By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
This is a description of legendary bluesman Howlin' Wolf, from the masterful work Nothing But the Blues: He "stood six feet three inches and tipped the scales at more than 270 pounds. . . . Big, fearsome, solitary and mysterious, the Wolf was already an imposing figure in the Delta by the late 1930s, according to [musician] Johnny Shines. 'I was afraid of the Wolf . . . just like you would be of some kind of beast or something.'"
This is a description of not-so-legendary bluesman Byther Smith, from his own mouth: "In 61, I was five foot nine, about 150 pounds, but I was cocky. I loved to fight, didn't care who it was, how big he was or how small he was. I felt it was my duty to fight if he wanted fightin'."
In case you didn't know--and it's doubtful you do--Byther Smith is a 62-year-old guitar player and singer whose life of wandering, laboring, scraping and tough-luck experience is the stuff of epics. Mississippi-born, he's been an established player on the Chicago scene for decades, known for his intense, passionate performances and compositions that stretch further than typical 12-bar tedium. With last year's I'm a Mad Man release, Smith's legend has slowly but surely reached beyond the Windy City.
He is also something of a self-styled philosopher, a thoughtful man who squeezes his ideas into unique phrases much as he does notes from his guitar. He has raised five daughters, is a master machinist, and his friends call him "Smitty."
But back to 1961, the South Side of Chicago, a Thursday night at Pepper's Lounge, where Smith is sitting in for Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's regular guitarist. Sumlin is in the hospital because of a recent pistol-whipping the Wolf has seen fit to administer.
"Howlin' Wolf, we did get into it," says Smith in a flat rasp. "He could never play the guitar that good, just stomp along on the bass strings, but he brought his guitar in and set it on the corner of the bandstand.
"Then he says, 'One of you blacker than me tune my guitar.' So I say to him, 'You play your guitar, you tune it.' Hubert would always tune his guitar for him, but I wasn't part of his band; I was just filling in for Hubert.
"Wolf was sitting at the bar, havin' him a beer, and after a while, he grabs the mike stand and says, 'Showtime for you little wussies.' That was the name of his band, Howlin' Wolf and the Little Wussies. He had his band scared of him; he wouldn't allow them to socialize with peoples. Come intermission, he'd make them go over in the corner and sit down. "So he says to me, 'Did you tune my guitar, blacker than me?' I said, 'Man, I don't tune your guitar.' He says, 'If I tell you tune my guitar, I mean you tunes my guitar.' I said, 'Let me tell you something. I'm not Hubert Sumlin, and I don't tune your guitar.' He says, 'You don't tell me that. I'll sit you on that bandstand and pistol-whip hell out of you.' I said, 'Well, you got your opportunity.' He put his hand in his pocket, and I reached down on the bandstand and got my gun--I had it in my guitar case--and I said, 'Let's get it on, man.'
"He put his gun back in his pocket, but he wouldn't get on the bandstand and sit down in front of the musicians like he usually did. He stood on the side on the floor that night. He thought I was going to bushwhack him."
@body:Much like Kung Fu's Grasshopper, Smith is a man ruled by yin and yang, a peaceful fellow capable of violence (his early years were spent boxing), but only when it is necessary. His passions are "rough, dangerous sports: bull ridin', horse ridin', racecars, hockey, roller derby and violent movies; a little blood, I like that." In an hourlong phone conversation from Smith's home in Chicago, full-contact brutality and the philosophy behind who-gets-it-when come up much more than music. Orphaned shortly after birth in Monticello, Mississippi, Smith as a teenager was sent to stay with an aunt in Prescott, where he "met this white kid, name was Jake, he was hanging around the gym and I would go with him down there. I got to shootin' off at the mouth and said, 'If that was me up there in that ring, I'd knock that kid's block off.' The guy said, 'Come back down here tomorrow and we'll put you in that ring, see what you can do.' I guess I made a good impression, and I started training from there. That's the way I got gettin' to boxing."
Blood. Guts. Punishment. Byther Smith's bread and butter. Or so he thought.
"I was looking at myself like I would be the next Sugar Ray Robinson or Kid Gavilan--he the man that brought the Kid Gavilan Bolo Punch," says Smith. "It was very impressive to me, something like a haymaker. If you hit hard enough, you could almost tear a guy's chin off.