At 68, Long Island-based axman G.E. Smith sees his limitations clearly these pandemic days, and he readily admits them.
“I don’t sing, I just yell into the microphone. I’m a guitar player, and I’ve been looking for a great singer for 30 years, the right singer,” he says, describing how he snarls through “Art’s Sick,” a jangly track on “Stony Hill,” his new full-length album with Washington state soul stylist LeRoy Bell.
After backing Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Daryl Hall and John Oates over the years, and winning an Emmy leading the “Saturday Night Live” house band, he’s found the perfect foil in Bell, who smoothly croons the recording’s other nine cuts.
They got together after Smith’s singer-songwriter wife of 30 years, Taylor Barton, stumbled upon Bell’s music online, and brought it to her husband’s attention.
Bell — an “X-Factor” finalist in 2011, composer for Elton John, Jennifer Lopez and Teddy Pendergrass, and nephew of 1970s songwriting great Thom Bell — was on the West Coast with his group LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends when Smith was working on a series of “G.E. Smith’s Portraits” concerts on the East Coast organized by Barton.
When Bell’s manager got an invite from Barton to play a “Portraits” gig in 2019, Bell thought, “How did we come on their radar?” When he found out Smith was the legendary pony-tailed musical “SNL” anchor, he adds, “Then I really wanted to know, ‘Why us?’”
After Barton cold-called Bell, the vocalist went out to Smith’s house and the musicians hit it off.
“We went into the studio two days later, and the combination was like two halves made a whole, in a way,” says Smith.
Bell already had written political songs, such as “America,” with the lyric: “No dreamers anymore/Democracy is out the door,” inspired by TV-news footage of Mexican immigrant children being separated from their parents as a result of Donald Trump’s policies.
“I was like, ‘What the f—- is going on? This administration thinks it can do whatever it wants? My country is just going down the tubes!’” says Bell.
Barton chipped in original material, too. “Take Cover,” a single with a video from “Stony Hill” (named for the New York road where the couple resides), is a metaphor for America’s two-party, almost good-vs.-evil system. Other songs (“Black,” “Let the Sunshine In”) address the dark ennui hanging over society today, and the ray of hope that’s starting to beam though.
Then there’s the “Ebony and Ivory”-idealistic harmony signified by the teaming up of Bell, who’s African American and the Lebanese-American descended Smith.
“”Ebony and Ivory”! I forgot about that!” Bell says, laughing. “But racial lines never meant anything to me, as far as music. I’ve played everything from country to hard rock, soul and R&B, and music is music. I’d hate to be categorized and stuck in one slot.”
Smith, who was raised on Middle Eastern food in a Lebanese Pennsylvania household with his grandmother, was aware of racism from an early age.
He says he remembers a trip with her to Florida on a train, when, at stop in North Carolina, he was dismayed by an old white man who steered him away from going into a bathroom marked “colored.”
Smith says, “I loved all the Black American musicians. That’s what I grew up on, from Motown to the Chicago blues. And that is the bedrock foundation of the culture of this country that I love. So to me, it’s just incomprehensible to be a racist. ”
A musicologist of sorts who has researched songs dating back to the Civil War and before, when people first started buying guitars in shops, Smith mentions how melodies were recycled over the years.
He adds, “Back in the 19th century, the white people, of course, weren’t supposed to mix with the Black people at all, under any circumstances. But the poor whites would hear the slaves playing their music and go, ‘Man, that’s pretty cool.’ Then the slaves would hear the poor whites playing their British Isles kind of stuff, and go, ‘All right, I really hear something there.’ And then, of course, some of them would sneak off together and play. And that blend is how we arrived at where we’re at today.”