Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Very Candid Conversation with Greg Smith

Greg Smith is a bass player whose resume reads like a Who’s Who of Rock’n’Roll. The people he has played with include the following: Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Dokken, Tommy James, and Alan Parsons Project. He was also the house band bassist for the Broadway play Movin’ Out: a musical composed of Billy Joel numbers with choreography by Twyla Tharp. Greg’s first major act was late punk legend Wendy O. Williams. Since playing for Wendy, he has never stopped playing since then. More of Greg’s extensive resume can be read at his website:

In addition to providing able bass and stage presence for the many acts he has played with, Greg provides another unique factor: his vocals. Like Van Halen’s bassist Michael Anthony, he provides excellent harmony and background vocals. Greg currently plays with Ted Nugent and, on some of the Nugent tunes, Greg sings lead vocals here.

In this candid conversation, we cover all the various acts that Greg has played with. We also discuss the colorful personalities that Greg has provided bass for such as Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and Ritchie Blackmore. I want to thank Greg for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: So what got you interested in playing the bass?

Greg Smith: Okay, well, it was kind of interesting. Basically, my younger sister's birthday's in April and mine's in May and she got a guitar for her birthday and said, "Why don't we start a band? You can play bass." And I said, "What's the bass?" She pointed it out to me on a song on the radio and I said, "Okay, I'll play bass." So the next month, I got a bass for my birthday and started taking lessons [laughs]. Luckily, I ended up having a propensity to pick it up pretty quickly and within three months, I was playing my first gig. So, it's good thing she didn't say piano or drums or something 'cause maybe I wouldn't have been as good at it.

JC: Okay. I understand your first professional gig would be with Wendy Williams.

GS: Yeah.

JC: Okay and how did that start?

GS: Well, I was playing in a band called Squadron in New York, New York City, Long Island and we were playing in a club called My Father's Place in Long Island and Gene Simmons and Eric Carr, the drummer at the time for KISS, came in. They were looking for a guitar player to replace Ace Frehley and they liked our guitarist and so they started courting him for a while and he did a little – a few tracks with them and then after that, Gene was producing Wendy Williams' album. He played bass under a pseudonym, Reginald Van Helsing, but then when it came time for touring, he remembered the way Mike, the guitar player and I, looked together and played together and he just put both of us in the band.

JC: So how long were you with Wendy?

GS: I think about three years. Yeah, about three years.

JC: Around that time she did that movie Reform School Girls

GS: Oh, you saw that?

JC: I remember it. I'd never seen it but I do remember seeing a TV ad for it.

GS: Yeah, yeah, that was – that was pretty interesting. Wendy pretty much got to be herself but what was kind of funny, though, is like she was a 35, 36-year-old woman playing a young girl in reform school, but she was in shape enough for it, that's for sure.

JC: Yeah, sure. This might be a touchy subject, because we know what happened to her, eventually.

GS: Uh-huh.

JC: Did you keep in touch? Were you aware or you were just shocked like everyone else when you found out about her suicide?

GS: I was shocked. I didn't expect anything like that from her. Yeah, I didn't expect anything like that. We kept in touch – not as much as I would've liked to. It was more through mutual friends. "Hey, how's Wendy doing? Tell her I said 'Hi'," kind of thing or "Wendy, I saw Wendy. She says hello." That kind of thing. It wasn't as personal as I would've liked it to be, in retrospect.

But we left amicably. When I left the band, I mean, she was actually – she was very upset. She was crying.

JC: Really?

GS: But she was not like a lot of people thought she was. She was – that was all a persona. She was actually very sweet and very nice and had a lot of little girl qualities.

JC: Right.

GS: She was a sweetheart.

JC: Right. So who did you play with next: Vinnie Moore?

GS: Yeah, well, I was with a band on Long Island for a while, an original band and we tried to get off the ground and – for a couple years here in Long Island and New York City and things went pretty good. We made quite a buzz here but like the old story goes, it didn't happen. The guitar player left the band and then it kind of fell apart from there. That's when I hooked up with Vinnie Moore. Through Joe Franco, who's a Long Island drummer. He had played on one of Vinnie's albums and recommended me to Vinnie. And that's how I got involved in that.

