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Tony Smith Chicago’s Music Legend 80 Year Musical Celebration Party PRIVATE EVENT…
June 25 @ 6:00 PM
We are throwing a party to celebrate Chicago’s own Musical Legend Tony Smith. This night is all about Pop’s Smith Accomplishments and overwhelming success as an Artis. Please Read The Blog On Tony Smith below.
I spent quite a few of my earliest evenings on this planet inside the Cairo Supper Club.
Located on Sheridan Road just north of Irving Park in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, it was a classy restaurant where my mother worked long and hard waiting tables. I often tagged along to practice my head-first Jungle Jim Rivera slide on the slickly polished dance floor before they opened the doors, play my favorite songs on the jukebox (everything from Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” to “My Bonnie” by some unknown group called the Beatles), and dazzle the Cubs players that occasionally dined there with my encyclopedic knowledge of their meager stats (must have made those free steaks taste yummy). The spacious joint was located three blocks from Wrigley Field, and Cairo owner Bill Anastos encouraged them to hang out.
If I got to stick around late, which didn’t happen very often because I was barely in grade school and needed my sleep, I dug the lounge bands that were the main attraction most nights (probably influencing my future career path, for better or worse). Of all the combos such as Bill Skully & the Dynatones and the Pepper Pots that headlined at the Cairo along with the magicians and hypnotists then in vogue (Marshall Brodien, later Wizzo the Clown on Bozo’s Circus and pitchman for TV’s Magic Cards, was a frequent attraction from 1961 on), the hottest, hands down, was Tony Smith & the Aristocrats.
The ever-smiling drummer drove his quartet uncommonly hard and knew how to entertain a crowd with his humorous antics. He drew throngs whenever he was there until the joint was firebombed out of existence in 1964. Losing his regular gig didn’t slow Smith down. A half century later, he still delighted in entertaining the folks that came to see his show one Friday evening a month at Chambers, a supper club in northwest suburban Niles.
His first-call group long included his son Alonzo on piano, saxist Diane “Lil’ Sax” Ellis (niece of society band leader Morris Ellis), and bassist Jim Pryor. Seated behind drums illuminated with Christmas lights, Tony’s repertoire ranged from Motown to lounge standards, with occasional forays into country and rock and roll. The credo remained consistent with his Cairo days: to have a good time and encourage patrons to do the same.
Born in St. Louis on July 28, 1926, Alonzo “Tony” Smith picked up the sticks while attending Sumner High School. “My drum instructor was David Ricco from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I was in my teens,” says Tony. “Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole, those were my two big influences.” The Gateway City boasted its share of swinging music emporiums, but Tony left it behind after a half year of study at a St. Louis college.
“I came to Chicago in 1947,” he says. “What brought me here was my brother. He was the superintendent of schools in St. Louis, and he traveled a lot. And he used to tell me about all the different places. So he made Chicago sound real exciting. And I said I could come to Chicago, form my own band, and do pretty good. I was inspired by my brother.”
But S.L. Smith couldn’t help much when his younger sibling made his big move. “When I first came to Chicago, I didn’t know nobody. So they told me to go to the YMCA,” says Tony. “I went down there and I got a room, I guess for about six or seven dollars. And then I saw a sign put up on a bulletin board saying ‘Home for rent, 1635 St. Lawrence.’ And that’s where I went. Got the room. The landlady, Mrs. Birch, liked me because I was ambitious.”
It didn’t take long for Smith to put together his first band with the help of pianist Harold Youngblood. “I wasn’t old enough to sign the contract,” says Tony. “He was well-known in Chicago. And he was the one that signed my first contract. I was put at the Whip. I went out there for an audition, and Harold Youngblood went out there with me.”
They always dressed in tuxedos, suits, and handkerchiefs, and had boutonnieres. I would look at movies of people overseas, over in London, England, wearing those aristocratic suits and boutonniere ties. “So I said, ‘I’m gonna name us Tony Smith & the Aristocrats!
