For those who have led sheltered lives, Byther Smith’s true life story might be incomprehensible. But as harsh and brutally unfair as his early lot in life undeniably was, these were the events that shaped the man who made the music. Though he’s been a stalwart on the Chicago blues scene since the early 1950s, as a very young man, Smith had his sights set on a career in boxing. He can rightfully boast a long series of impressive wins on the boxing circuit. When slugging his way to the top, more turbulence erupted that eventually served as life-long lessons and Smith subsequently decided to follow his calling in music. Though the blues as music is nothing if not endurance, that Smith at some point along the way also chose to become the person he is shows his determination and strength of character.
Born into a church-going family in Monticello, Mississippi on 17 April 1933, Byther Smith was the next to the last of nine children. His mother died during the next child’s birth, and not six months later his father died. Orphaned, the children were taken in and cared for by relatives. Tragedy heaped on tragedy when one of the sisters later died in a house fire. Young Byther was raised by an aunt and uncle on a farm, a life he left behind at age 15 to migrate West to live with another aunt in Prescott, Arizona, a land that promised greater opportunity.
“Mississippi didn’t have anything else to do but play baseball or go to church on Sunday . . . or work on a farm,” Smith remembered. “I did a lot of work in Arizona. I drove a cattle truck.”
Cattle in the West of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s still meant cowboys, and wherever cowboys gather, a rodeo is bound to show up. Still in his teens, in addition to punching cattle on the ranch all week, Smith played upright bass in a rodeo band. “I was in Prescott working with Bruce Murt. He was the singer and he played guitar. We’d play before the show and during the intermission with the riding.”
Like a sparkplug with energy to spare, Smith also “took a training in boxing.” “I fought 68 times. Boxing takes a lot of encouragement and you have to really want it. I wanted it. But I wasn’t really old enough then.”
Smith has a warm, soft speaking voice and a friendly, engaging style of speech. Depending on the topic, and the memory that first pops into mind, he sometimes starts a sentence with a smile that breaks into a slight laugh. He can switch from lighthearted manner to a serious tone in the space of two sentences, and tells a compelling story even in an outline. He draws the listener so completely into his stories that you sometimes feel he’s in the same room with you rather than on the phone.
“All my opponents were from out West, from California and Arizona. A lot of guys from San Diego, California. I never fought anyone from the East, but they were my stablemates. I was middleweight.”
Boxing as a teen in Arizona, Smith racked up 68 bouts, and one final match that ended his chances to move up in boxing. Recalling the bout, Smith paused, then frankly said, “That was the night I threw myself away.”
“I was young. I was thinking I had everything. I didn’t listen to my manager. I went out chasing girls and stayed out all night. No sleep all night and I went to fight the next day. Well, he blowed me!”
The story told elsewhere about that match is during that last fight, the up-and-coming contender Smith was knocked down seven times in the first round alone. Smith’s opponent, who happened to be a white fighter from California, was determined to win. All ringmen are quick to assess and take advantage of an opening, to keep the opponent off balance and on the defensive, and some deliver effective force by steadily working a weakness. Boxing is as much of the mind as it is of muscle and training; every movement has a strategic purpose. Fighters know this. Boxers who assess they are out-matched still want to win; fearing injury themselves in a long fight, they try straight away for a quick knock out by going straight for the head. All boxers suspect they may sometime suffer through a brutal, damaging defeat, yet they risk being beaten to bloody pulp with the idea of always being able to step back in the ring to validate themselves against a new opponent.
But try telling that to young Smith’s aunt, who was in the audience for the dreadful spectacle of her young charge being pummeled round after round. As Smith was still underage, fearing as she was for her nephew’s wellbeing, she must have created quite the scene to convince Smith’s manager to tear up his contract. Easy to imagine that Smith might have been mortified and quite miffed at the time.
Smith looks back on all this as history to be learned from. “You have to stay in first class all the time if you’re going to fight. I’m just thankful I wasn’t really hurt boxing. I have a friend in the neighborhood who was a boxer and he’s a little punch drunk. Sometimes he comes over and we’ll all be sitting around talking or watching TV. He’ll just jump up from his chair and start fighting the air. He starts swinging and throwing punches in the air . . . he’s fighting with shadows . . . he thinks he’s in the ring, and he doesn’t know where he is.”
Smith insists he laid boxing aside many years ago and never followed the sport again. But he drew out some of his early favorites, including Kid Gavilan.
“He didn’t come from here, though. Hard hitting . . . hard fighter. He used the bolo punch. He fought everybody. He fought Sugar Ray Robinson. He was a great, great fighter and had many, many bouts. But he stopped fighting in ‘57 or ‘58.”
Gavilan had come to the U.S. from Cuba, where he started fighting amateur bouts at the age of twelve; he had his first professional match at sixteen while still working in the fields cutting sugar cane with a machete. After battling his way furiously up through the ranks, he became Middleweight Champion of the World in 1951; the popular champ was one of the first fighters regularly broadcast on early television.