JC: Okay, and from there, you came to play with Alice Cooper?

GS: Yeah.

JC: How'd that happen?

GS: Well, I was playing with Vinnie out in the NAMM Show and Alice's personal assistant, Brian Nelson, and the A&R guy, Bob Pfeiffer, walked into the Premier Booth where we were playing and liked the way that I played and Vinnie played and they fired the bass guitar and guitar player from Alice's band and just essentially asked us if we wanted a gig. We didn't get the call till a couple months later. You know, I didn't know… realize it till a couple months later but I think what they did is they ended up auditioning all the available players in LA and couldn't find anybody good and then they just basically offered the gig to us, no audition, no anything. They just flew us out and the first day I met Alice and everybody, we did a video. So, you know, like, "Welcome to the band. Get in front of the camera.”

JC: I also understand you were with Alice Cooper when he did the Wayne's World movie.

GS: That's right. And that was about two feet of hair ago. [Click here to see the two-feet-of-hair-ago Greg playing with Alice Cooper to an excited Wayne and Garth.]

JC: Yeah [laughs]. Right, so did you get to meet Mike Myers or –

GS: Yeah, yeah, they were right there. So I got to meet them. They were cool. Mike Myers was really focused and very businesslike and everything like that. Dana Carvey was, you know, we were on the chow line and he's doing his imitations of George Bush Sr. and just making everybody laugh, being a total clown? They were both very cool, though.

It was all done at Universal Studios, the Universal Amphitheater. I was only on it for two days. We did the live filming of it one day. The next day was the dressing room sequence.

It was a real surprise to me when that movie did as well as it did. I mean, it was the number one movie for about five weeks.

JC: I know.

GS: Prior to that, all the Saturday Night Live spin-offs had pretty much gone into the toilet, but we said “Okay, this is gonna go into the toilet, but what the hell, man! We're going go out to LA," They put us up in the Sheraton Universal and nice rooms and we figured we'd make a little bit of extra money and no big deal. We had a break between the US leg of the tour and the European leg of the tour to do this film, which ended up doing really, really well.

JC: They did a sequel and Mike Myers’ film career started from that film.

What was Alice like? Many people say there was a huge difference between his stage persona and who he was as a person.

GS: Well, Alice is a great guy. When you see Alice doing interviews and stuff like that – that's Alice. He's got a good sense of humor and he's very articulate, very smart. He’s fun, likes to crack jokes and have fun on the bus. Loves to play cards. We used to always play poker on the back of the bus and he would – although he doesn't drink or anything like that, obviously, he saw a pattern. When I would have a couple of beers, I wouldn't do so good. So there was one tour where I started doing pretty good and he goes, "Greg, why don't you have a beer?" I'm like, "Nah, I don't think so" [laughs]. So he wanted me to have a beer and not do so good anymore. Another time, I took him for about 400 bucks.

At the end of the tour – he loves to go to pawn shops. So what he did is he found this little trophy. I'm looking at it right now. It's a marble base with a Miller can and then a hand on top with a full house.

JC: Oh.

GS: So he bought me that for as a little championship trophy.

JC: After Alice Cooper, you would then play with Joe Lynn Turner and then Rainbow.

GS: Actually, I left Alice's band the first time to do Rainbow [laughs]. In between Rainbow, I started playing with Joe Lynn Turner – probably like about '92 or so – I did a bunch of albums with him and we did some touring and that was a whole lot of fun. So, I played with him and then I'd also played with Dave Rosenthal and Chuck Burgi in a band called Red Dawn that was – it's really, just did a release for Japan but it ended up getting a cult following pretty much everywhere on the planet except for the United States.

I'd be down in Brazil or Japan or Russia and people would come up to me with the Red Dawn album to sign. So, I played with guys who had been in Rainbow.

JC: Yes.

GS: So when I got into Rainbow, I knew what to expect from Ritchie [laughs]. I'd heard all the stories. I heard all the practical jokes and everything like that. So I was already hip to it and there was no way he was going to get me with anything.

JC: So he never played a practical joke?

GS: Oh no, he tried but I never let him see it affect me in any way, so he would just move on to easier prey.

