[3 October 2006]
There are probably a number of reasons why you (and I) have never heard of Kenny Smith. He issued recordings on at least eleven different labels, almost all of them very small independents, and never had a hit. But probably the biggest reason Kenny Smith’s music has been well under the radar is that he may have been just a little too idiosyncratic. One More Day, the new collection of vintage Smith recordings and the first volume of Shake It’s Cincinnati Soul Spectrum series, provides ample evidence to support this theory. It also makes a pretty good case for Smith as a better-than-average creator of a soul-funk-pop-rock hybrid.
On first listen, it’s a little strange to hear these eighteen tracks, released (or not) between 1964 and 1975, presented out of chronological order. The opening trio of “Lord What’s Happened?” (1971), “My Day Is Coming” (1966), and “Here Comes the Law” (1975) is especially disorienting, jarring the listener every which way from socially-conscious groove (with a very rock-sounding guitar solo) to uptempo Southern-style soul to Blaxploitation 101.
Some of this stuff is downright weird. “Skunkie”, which is one of the rarest numbers here, was probably destined for such a role by virtue of its marriage of an instrumental track featuring major-league bass and some splendid piano playing to intermittent (and rarely decipherable) chipmunk voices. And “Keep On Walkin’ Baby” isn’t even “soul music” so much as it’s garage rock, complete with one of the disc’s many surprisingly quirky guitar solos. Contrast this stuff with the much more ordinary (but certainly pleasant) doo-wop-flavored “Deep In My Heart” or the straightforward soul of “We Have Each Other” and the Kenny Smith story becomes quite a bit more nuanced than you might’ve ever expected. Throw in the very pop-oriented “Let’s Get Together” and “Everybody Knows I Love You” (great horns and ultra-commercial female background vocals) and the collection borders on the schizophrenic. The kicker is that the quality of the schizophrenia remains consistently high throughout.
The Smith discography must’ve been a headache to assemble. Half of what’s here is credited to Smith solo. The other half is credited to Smith under a variety of monikers: Kenny Smith and the Fox Fire Band, Kenny Smith & the Loveliters, Kenny & the Sole Selection, Kenny Smith and the Maximum Feeling, Kenny Smith and the Lovelighters (different from the earlier one), and Kenny Smith and the Niteliters. One song appears on this compilation three times, as “Go For Your Self (Part 1 & 2)”, “Go For Yourself”, and “Go For Your Bad Self”, all credited to different versions of Smith and company, and all sounding different because they were actually recorded in different years. They aren’t just “alternate takes” or bait for collectors because this whole disc is the kind of stuff that collectors will eat up and most people will never hear without prodding.
For the record, I don’t think there are any lost classics here. But that doesn’t matter a lick, because the unpredictability and interest factor are exceptionally high, high enough to make you ignore the occasionally wince-inducing sound quality of some of what’s here. But hey, all those crackles and hisses just add to the experience of listening to old records (and old records on CD), don’t they? They’re there to remind us that what’s going on is preservation, not mere repackaging, and that’s rarely more true than it is here. You gotta hand it to Shake It for undertaking this project. We can only hope they’ll serve Albert Washington, H-Bomb Ferguson, and Gloria Taylor (whoever they are) as well as they served Kenny Smith with One More Day.