The Whip was a Polish lounge located at 4334 N. Pulaski on Chicago’s Northwest Side, hardly prime gigging territory for an African-American combo. “I think Frank Yankovic was one of the bands that worked there,” notes Smith. Along with Youngblood, Tony recruited guitarist Lynn Sherrill, born in Dallas on February 28, 1918, from the black musicians union hall on the South Side. “Lynn was just hanging around,” he says. “He said, ‘I’ll go out there with you on that one.’”
Tenor saxophonist Bill Casimir rounded out the new combo. The New Orleans native, likely born in 1916, was a more experienced hand. In 1946-47, following his discharge from the Navy, he backed Chicago blues stars Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Arbee Stidham, Eddie Boyd, Rosetta Howard, and Jump Jackson in the studio with A&R man Lester Melrose at the helm (Casimir’s guitarist brother Sam also did his share of sideman dates).
“One day I was down at the union, and I ran into Bill,” says Smith. “Bill said, ‘Sure, I’ll come out there with you.’” The lineup was set and a regular booking secured. Conjuring up a catchy name for the combo proved no problem. “We always dressed real good. And I liked guys like Duke Ellington, Count Basie,” says Tony, who also cites Cab Calloway as a favorite bandleader. “They always dressed in tuxedos, suits, and handkerchiefs, and had boutonnieres. I would look at movies of people overseas, over in London, England, wearing those aristocratic suits and boutonniere ties.
“So I said, ‘I’m gonna name us Tony Smith & the Aristocrats!’”
The Whip turned out to be the first of Smith and his Aristocrats’ longterm residencies. “We stayed out there for nine years, me and Bill Casimir,” says Tony. “Harold couldn’t stay with the band. He could only stay for about a month because the bar wasn’t paying enough money. Because Harold had a couple of children, and he and Lynn were only making about $60 a week. That’s what the sidemen were making. That was the scale.”
The engagement wasn’t entirely uninterrupted. “They got closed up for serving minors. So they told me about a place on the South Side called Ada’s Chicken Shack,” says Tony. “I called them up, and I got the job with no problem. That was out at 51st and Prairie.” But soon enough he was once again starring at the Whip. “When they opened that back up,” he says, “I went back.” Smith tried his hand at being a club owner in 1953-54, buying into the Chicken Shack, located at 6249 S. Cottage Grove Avenue, in cahoots with Youngblood and vibist Bobby Payne (he soon sold his interest in the joint to his partners).
I would bring both bands up on the stage, and we’d have a jam session. I’d walk the bar, go on outside, and I would get in police cars and they would drive me all around the block, Elston to Montrose, and come back. The band would be behind me, like in New Orleans.
At the Whip, Tony and the Aristocrats dedicated their combined energies to rocking the house. “We were doing songs like “Night Train,’” he remembers. “We were doing mostly big band songs— ‘In The Mood,’ because everybody was jitterbugging. Back in those days, they had something called the Harvest Moon Festival. And they had some good guys that could jitterbug. They would go down there and try out. It was a big thing in Chicago back in those days. All the jitterbugs—music like ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and all that kind of stuff.
“I think it was Monday night, I’d have my jam session, and I would hire another band from the South Side and we’d have jam sessions. I would do a show, and they would do a show. Then about 12 o’clock, I would bring both bands up on the stage, and we’d have a jam session. I’d walk the bar, go on outside, and I would get in police cars and they would drive me all around the block, Elston to Montrose, and come back. The band would be behind me, like in New Orleans. People would be looking out the window! Yeah, that was back in the early ‘50s.
I would put on different hats. I had a box onstage with bebop hats in ‘em, and Army hats. Folks would bring me different stuff: ‘Try this out, Tony, try this out!’
“Back in those days, they recorded that shuffle rhythm. Folks on the North Side, they really hadn’t heard that shuffle. That was a South Side thing. And man, when we brought it to the North Side, we had the place packed every night!”