Rainbow (Greg at Far Right)

I did play in Blue Oyster Cult in the summer of '95. I did the Stranger in Us All album with Rainbow in the beginning of '95. I think it was January through April and then Chuck Burgi was playing with Blue Oyster Cult and he called me up and asked if I wanted to play with them and I said, "Well, look. I'm touring with Ritchie starting in September but I could play the summer."

JC: Right.

GS: And they needed somebody that next week. So, I ended up learning their whole set within a week's time. We did one rehearsal and then boom, that was it. So I played with them for the summer. And you know what? Those bastards never paid me for the last two shows I played.

JC: Oh, that sucks.

GS: You could print that [laughs].

JC: Okay, I will. But after Blue Oyster Cult, you went on tour with Rainbow. When you played with Rainbow, that's the first time I saw you onstage.

GS: Oh yeah?

JC: One interesting thing about watching you live, was that you had one of the rare qualities, along with fellow bassist Michael Anthony. In addition to playing a killer bass, you possess great harmony and back-up vocals.

GS: Yeah, well, it's something I started doing pretty early on. I really started to get into the singing thing when – remember, I told you it was in between Vinnie Moore and Wendy O. Williams when I was doing that original band. The lead singer, he'd be telling me to sing and I'd be like, "Oh man, I don't know if I can hit that note." He'd be like, "Aw, that's an A. That's easy for you." So I'd do it. He pretty much gave me the confidence to do it even though he didn't really know whether I could do it or not. I started slowly getting the confidence and singing in the car and stuff and realizing like, "Oh man, I can do this.” So – and then I just kind of kept doing it, and really, that's about it. [Watch Greg here do a terrific vocal job with Rainbow on the Deep Purple classic “Burn” as he handles backup vocals and the Glenn Hughes part of the song.]

JC: While Ritchie put Rainbow back together, I was reading a couple of things like he didn't really want to call it Rainbow and he was already to start thinking about Blackmore's Night.

GS: Well, no. That really wasn't the case. The Blackmore's Night thing didn't take effect until I guess probably about '96 or so. In about '96 is when he fired the management and Candice [Ritchie’s wife]'s mother took on the manager role which then, that was the beginning of the whole Blackmore's Night thing. You know, so that's when Candice wanted to do something and obviously, he wanted to make his wife happy and yeah. So that's – that was the beginning of that. Prior to that, there was no talk of a project with Candy. It was just really Rainbow and what we were going to do and another album, another tour and all that and once her mom took over the management, that's when the focus kind of changed.

JC: One thing I noticed is that while Ritchie put Rainbow back together, he was taking a lot of people from Blue Oyster Cult. There’s you. John Micelli was playing drums at the Rainbow show I saw. John O’Reilly was in Blue Oyster Cult as well.

GS: Yeah, well you know what, BOC and Rainbow pulled a lot of Long Island guys. I mean because that was their original home and Ritchie now lives in Long Island.

JC: After Rainbow was no more, you went to play Alice only to do the Broadway show Movin’ Out.

GS: I got back into Alice's band from, was it '99 through 2002? Well, I left Alice's band because I had the opportunity to play with this – it was a brand new thing. I live in Northeast Pennsylvania, but I'm originally from Long Island. It's about an hour and 15 minutes from New York City. One of my best friends is Billy Joel's guitarist and musical director, Tommy Byrnes. So Billy got contacted by Twyla Tharp, the choreographer, about doing a show on Broadway utilizing his music and Billy basically said, "Sure, yeah we can do this, but I get to choose the band and make sure the band is seen onstage and the whole thing." So that was called Movin' Out.

So, I did that for three and a half years. The band was onstage. We were on a moving platform and it was just really cool. It was something completely different. It was the beginning of what they now call the jukebox musicals and it was kind of the first one and we had a good run. I mean, I did it for about four and a half years. We did three and a half years on Broadway and then I did a year on the road with it. So, it was cool. I got to stay home. I get to know my wife. We actually like each other [laughter]. We had a daughter, you know, so I mean all that kind of stuff wouldn't have happened if I was on the road the way I usually am. So it was interesting, different and very cool.

JC: One curious thing is how come – don’t get me wrong, it’s a great gig and I’m glad you got it – but, it's interesting you got in because, you know, how come they didn't use Billy Joel's own bass player for that one?

