Raiders were always underrated musically.
"They were really good players," he said. "They had to be in order to survive all those marathon frat house gigs and doing that vaudeville at the same time. Smitty was the backbone. He was such a presence back there. He had a really firm backbeat -- like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts -- and that flair for comedy. He was really doing double duty."
Portlander Gino Rossi was the band's photographer and went on to cover many rock 'n' roll stars over the years. He recalled Smith as a Keith Moon character whose outlandish sense of humor never got in the way of his playing:
"He was a mad little wizard. He'd do crazy things -- have a fake heart attack and they'd take the mike stand and give him a shot of rhythm and blues. They were like the Marx Brothers. Even when the Beatles came, nobody was doing anything onstage and these guys were like vaudeville."
Then there was the time the band upstaged Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Hart said that Gary Lewis was singing "This Diamond Ring" and nobody was watching him. Hart turned around, and Mark Lindsay and Paul Revere were pushing Smith across the stage on a gurney, operating on him, "digging stuff out of him and throwing it up in the air."
In 1969 Lindsay started a solo career and had a hit with "Arizona" but came back to the band for "Indian Reservation." The old band split up in 1975. Revere has continued touring, playing 150 to 200 gigs a year. He was in Washington D.C., preparing for a Memorial Day concert, when he heard of Smith's death.
After the Raiders split up, Smith went to Hawaii and was involved in a bad car crash, according to his ex-wife, Brenda Smith of Corvallis. He met her when he came back to Brookings to recuperate and began playing in bands there. The two then lived for a number of years in Hawaii, where Brenda's happiest memory of Smith is of him "riding around the island on a motorcycle with our guitars on our backs. He loved the islands and the island people."
The two were divorced five years ago. They had two children, Jenna, 16, and Rio, 14. Smith also had two children, Rory, 36, and Alexandra, 32, from a previous marriage.
Brenda Smith remembered her ex-husband as always creative.
"There are napkins in drawers all over his apartment with songs and bits of songs written on them," she said. "And he had such stories! The kids always wanted to hear stories."
Those stories have been running in Paul Revere's head, too.
"I've thought about him every day since I heard," he said. "I thought we'd sit around in our old age and share memories. I was going to spend days reminiscing with Smitty and write a book. Now I'm never going to have a chance to do that. I miss him terribly. I just can't believe he's gone. In our minds we're all still kids, and my fondest memories all include Smitty."