Friday, December 23, 2011

"Pigmeat" Pete Smith: A Personal Memorial

“Pigmeat” Pete Smith, blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, born 1951, died June 24th 1999.

It was with resounding shock, surprise, anger and sadness that I learned of the tragic death of Pete Smith last Thursday 24th June, aged 48, of liver cancer. Pete was a true gentleman of the road and of the blues - a fact attested to by any of the many musicians that had the pleasure of working with him over the years. 

I first encountered Pete in the mid to late 80s when he used to do a regular set in the “Poodle Lounge” at Club Dog at the George Robey in Finsbury Park. As a fledgling blues guitarist I remember being astonished at his command of complex ragtime country blues idioms, and at the nonchalance and humour with which he performed them. I remember plucking up my courage and asking him if he would let me sit in with him on a couple of numbers. He agreed, but not without some misgivings I felt. He was right. As he burst into a fast ragtime workout I remember the knot in my stomach as I tried vainly to keep up with him. Sensing my terror, Pete started to shout the chord changes over his shoulder even as he was attempting to sing the verses. That’s what I mean about a gentleman: most older players would have relished the pleasure of ‘cutting’ a young whippersnapper (as I undoubtedly was). But not Pete. Pete wasn’t into petty rivalries or pecking orders. He was all about playing good music and if he found himself saddled with someone who couldn’t quite hack it, he’d hold their hand for as long as it took for them to get into his groove.

A couple of years later, my band The Hipshakers were playing on the same bill as the Blue Rhythm Methodists – one of the many bands Pete fronted over the years – at the Dublin Castle in Camden Town. Pete’s band were on first while we sat drinking Guinness in the corner. The conversation came to a standstill as Pete flung himself and the band into James Brown’s “I Feel Good” – not the easiest song in the world to cover. Pete was always a better guitar player than singer but the way he attacked that vocal! After their set, as we were setting up, I went over and told him how brave I thought he was to even attempt such a thing. 
   “Well you’ve got to have a go, haven’t you?” Pete smiled. And in this unpretentious, modest way he gave me a dictum, a modus operandi, for my own attempts to play black American music: You’ve got to have a go, haven’t you?

Years passed, and I would see Pete playing solo here and there, or with his bands, or with Errol Linton’s band. I would meet musicians who had worked with him, or who were working with him. Always his name would bring a smile and it is worth pointing out that in a scene not without its share of gossip and backbiting I never heard anyone say a bad word about Pete Smith. Nor did I ever hear him say a bad word about anyone else. Sometimes, with his eyes tight shut and his mouth wide open during a particularly heartfelt solo, he might take a few liberties with ‘the one’, but nobody ever doubted his sincerity or integrity as a musician or as a good guy who’d buy you a pint if you were broke and tell you very funny jokes while you were drinking it. 

A bluesman to the core, Pete never attempted to be anything but what he was. That is to say, he played his own blues, even when playing someone else’s tune. Pete’s blues were about humour and English understatement: sardonic without ever falling into the trap of cynicism. He loved country blues, but he also loved funk and New Orleans r’n’b and he would attempt to inject what he had learned about all this rich black music into his own playing. A tall order for a tall white Englishman, but Pete never lost sight of his self-effacing humour and this saw him through all his wild experiments at marrying up the music’s he loved on a lone acoustic guitar.  

In later years, I played with Pete many times backing up Errol Linton and in time I came to replace him as a regular in Errol’s band. Some would have regarded this as usurping and I remember the first gig we did where the roles were reversed and I was onstage and Pete was in the audience. What could have been an embarrassing situation was immediately defused by Pete’s broad grin and pronouncement: “You’re not as good as me, but you’re not bad.” I could have hugged him. More memories come back: the tapes he made me (always full of great stuff I’d not heard before), the home-made Christmas cards that always made me laugh, the endless driving he would do in a band full of non-drivers – but I can’t believe I’m writing an obituary for Pete Smith. I can’t believe he’s dead. Thank God for all those tapes where Pete’s contribution to the strange and beautiful little church that is British Blues will live on. When I heard the news of his death I played “Farewell Leicester Square” – a title with some resonance for Pete, as he was a professional busker in Leicester Square for many years. I was struck again at how truthful and genuine the music was, how human and personal, funny and bittersweet – all the qualities I associate with the blues. I listened and heard all the elements of Pete’s eccentric musical foibles: his quixotic attempts to play a Thelonious Monk tune as country blues, or a Professor Longhair tune as a slide solo in the middle of a cockney folk song – his imagination dancing as his fingers struggled to keep up with his flow of ideas.

The last time I saw him play was at a festival where Errol and the Blues Vibe were booked to play on the main stage. Pete was doing a solo set on the acoustic stage. Errol, Richard Rhoden and I went along to watch. Pete unfolded his tunes, told his stories like the masterful raconteur that he was, revealing once again his love and devotion to the memory of Max Miller and then, at the end of the set, launching into a fast one-chord boogie shuffle at a tempo so punishing that Errol, Richard and I glanced at each other with trepidation: “he’ll never be able to keep that up”, was the unspoken comment between us. Well Pete kept it up, and sang himself hoarse, and left the stage to tumultuous applause. And we applauded and whistled and shouted right along with them because Pete’s rhythm was safe, safe as houses. 

Pete, wherever you are, we spilt a taste for you, we played some blues for you and we’re gonna miss you bad, brother. Still, you’ve gotta have a go, haven’t you?  

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