Unless I’m forgetting a random blues-fest appearance, and I probably am, I only had one opportunity to watch the drumming force that was Buddy Miles in action. At the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles in `86, to be exact, when the place still had seats.
Trivia buffs will recall that that was the same year when Miles, after a decade or so of inactivity, had what you might call an unknown comeback by handling lead vocals on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for those California Raisins commercials. (Somewhat unrelated but interesting side note: That was also the year Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops gave voice to Audrey II in Frank Oz’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”)
I doubt anyone at the Wiltern that night knew about the Raisins thing, or cared. Longtime fans knew him for so much more. They had been following the mighty Miles, the prodigy who had come up through the ranks of backing vocal groups and working for Wilson Pickett, since his auspicious debut with Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag at Monterey Pop, a crucial turning point in the development funk-rock-jazz fusion that would greatly inspire Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Then there was his Hendrix-produced work with his own Buddy Miles Express, his fierce pounding and inspired singing with Band of Gypsys and work with Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin (notably on 1970’s “Devotion”). Surely, to fans of Buddy’s, it was just a joy to see him behind the kit again. (Miles died of congestive heart failure Tuesday at his home in Austin, Texas. He was 60.)
I had no such perspective back in `86, mind you. I had come to see Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, back when SRV was still in his heavy drinking phase (and, shame to say, better for it; he wasn’t nearly as jaw-dropping when next I saw him, not long before his death in 1990). For the final encore, drummer Chris Layton took a powder and SRV brought out Buddy for (if memory serves) three songs, including a roaring rendition of his singature tune, “Them Changes.”
“Thunder, rather than subtlety, characterized Miles’s drumming,” wrote the critic Paul Evans, “and he was a belter, not a singer.” So I learned that night, when, not quite 17, I was dumbstruck by the innate power of this beast of a presence, bashing away at hardware that looked miniature beneath him, wailing and barking like he was infused with the spirit of Otis Redding. It was a deeply impressive first encounter.
Later that same year I heard the startling “Band of Gypsys” album for the first time—and, like so many others, I still wonder from time to time what might have happened had Buddy not split soon after it was recorded, had Jimi not died, had one of the first all-black rock bands (with Billy Cox on bass) not splintered as soon as it had emerged. How much more might they have transformed funk?
Do yourself a favor: Get the full magilla, issued under the title “Hendrix: Live at Fillmore East’ in 1999. Crank up “Power of Soul” and “Machine Gun” while you watch CNN muted—and marvel at the unrestrained terror that was Buddy Miles. (YouTube has several clips from these New Year’s Eve `69/‘70 shows, by the way, including a complete “Machine Gun.”)
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And another ‘60s favorite falls: Mike Smith, lead singer and keyboardist for the Dave Clark Five, also died last week, from pneumonia at hospital just outside of London—a little more than a week before he was due to be induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was 64.
I know I’ve been critical of the DC5’s inclusion in the Hall—that’s putting it nicely, actually—but Smith’s story as of late is such a sad one that I do wish he had lived long enough to experience the honor and hear Tom Hanks` induction speech on March 10 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (FYI: Justin Timberlake inducts Madonna ... Lou Reed for Leonard Cohen ... Billy Joel for John Mellencamp ... Jerry Butler for Gamble & Huff ... John Fogerty for the Ventures ... and Ben Harper for Little Walter.)
In September 2003, mere months after losing his only son in a car wreck, Smith fell off a ladder while working at home (he was living in Spain at the time) and suffered a severe spinal cord injury. That left him a tetraplegic, paralyzed below his ribcage and with minimal use of his upper body. He remained hospitalized until last December, when he was moved to a specially prepared home near the hospital, where he lived with his wife, Charlie. Arrangements had been under way to transport him to New York for the Hall of Fame ceremony.
Medical expenses for the voice of “Glad All Over” and “Catch Us If You Can” and “Over and Over” and “Because” had been defrayed in recent years thanks to donations and fund-raising events from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Paul Shaffer. The “Late Show” bandleader, in fact, helped organize a benefit concert in August 2005, featuring the Zombies and Peter & Gordon. A DVD of that, “Paul Shaffer and His British Invasion: A Tribute to Mike Smith,” is reportedly being released this month by VDI Entertainment, though Amazon.com doesn’t list it yet.
And one other thing I found while fact-checking this item ...
The DC5 apparently should have gotten in last year, when—according to a March 2007 report by Roger Friedman on www.foxnews.com, citing anonymous sources—they received six more votes than Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five ... and thus had earned the fifth spot for induction. What changed? Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who had taken over as Hall chairman after the departure (and then death) of Ahmet Ertegun, couldn’t bear another year with no hip-hop entry ... so he ignored the final vote on the basis of a technicality, and put in Grandmaster Flash instead.
While I appreciate the effort at diversifying—hip-hop was overdue for recognition, and a group like the DC5 should have been installed years ago, when its peers were being honored—I can’t abide such voter tampering. Just one more reason to question the increasingly dubious Hall.