MELVIN SMITH (By Phil Davies)
Born Melvin L. Smith, 19 March 1936, Enfield, Connecticut
Mel who? Not the portly UK comedian/film producer surely? No, a very fine r&b singer who cut some goodies like my intro to him, the fine drinking song It Went Down Easy which I heard on some rhythm n booze anthology in the 80s.
In the days before everyone and his bro' started releasing 50 year old recordings the wonderful Bear Family label could be relied upon to dig out a few great unknowns amongst the big names and the 12 cd box sets. Melvin Smith was worth such a gamble, mind you, he never had a national hit, he didn't write his own material, he wasn't a star, never joined a band that later became famous or even had a song covered by a future megastar, but he was on RCA and was produced by Steve Sholes and later Joe Thomas, and was backed on a few sides by luminaries like Mickey Baker, Sam Taylor and Al Sears. RCA persisted with him for 3 years, recording 32 sides between 51 and 54 (the final one when I was but two weeks old!), but they never had the success with him that, say, Piano Red had.
Mel was born in Enfield, CT on March 19th, 1936, the son of Samuel and Minnie Smith, fourth in a family of nine children. Samuel Smith, a truck driver, abandoned the family in the mid-'40s, and all nine children were raised by their mother, a hotel chambermaid. Melvin began listening to music at an early age, and among his favourite singers growing up were shouters like Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris and Jimmy Witherspoon (esp his Drinkin' Beer). Growing up on Atlanta's east Side he lived across the street to Billy Wright and also a few doors down from Larry Darnell. In school an older pupil Titus Turner would hijack Mel from his classroom with a fake message that the music teacher wanted them, they would then go chasing chicks and listen to the jukebox. He won a few teenage talent shows trying to emulate his local heroes. After all didn't local dj Zenas Sears introduce his house painter Chuck Willis to an Okeh A & R man? Chuck's brother Pete played in the Arstell Allen Sextet with Mel on vocals. He also met the young Ray Charles and became pally with his hero Witherspoon.
In 50 and 51 RCA came searching for talent after local albino Piano Red had a huge hit with classic Rockin' With Red. Sholes, Thomas and Biggs. Little Richard, another fan of Billy Wright, cut his first sides then too. Mel recalled him as a "dancer and high step female impersonator", nothing's changed there then! Local sax player/band leader Clyde "Blow Top" Lynn recommended Mel to the RCA boys and duly played on his first two RCA sessions cut in Atlanta in the first half of 51. RCA put more effort into promoting Piano Red's newie Wrong Yo Yo whilst Mel's debut 45 garnered poor trade reviews and quickly died the death. But it wasn't all bad, Mel was expelled from school for cutting class to play gigs and hanging out with his muso pals. He performed with Tommy Brown's Maroon Notes.
Follow ups included Rampaging Mama and California Baby, which had better reviews but still sold zilch. Unexpectedly Mel was flown by RCA to the Big Apple (Afal Mawr) to record Looped, it was a minor regional hit and had a 4 star trade review and had the back hand compliment of drawing covers from Tommy Ridgley, Wally Mercer and Calvin Booze. RCA put our teenage hero up in a penthouse flat obviously expecting great things and even got him local gigs on the cabaret circuit. RCA then decided to alter Mel's sound by introducing the dreaded backing singers onto the single Sarah Kelly (From Plumnelly) which flopped. Despite Mickey Baker and co on cool sides like It Went Down Easy and Crazy Baby on the final few sessions it was all over, by the time he was 18 he was a "never was". RCA dropped him in 1954.
He moved to Philadelphia and fronted the Nite Riders (including the stellar Van Walls). He was signed to Apollo Records ( Dr Velvet) and later recorded for Sound/Teen (Vacation Train), Swan (Six Button Benny), Cameo (as Melvin Smith), and Sue Records( Pretty Plaid Skirt). All flopped but they did engineer a long engagement at the Wagon Wheel club in Manhattan, and also enjoyed considerable live popularity in Canada and Boston. The band ended up owning a jingle studio in Hartford and later a night club (Walls left for Canada due to girl trouble), Mel carried on singing in the 60s (Ugly George on Smash) and 70s/early 80s but worked as a post collector. He married twice. Thanks to Bear Family he has a fine 2cd set to show his kids and his grand kids and enjoy his retirement.
Looped! - Melvin Smith At His Best - Bear Family 2cd, released 1994, well anotated by Billy Vera, all the RCA sides.
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