Smith warmed up to the topic and took special glee in casually mentioning Ceferino Garcia. “Now, I said Kid Gavilan (the “Hawk” we used to call him) used the bolo punch. And you should have seen him when he did. But he got that from Ceferino . . . “Predo” invented the bolo.”
“Predo” Garcia’s background was in some ways similar to Gavilan’s, though he came from the Philippines. He, too, began fighting as a very young teenager; he had worked in the family trade as a blacksmith, where he not only developed arms of steel, but the fierce uppercut he called the “bolo”. Hoping to escape a cash-poor rural life, Garcia first tried to enlist in the Navy, but failed the admission test because he had almost no schooling. According to an article in the 1994 Philippine Times, Garcia “typified the poor, less schooled, and rural-bred Filipino who aspired for wealth and fame through the boxing arena.” By 1938, Garcia ruled as the World Middleweight boxing champion.
Garcia and Gavilan were the scrappers, the heroes, and the inspirations Smith recalled from his early boxing days.
Smith closed the door on boxing as his own career, and never looked back. Lured to Chicago by his cousin, blues legend J.B. Lenoir, Smith has been a mainstay on the Chicago blues scene for nearly fifty years. But how different now than when he first arrived. In 1930’s Mississippi, Smith’s formal school time ended far too early, reportedly with the third grade, because he had to work the fields, to do his part to help support the large family. By the early ‘60s, just a few years after Smith set down permanent roots in Chicago, Detroit’s Motown began turning teenagers away from the studio door, encouraging them to finish high school first and then come back for a record contract. And now, Smith has recently retired after working 25 years as a machinist for the same company while getting his six daughters through college, all while he continued to play the blues in Chicago. Smith commented, “I don’t know how I did it, but I did.”
Smith’s been known to play guitar slide style, but without using a steel bar—he could do that just with his hands. His playing is thick, ominous, and strong on the punchy driving grooves he learned from playing bass. Rhythm in music is motion, and a band is made up of people working in motion together. Byther Smith plays intense, essential blues. But he can also play a style that accommodates the needs for other musicians expressiveness.
Smith can make room and play around a harmonica (which usually takes the same space and lines a guitar would take) which he learned by playing with some of the greats. Among those, Smith enthusiastically recalled, was George “Harmonica” Smith. He was the “best harmonica player I ever heard. The best. He was from California. Very mellow. He could play anything, and played jazz on harp.”
Or Smith could improvise, setting the stage and a sympathetic mood that helped spark a complicated singer like Big Mama Thornton. Smith chuckled a bit just mentioning her name, then began, “She drank a lot. She really did. She loved my playing, though. But she told me, ‘You be singing, you don’t have to call me up, I’ll just come on up’ and she would. Whenever she wanted to get the mic, she’d sing. She’d be sitting in a chair onstage, holding a mic, and I’d be singing and playing and she’d just come in when she felt like it. She told me she was crazy about my playing, she could get behind what I was doing.” Thornton firmly insisted on Smith being the guitarist to accompany her on her early tour through Europe.
For a man who had received little or no encouragement himself for his own music making, Smith was kindlier to others, like King Ernest Baker when he was just starting out. Smith helped him break into club work in Chicago and in fact played on stage with him for his very first engagement. Smith merely says now, “I was someone he could depend on.”
Byther Smith’s song writing is unique even for the blues. Sometimes the words don’t rhyme, which surprises the listener and throws him off balance. Lyrically, that can provide more emotional impact by making the listener uneasy, forcing him to readjust mentally even as the words hit home. Straight rhymes may occasionally be ignored, like a sudden surprising change of strategy, but the words fall right. With his music, Smith plunged his hand straight into his heart and smeared it across the stage.
His own song-stories are occasionally raw, truthful hurting biography, brooding, hard blues—but Smith always comes across as smart, uncompromising, and tough-as-nails. The records he’s made in Europe are especially worthy of mention, and blues fans should compare his 1985 Blues Knights to his latest Smitty’s Blues to get some idea of his reach and continuing evolution as a player. Despite the span of years the records represent, you’ll hear Smith working in front of tasty blues-drenched horns, drawing out what’s most vital about the blues in himself and making it new again, and generally pounding out a kind of blues we don’t often get to hear in America anymore.
There are parallels that can be drawn between blues and boxing; on an individual level, focus and determination being but two, control being another. Smith, though, lays it out with a new twist: “Music is different than boxing. With boxing, it’s willpower. You get up again and keep on going. I like that. With music, you have a bad night, you leave it behind and move on, but you keep on going.”
At the most absolute basic, blues and boxing were possible avenues for earning a living, and for some, still are. Byther Smith has been a working man his whole long life, and rightly takes pride in that honest fact.
* * *
Acknowledgements to Jan Mittendorp at Black and Tan/Crossroads Agency in the Netherlands for his part in setting up this interview, and also to Jerry Gordon of Evidence Records for his continuing support. Extra special thanks to Mr. Byther Smith who took time out for a telephone interview even as he was about to leave for a big working tour of Europe.