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.
"Those guys was real boxers then. Wasn't none of this showmanship; these guys fought. They'd stand toe to toe and just beat one another to death. Today in the ring, we got these 'great artists,' they call it, up there dancin' and clownin'. Then, it was none of that. Men was fightin' then."
And Smith, too, was fighting then; the only melodies he heard were the staccato licks of an Everlast glove on some poor slob's face. But this pleasure was not to last.
"Truly, music never crossed my mind much until I lost one fight, and my auntie said, 'There's no more fighting for you,'" says Smith. "Old peoples back in them days, they didn't think nothing bout fightin'. They thought it was a bad criminal attitude for a kid to have, and my auntie was a Christian. She was sayin', 'If your mom and dad was living, they wouldn't want you to fight, and I don't think it's right for me to stand by and let you fight.'"
Though the would-be champ admits that he "hated my auntie [pronounced "ern-tee"] til she died" for denying him his first love, Smith began funneling some of his interest into music for the first time. Upon returning to Mississippi, he joined a church quartet "playin' a little guitar." Then, in 1957, he moved to Chicago, a thriving musical hotbed, a hive of burgeoning talent, the home of contemporary urban blues.
Smith decided to become a wrestler.
"I have always felt that some of that sport was meant for me," he says. "I felt boxing or wrestling was my meaning in life, but I never could turn pro because I was too light--couldn't stop the big boys from throwing me around."
With his pro athletic visions shattered by his aunt and his unbearable lightness, Smith finally resorted to music.
He began sitting in with a number of blues heavies (his list of credits includes Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters, to name a few), playing guitar, drums and his "natural" instrument, bass. By the early 60s, a Fender Stratocaster guitar was Smith's mainstay, and he was able to apply his ring mentality to the stage of smoky nightclubs.
"It's the same thing," he says in the patient tones of a Man Who Possesses Knowledge. "You have to have that killin' instinct to be a boxer. You can't love nobody when you get into that ring. You beat him to death to be a winner. You do anything. When you step in that ring, there's no love for nobody. If it's your brother, sister, child or what, you have no sympathy for nobody.
"You make sure you get the first eye gouge. You make sure you get the first leg trip, punch and headlock. You make sure you come on first to get your opponent down to really kill him. Break his arm, break his leg, break his nose, break his jaw, break his neck, anything to make him to give to where your hand is raised in victory."
No, Smith hasn't changed the subject.
"And when you're playing your music, every song, you got to play it with the killin' instinct. There's no love, no letup, no happiness, no thrill unless you've got that instinct. Then you can get that thrill, because you're getting everything in your heart that you're qualified and able to do. You are in command of what you want to do."
By 1963, Smith was keenly aware of what was going on in rock n' roll, namely moneymaking. And it did look good. "Everyone was goin' haywire-wild about it," says Smith, chuckling. "I used to see how the kids was just drinking up Chuck Berry's shoe tracks. Nothing he could do was wrong, and I wanted to break into [rock] music and get one of those fast-life things going like that. I wanted to get over to both sides [black and white], and I wanted to make money for my family."
Though he released the single "Champion Girl" (backed with the instrumental tribute "Thank You Mister Kennedy"), the waters of rock success did not part for him.
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But in 1968, blues guitar great Buddy Guy temporarily left his regular gig at Theresa's Lounge in Chicago to tour Europe, asking Smith to fill in. That exposure led to a long-term rhythm-guitar job with harpist Junior Wells. "I latched on and played with him for five and a half years, and that's when I really learned to play what we call the blues," he says.
We may call it the blues, but Byther Smith is not a man to categorize.
"I've always lived a life that there's no blues," he reveals. "There is no jazz, there is no rock, there is no heavy metal." When pressed for specifics, the artist offers his own definition. "There is only music inclined. If you think about it, they never made piano for jazz or a guitar for jazz; they made a piano with 88 keys, they made a guitar with 88 chords. And every man has to have a knowledge to execute that. You can go to school and a man can teach you chords, majors and minors, but a man cannot teach you feelin' and soul. You got to have the music inclined.
"My personal feeling for music is like it's a honeybee. You see a swarm of bees flying over, you can take a bucket and start beating it loud enough to where the bees can hear it, they will come to the sound no matter how high they flyin'. They will come to the music. There isn't but one kind of music, the music inclined." And the "music inclined" theory is all, of course, down to the individual, something that Smith rationalizes into a somewhat metaphysical version of Plato-meets-Will Rogers ideology. "I never heard a band that was no good, but I saw people that was no good for what they was tryin' to do," he reasons. "They should relate to something else--not try to be a pattern that they couldn't handle--be a butcher or something. But the music itself is never rotten." Smith himself is on a continuing trek of discovery with his instrument, even after nearly four decades of playing. "I'm never happy. . . . I see other musicians can play so much further out into the execution than I can do, into the execution that I'm looking for that I haven't read yet," he admits. "But what I do is different. I do mine with a feelin', with a killin'. I'm trying to stand on the moon but reach for the sun. That's the only way I can explain it.