Roger Smith: Keyboards, Vocals
Roger Smith was born to play the Hammond organ, and destined to become a member of Tower of Power. Since 1998, Roger has been a part of the Tower Sound, drawing on all of his earlier experiences and influences to lead him to where he is today.
From the time he was a child Roger played piano and took music lessons. His early musical education began in church but because of creative limitations he soon lost interest. At that time, Roger and his family had moved from Texas to Sacramento, CA. As fate would have it, a fellow 6th grader who lived down the street had an uncle who's occupation would change young Roger's musical tastes forever. Philadelphia's Jimmy McGriff, a legendary jazz organist had a brother that lived just a few doors down from the Smith's. During a visit, Roger was introduced to a sound that fascinated him, the Hammond B-3 organ. Jimmy McGriff taught him a couple of signature blues songs, "Down The Road A Piece" and "Little Red Rooster". From that time on the keyboard, and the Hammond organ in particular, became an important part of Roger's life.
After spending some time in the service, Roger, now 20 years old and living in Austin, Texas, formed a band called "Blind Mellon". His band mates in Blind Mellon were are very young Eric Johnson on guitar, and Roscoe Beck on bass. Roger was honing his keyboard skills and becoming well known in the area. At this point, he was ready to move from the garage to the stage. In 1971, Roger was given an opportunity to fill in for a member of Freddie King's band for about 5 weeks. This would be another life-changing event that led Roger to work with many other artists such as Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Louden Wainwright III.
Now residing in the capitol of CA, about an hour from the East Bay area, Roger had heard about Tower of Power and went to see them perform many times even before they added keyboardist Chester Thompson. Smith recalls "When I saw Tower of Power with Chester Thompson, well no one sounded like him. His style is very unique." Now working as a professional musician, Roger was a member of "Sunbear" which was the house band for the immensely popular television show "Soul Train". Roger held that position for and was on the road after that with artists like Gladys Knight, Harvey Mandel, Jeff Beck, and Jan Hammer. Smith refers to himself as a utility player at that point in time, working in many different situations as a keyboard artist.
One of Roger's friends happened to be Norbert Stachel, Tower of Power's lead tenor sax player at that time. At a time when Tower was making some personnel changes, Norbert suggested that the band listen to Roger Smith, and as a result, he has been TOP's keyboard player ever since. According to Roger, when he is on stage with Tower of Power, he goes through many different emotions. Smith says when they are in the groove, "It's the best feeling there is."
Touring extensively with Tower of Power, Roger gets to all parts of the US, Europe, and Asia each year. Still, Roger finds time to play gigs with other Northern CA musicians, and has a solo career with many solo CD's to his credit.
Roger's latest projects include the release of Jazz Roscos "Rosco's Place II" and has produced a cd by a new up and coming pop artist, Robbie Christmas.
Photos: (L) Brian Rachlin (R) Bob Burchfield
More on Roger Smith from a previous interview with Leo Sachs:
I am stoked to be a member of Tower of Power! To formulate your groove within a group like this is a unique challenge because this group has its roots every where, from jazz to pop to soul to blues. T.O.P. combines every element you can imagine -- so just imagine how that challenges me as a player navigating and negotiating so many poly-rhythms. I mean, think about the rhythm section alone! Now consider the intricacy of the horn parts, and the chords coursing through all these tunes. It's not like you can just stick a big old chord in there and make it all-purpose, one-size-fits-all. No, sir! (Laughs.)
You've really have to listen to the chords as they go by, and play in rhythm, and then ask yourself, on songs like "Willing To Learn" and "So Very Hard To Go," how can you help the band maintain that tension, that drama? How can I fatten those suckers up? That's my favorite part of being in the band, stirring the pot without overplaying. You see, Tower's original keyboard player, Chester Thompson, gave us a signature, and forgery is my calling card! (Laughs.) The trick is, how can I follow his footprint and yet make it my own. It's a win-win situation all around. I get to solo with total satisfaction, and still remain faithful to the footprint, like it's never been tampered with. And the fans get to hear the songs as they remember them. Only a band with so much history can accommodate that kind of flexibility.
I’m particularly proud of the solo career I’ve developed as a composer and instrumentalist. My Colors, an album I recorded in the mid-Nineties, was nominated for two Jazz Grammys, which totally blew me away. The follow-up was called Both Sides; one of the songs, “Off The Hook,” went to the top of the jazz charts – in the middle of my first tour with the band! I was honored when the trade magazine Radio & Records recognized me as their “Breakout Artist of the Year” in 1999. I’ve also enjoyed some very fruitful collaborations with Chieli Minucci and George Junda of Special EFX -- I played on their Butterfly album, which had the number one jazz hit, “Cruise Control.” I did a couple of tracks for No Static At All: A Tribute to Steely Dan; we had a lot of fun with “Bad Sneakers.” And once a month I’ll contribute a song or a musical idea to the NBC daytime series Passions – I just tap into the storyline and have fun!
Recently, I've faced a major challenge with my health, and it's reminded me how precious time is, how it's not to be wasted, not one minute. But that's the beauty of adversity. It's hard to explain, but I look at life differently now, on a whole new level. It's a very spiritual transformation, and I feel I've grown tremendously. And musically, wow -- I can't tell you how excited I am to contribute to our next project, as a personal challenge, to push myself musically, but to help the band reach the heights its capable of. It's all part of the journey, making the best out of every moment, every moment of every day.
Being in Tower of Power has been a dream come true for me, the realization of something I've always hoped for. I have other interests, as we all do, and a life outside the band. But in Tower of Power I can truly say: I am free to be who I am. And I am home.
All band member biographies were compiled by Leo Sacks.
Leo Sacks is a freelance record producer in New York. With Emilio Castillo, he co-wrote “Happy ‘Bout That” and “Stranger In My Own House” for Tower of Power’s Oakland Zone (Or Music, 2003), and the bonus track “Nothing Like It” for the European edition.