GS: Well, like I said, Tommy Byrnes was the musical director and he and I'd been friends since we were kids and he's my daughter's godfather. So basically, when he put the band together, he thought, “Let's see. Who do I want to play with?" You know, 'cause he was going to be in the band, too. So he hand-picked the band as much for players as personalities, too, personalities that would get along well.

JC: Around that time, you played with Dokken.

GS: Yep. Now, I got into Dokken because, now going back to that band that I played with in Long Island in between Wendy O. Williams and Vinnie Moore. That guitar player, Jon Levin, ended up moving out to the West Coast, becoming a music attorney and he became Don Dokken's attorney. And he also is Dokken's guitarist.

JC: Right.

GS: So, get this, this is really weird because I was doing Movin' Out. It was 2003 and one of the things with the Broadway show, you can take off as much time as you want, you can have a substitute and I had about five or six guys that I used. So Jon called me and said, "Hey, Dokken's doing this run on the West Coast and some stuff in Europe, you wanna do it?” I said, “Sure.”

JC: Now after Movin’ Out, we get to Over the Rainbow. I did an interview with Joe Lynn Turner. One question I never got to ask Joe and I am going to ask you this question about Over The Rainbow. Did Ritchie really want his son Jurgen not to use his last name Blackmore?

Over The Rainbow

GS: No, it wasn't quite like that. I think it's the J.R. Blackmore. He didn't want him to use and he's like, "Well that's my name, so screw you." So, it just got weird. I think they sit around and they're bored and they just kind of come up with things [laughs] to complain about. I don't know. I have no idea. I just know that whatever it was was taken care of and it all remained good. Ultimately, he is Jurgen's dad and he should support him. I mean Jurgen's a great guy. I can't call him a kid 'cause he's only a year younger than I am.

JC: Yeah.

GS: But yeah, I don't know. And things got a little weird there for a while but I know that Jurgen took care of it and it's really just a matter of just calling his dad and saying, "Hey, look, what's going on here?" It didn't get the lawyers or anything crazy like that. It's a family thing.

JC: Besides Joe Lynn Turner, I interviewed the very first bass player of Rainbow, Craig Gruber. Craig Gruber came in very briefly back into it in after Jimmy Bain was no longer there, so I asked him if Tony Carey was in the band when he was there. He told me that Carey was the type of guy who was just not a very personable person. You know, he only really spoke if you put a microphone in front of him?

GS: Really [laughs]?

JC: So my question is this: Tony Carey was the original keyboardist of Over the Rainbow before Paul Morris took over. Was he not a personable guy in Over The Rainbow?

GS: No, Tony's cool. I love Tony. Tony and I got along right from the get-go.

JC: Right from the get-go?

GS: Yeah, he's a smart ass. And I'm from Long Island, so I'm used to that, I'm okay with that. And to me that's a form of a sense of humor and I kind of like that. I'd make him laugh. I'd be a smart ass to him. He'd be a smart ass to me and it was just kind of fun. That was our little way of having a sense of humor but he was – when we got Paul Morris back in the band, it was because Tony got sick. He got very sick.

JC: Oh!

GS: Luckily, he's okay, now, thank God. But he had a pretty bad scare, you know? The cancer scare.

JC: He had a cancer scare?

GS: Yeah, so he had to basically stay home and take care of his health. And that was the only reason. Otherwise, he would have still been in the band. As a matter of fact, Paul Morris was really only a fill-in up until the very end when we said, "Okay," when we were sure Tony wasn't gonna come back.

JC: I imagine with Over the Rainbow, like Red Dawn, while you guys weren’t that popular in the US, you must have been huge in Russia and Japan.

GS: It was. In Russia, I mean, our first gig was in a 5,000-seater and we sold out. We did great in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. That was really our strong hold and we did very well in Japan, too. But over here in the 'States, not so good. I don't think … there's not a lot of people anymore who really know who Rainbow is. You ask – even people my age, you mention Rainbow, they go, "Who? Who?" And then you sing a song and they go, "Oh yeah, them." So that's a shame. Over in Europe, the fans, they stick with you.

