Love. Loss. Heartbreak.
Swing diva Lavay Smith can cover the emotional spectrum in a single night.
“I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t had their heart broke,” Smith said. “I draw so much from my life experiences when I sing. It’s really what brings a lot of joy in singing.”
A fixture on the San Francisco music scene for more than 20 years, Smith combines a big, bluesy voice and a sizzling stage presence with a wide-ranging repertoire that includes jump blues, bebop and R&B. She performs tonight in San Luis Obispo with her seven-piece band, the Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
Smith’s concert is in advance of a swing concert Friday, featuring free dance lessons and live music by Cal Poly’s University Jazz Band No. 1. According to Smith, the music of the big band era continues to draw crowds years after the swing revival of the 1990s.
“Some people may have been attracted to the energy or the look or the flavoring,” she said. “Now they’re found the substance.”
Singing for sailors
Born in Southern California and raised in the Philippines, Smith got her professional start at age 15, singing “Me and Bobby McGee” for appreciative sailors.
It was her love of Janis Joplin, coupled with an appreciation for public radio, that introduced her to the blues.
“I had always been someone who was looking for something different,” said Smith, who started performing the blues at age 18. “Public radio really opened my eyes and ears to the world.”
In 1988, Smith joined a Los Angeles trio featuring pianist/arranger Chris Siebert.
The following year, she and Siebert moved to San Francisco and formed the Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
Since then, Lavay Smith & the Red Hot Skillet Lickers have released three albums and performed at jazz festivals across the United States and Canada, earning the coveted “best band” title in a 1998 reader poll conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.
“We’re a very close community,” Smith said of San Francisco. “I see people I know everywhere.”
The bond between Smith and her band mates, who range in age from 30 to 74, is even stronger.
“We look for the best players. We don’t just hire our friends,” she said, comparing the atmosphere to the Buena Vista Social Club, the legendary Cuban music ensemble. “It’s like a university for the young musicians, and it’s a great place for the older musicians to feel like they can leave their legacy.”
Take trumpet player Allen Smith, who passed away in February. A prolific musician and educator who played with the U.S. Navy Band during World War II, he performed with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra.
“Allen Smith was there for the transition from swing to bebop,” the singer said. “It’s impossible to replace anyone like (him).”
She also praised trombone player Danny Armstrong, a longtime member of Johnny Otis’s band, and Jules Broussard, a seasoned saxophone player who’s played with everyone from Ray Charles to Santana.
The band’s younger members include acoustic bass player Marcus Shelby, who graduated from Cal Poly with an engineering degree. “We have a world-class band,” Smith said.
True to herself
According to Smith, audience numbers can expect a show that swings.
“I’m really attracted to the strong, independent women (of music),” she said, singers like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline.Just like her idols, Smith said, “I just try to be true to myself.”
Tonight’s concert will feature sassy blues numbers, swing standards and soulful arrangements of songs popularized by Cline: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “She’s Got You” and “Walking After Midnight.”
“I grew up with that music,” Smith said, noting that country and jazz share the same roots. “I love Patsy Cline. She’s a world-class singer.”
Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers traditionally close each concert with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“It’s fun to do a sad song. It’s fun to do a New Orleans song. It’s so fun and joyous,” she said. “There are so many different perspectives in life I like the whole spectrum.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.