At the beginning, the Aristocrats’ piano chair was fairly fluid. “When Harold Youngblood left, I had a guy up there named Curley Jackson. And he stayed with me for about three years,” says Smith. “After he left, I hired Jimmy Gilmore.” According to the indispensable Red Saunders Research Foundation website, which features a Smith bio as part of its Mad and M&M labels page). Gilmore, who grew up singing in a Vicksburg, Mississippi gospel group before heading north in the late ‘30s, was gigging at the Chicken Shack as a piano-playing balladeer in 1954. He’d made his name during the early ‘40s as a member of the Five Breezes, and mid-decade with the Four Jumps of Jive (Willie Dixon slapped his thundering bass in both groups). The Four Jumps of Jive cut the very first single on fledgling Mercury Records in October of 1945, “Satchelmouth Baby,” Gilmore earning featured billing on the label for his “special effects.”
No one approached Tony and his Aristocrats about recording until 1956. “Some folks came out to the club, and a fellow named Bill, he said, ‘Tony, you ought to be on record!’” says Smith. “And I said, ‘Well, hook it up for me!’ He was like a manager, you know, like a booking agent. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll hook it up, and maybe we can make some money!’ So he went down to Mercury Records, got me a contract, and we went down there and recorded ‘Wiggle Waggle Walk’ and ‘Wacker Drive.’” Bill, a schoolteacher by day, would continue to fill a managerial role for Tony. “He was with me for about five or six years,” says Smith.
Gilmore smoothly sang the rock and roll dance outing “Wiggle Waggle Walk,” its authorship credited to David Bohme, Albert Trace, and someone named Watts, during the session at Chicago’s prestigious Universal Recording. Casimir’s blasting sax ignited the “Honky Tonk”-style instrumental “Wacker Drive,” named after the downtown street where Mercury’s headquarters sat (35 E. Wacker, to be precise). Casimir and Mercury A&R man Chuck Sagle split writer’s credit, though Smith says he had a hand in its creation. “I think I hummed it,” he says. “Back in those days, I wasn’t writing music. But I could sing the music, and then I could hum whatever I wanted the band to play.”
Tony Smith and His Aristocrats’ debut single was released on December 27, 1956 but didn’t do enough business to convince Mercury to issue the remaining pair of titles from the date, “To Be Sure” (another Gilmore vocal showcase) and the instrumental “Lynn’s In,” ostensibly spotlighting Sherrill’s fretwork (it was also known as “Go Long Blues”).
Eventually Tony and his Aristocrats bid the Whip adieu. “After being there for about nine years, I got so tired of looking at the ‘26’ girl,” he says. “I got so tired of looking at the bartender. I got tired of looking at the same people. So I said, ‘I would like to leave.’ They said, ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!’ They didn’t want me to leave when business was good, and they didn’t want me to leave when business was bad. So I just had to make up my own mind. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m leavin’!’ Then I went to a place called the Picture Lounge on 5327 W. Madison.”
That engagement didn’t last as long. The club owner opened another joint on the North Side, and the band switched venues. “Every time we would leave a club, it would close down! Because back in those days, I had a big following,” says Tony. “We used to bring in people from Northwestern University, Loyola University. We’d pick up certain suburbs out there—Skokie, all them northern suburbs would come see our show. Jam-packed every night. It was real nice.”
For their encore platter in 1958, the band signed with tenor saxist Tommy “Madman” Jones’ Mad label. “We always called him Madman Jones and his Blue Saxophone,” notes Smith. “He said, ‘Tony! I want you to put some stuff on my label!’ So I said, ‘Okay!’ So we hooked up, and I put some stuff on his label.” Jones had played the South Side lounge circuit since 1945, launching Mad in ‘57 to issue his own stuff as well as sides by an array of local veterans, several of them prominent studio sidemen, who likely played the same Chicago clubs that Madman haunted: the Four Shades of Rhythm, guitarist Lefty Bates, saxman Red Holloway. One notable newcomer introduced to wax by Mad in 1960: the utterly unclassifiable singer Oscar Brown, Jr.
“Rippling Waters,” the highly atmospheric A-side of Tony’s Mad 45, was a departure from the socking fare that went over so well every night in the clubs. Gilmore’s ornate piano was front and center on the elegant jazz instrumental. “He said, ‘Listen, I’ve got something!’” says Smith. “And he played it. I said, ‘Man, the next time we make a record, we’re gonna record that. Yeah!’ That was his number.” Mad opted not to list Gilmore or anyone else as composer.