JC: Right. A lot of European people on the web come on to read the two interviews with Rainbow members that I did on my blog.

GS: Unfortunately, over here, in the US, it's the flavor of the month. It'd great to be get some good work over here, too, but I don't mind doing Europe. I like it. It's interesting. You go to different places like Eastern Europe and Russia, it's real cool and the fans are just so – they're so thankful, especially in Russia because they never thought that they'd ever be able to hear rock n' roll or hear a band like Rainbow when they were under Soviet rule. So they're really grateful when you come over and that's cool. It's kind of makes you feel good.

JC: Now we come to Ted Nugent. Mick Brown from Dokken plays drums with Ted. Is it through Mick you got the gig with Ted?

GS: A few years later after I played with Dokken, Mick got into Ted Nugent. Barry Sparks (who had also played with Dokken and I replaced him when he went to play for Ted Nugent) left for good. Mick asked me to do it. It's kind of funny 'cause he called me and he goes, "Hey Greg, do you sing lead?" And I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Good, 'cause I told Ted you did."

JC: Right, I saw Ted Nugent this year. This summer, I saw you sing lead on "Need You Bad," where Derek St. Holmes and Ted took other lead vocal duties.

The Nuge, Greg and Derek in action 2011

GS: Yeah, before Derek, I would do "Just What the Doctor Ordered" and "Hey Baby" as well. [To hear Greg sing “Just What The Doctor Ordered,” click here.]

JC: Did you do any of the others, like "Stranglehold"?

GS: No, Ted always wanted to sing that one and I always told him, it's like, "Hey, if you want me to sing it, I got it," and he was like, "No, no, I got it." So, he’s the boss and you gotta listen to him.

JC: Besides performing, have you gone hunting with Ted?

GS: No, I haven't done any hunting. He's threatened to take us out hog hunting one of these days but, we'll see. I do a lot of shooting, though. I've always been a gun guy my whole life. I've always had rifles and handguns and so that's something that we had in common when I got in the band.

JC: So, do you guys ever do target practice?

GS: Oh we do at his house all the time, yeah. We'll rehearse a little bit. We'll barbecue and then we'll go out with the machine guns. He's got fully automatic machine guns. So we have some fun with that.

JC: I’ve seen Ted on stage, at an outdoorsmen convention, and on clips on TV and YouTube. In all of them, he’s one of the most enthusiastic people I have witnessed.

GS: Oh yeah. Well, he's got tons of energy. I mean, the guy's like a power plant. He's 63. He's got more energy than anybody else in the band. It's really amazing to watch him. I hope I have that much energy when I'm his age. [Laughter]

JC: Curious. What are the types of basses have you been using for Ted and other gigs?

GS: Let's see, with Ted for the last few tours, I've been using a '72 P bass. And that's been, just, you know what I'll stick with that, man. I don't really change because it sounds so freaking good, I'll just – I just leave it alone unless I break a string or something. And then for spares, I've got a '57 Reissue, which it's actually an '82, '57 Reissue. It's the first year they came out with the '57 Reissues and that thing is an absolute monster, too. I have another – I think it's a '96 P bass. So those are the two backups. I've been playing P basses pretty much exclusively since the mid-'90s. I mean when I first got into Rainbow, I was up there using a Spector and then I picked up this '82 Reissue P bass and then that thing just sang and then from then on, I was like, "Oh man, I forgot how great P basses were?” And so just been playing those. I mean, I've got a vast array of basses. I've got jazz basses and Music Mans and Guilds and I even have my old Kramers from the '80s. But what I prefer, is the P bass.

JC: I noticed that you also played with Tommy James.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I still play with Tommy. [To see Greg play with Tommy on his classic, “Crimson and Clover”, click here.] That's kind of fun. He only does about 15 gigs a year so what's really great about that is that when I'm away in the summer with Ted, I got a guy who comes and fills in for me and then I just jump back into it again, which is kind of cool. He plays about an hour and 15 minutes, of just all his hits, you know, and mostly fly dates, so I just head to the airport with a bass on my back and plug into some rented SVTs and blast off for an hour and 15 minutes, then it's off to the hotel bar to hang with the guys and on the plane the next morning.

JC: I also noticed on your Facebook page that you are playing with a Journey tribute band.

GS: Yeah, a buddy of mine's got a band called Voyage. My buddy's Hugo Valenti and if you saw a picture of him, you would swear it's Steve Perry. And not only that, he sounds just like him, too. [Readers can decide for themselves if Hugo looks and sound like Steve Perry, by clicking on their performance of “Lights” here.]

I did some gigs with him and it ended up being – playing like some of the same places I played with Ted – we're playing casinos and places like Penn's Peak and so it actually ended up being a really cool thing and then the money's been great and, so yeah. If I'm around and available, I'll be playing with him, sure.

JC: How does he manage to maintain his voice? Cause you know the real Steve Perry has blown his voice and I remember the next guy who came after him in Journey also lost his voice.

GS: I've known him for almost 30 years and he used to be in a band called Valentine and another band called Open Skies that had – they had about 15 minutes in the '80s. And even back then when I first met him, it was like, "Dude, you look like Steve Perry." He goes, "Yeah, everybody tells me that." Many years later, he's decided to capitalize on it. He owns his own business. I think he's got an appliance business or something in New York and so he just decided for a few months to have some fun, get out and play and put a few bucks in the pocket. I was more than happy to help and play. It's good fun. Paul Morris is in the band, too.

JC: Oh really?

GS: Yeah, and so we're having a blast. It's good fun. And the crowd reaction is crazy, man, it's like, these women, they see him and they treat him like he’s really Steve Perry and I'm like, "It's not him, you idiot." [Laughter] But the crowd has a great time and we have some fun and it's all good.

JC: The other thing that I saw on your website was that, in between playing with Ted Nugent, was The Hippiefest.

GS: Yeah, that was fun. That was 2009. That was the year Ted didn't tour. I hooked up with some buds and did that. That was some good friends of mine from New York, Godfrey Townsend and Steve Murphy, the guys from Alan Parsons band. And so they were doing it and they asked me to do it and it was Joey Molland(from Badfinger), Mitch Ryder, the Turtles, Chuck Negron (from 3 Dog Night) and Felix Cavaliere (from the Rascals). And, so we got to be the background for all of them and man, some real fun, great music to play and it's basically rock n' roll history going on right there. You know what I mean?

JC: You mention Alan Parsons Project. You also played with them. That’s interesting because Alan didn’t tour during his prime days and he had different musicians and different singers with him throughout his career. He and Eric Woolfson were the only constants, you know?

GS: Yeah, there was supposed to be a couple of shows and one of 'em got cancelled so I ended up playing the 60th anniversary of the Roswell crash out in New Mexico and you can imagine that was pretty crazy. It's like a bunch of nut jobs walking around but it was really great playing with him. He's really tall and I'm only five-eight, so I looked like a shrimp next to him. But it was a lot of fun. I actually had that gig on a DVD, too so it's kind of a nice little keepsake.

JC: That would also make it one of the very few times Alan has played live. Also, you have a bunch of songs in Alan’s repertoire and they were also done by different bass players interpreting it their own way.

GS: Yeah, that's true, but when I played with him, his band had been playing together for quite some time and what I did is I just got some live recordings. They supplied me with some live recordings so I learned it the way the band was used to hearing it. We didn't do any rehearsals. I just popped right in and played with them. So, I wanted to make sure things were easy for them and easy for me.

JC: Okay, well I think I've pretty much think asked about every person you've played with at this point. Is there anyone I missed?

GS: No, I don't think so. Sometimes it's kind of hard for me to remember.

JC: Okay, I think we pretty much got everybody, then. One of the other things I want to ask you about is the fact that you've managed to stay employed for a very long time. What's your secret in this type of industry?

GS: Just go out and do a great job with whatever gig you're doing and most of the time you'll get recommended for another one. That's sort of been what's happened with me on every step of the road, is it's been recommendations, you know?

JC: Yeah.

GS: So just come in, know your shit, and singing doesn't hurt. And that's it. Just be professional, courteous, everything – it's really a no-brainer. You know, go in, kick ass, sing great, and don't be a dick. [laughs]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I played with Greg several times at city limits open Mic in Seaford in the 90's. He was nice and very cool to jam with. Thanks for the interview!