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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


The Divine Miss Thing
By Chad Kincaid

Lavay Smith
Photo© Debra McClinton
Lavay Smith is a very busy woman. Between a new album blazing its way up the Billboard jazz charts, vacationing in Cuba, and a tour schedule bouncing her throughout the Midwest, the Deep South and the East Coast, this globetrotting gal is hard to pin down. Thanks to the modern luxury of the cellular phone, however, ATOMIC managed to gobble up some of Lavay’s precious remaining free time with an in-depth interview. On a tour bus somewhere in the hills between Kansas City and Little Rock, Lavay discusses her early years, the success of her new album, and what it’s like to be a modern day jazz diva.

"I’ve always sang—it’s what I’ve always wanted to do," she says, matter-of-factly. A native of Southern California, Lavay first started singing and playing guitar in a rock band at the tender age of 15 while living in the Philippines. After moving back to California with her family, she formed her own band, writing and playing roots and Americana originals. "Then I started listening to Bessie Smith and buying some old jazz in my late teens and that was it," she recalls. "I started doing just early jazz and hooked up with some really great, great young musicians."

Moving rapidly from playing the streets to playing the clubs, Lavay’s first gig was in a little bar she frequented in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District sometime around 1989. Even then the band—now known as the Red Hot Skillet Lickers—was hitting on a magic formula, developing a strong following all over the city despite the lack of dancers or any ‘swing scene’ of which to speak. "We were a great hit from the start," she says.

Drawing inspiration from Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, and Bessie Smith, Lavay has since been mixing her soulful siren song with the boogie-woogie tempered blues and jazz her boyfriend, Chris Siebert, dishes out as the band’s co-leader and musical director. As they’ve grown, evolving with the addition of each top-notch musician to the line-up, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are now moving into uncharted territory since the March 2000 release of their sophomore album, Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing! Having reached the #10 position on the Billboard jazz charts is a tremendous source of pride for Lavay and her crew. Fantastic audience response, reviews, and write-ups in tour cities all across the states boosted them to #25 on the charts. And a feature in Downbeat magazine promises that this is merely the beginning. Not bad for an unsigned band with only their second self-produced album.

"They’re taking notice, you know, since we are whooping all these other people’s butts on the jazz charts! We’re the only independent act on the jazz charts. The rest are all on major labels," says Lavay with girlish enthusiasm.

When asked about the new album and what makes it different from the first, Lavay says it’s much more elaborate, for starters. "We also worked with David Berger [former director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra] who co-wrote a few of the tunes for the band," she says. With the addition of six horns as well as six original cuts, the new disc showcases an incredibly talented outfit that ten years since its inception is finding itself in a groove rather than a rut.

With a stronger business sense the second time around, Lavay contends that remaining independent has allowed the band to find its own direction as well. "We were able to spend as much money on [the album] as we wanted, doing everything the way we wanted to do it. If we wanted to keep trying different album covers or if we wanted to keep mixing it, it was our own doing. We also have total control over every bit of advertising we do, or listening stations, and we can support it as much as we want now."

Lavay Smith
Photo© Debra McClinton
Heralding "I Want a Little Boy" and "Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?" as her personal favorites on the new record, Lavay says her solos on the ballads are particularly special to her. "On the ballads, people can really take their time and tell a story," she notes. And speaking of stories, Lavay is well-known for singing some of the raciest of risqué tunes from the era that informs her work. Songs like "The Walking Blues, "One Hour Mama," and "Big Fine Daddy" (the latter an original number from the new disc) describe in Technicolor® detail the nitty gritty of intimacy, anatomy, and general requirements for good lovin’.

"That, to me, is modern-day feminism, which dates back to the early ’20s, with vocalists singing that type of material. They’re really funny lyrics. To me they’re sexual lyrics, but really funny," she says. "I think it’s great to bring problems out into the open and be able to laugh about them, like saying ‘I’m a one-hour mama, so no one-minute poppa.’ The girls love it when I sing that song, and I sing a lot of tunes that women want to hear. They like to hear that stuff, although the men like it when I sing ‘Big Fine Daddy’—especially the big daddies!"

Touring in support of the new album has also allowed Lavay to blaze new trails as well as realize lifelong dreams, their most recent travels taking the band through Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. Kansas City has been a highlight of the tour, visiting the Jazz Hall of Fame and playing clubs like The Grand Emporium. "We’re havin’ a ball!" she exclaims, band members echoing agreement in the background. What’s more, Lavay has been hanging out and jamming with personal heroes, such as legendary piano man Jay McShann.

"I also sang with Myra Taylor, a woman who I’ve had records of—she came to my show, and it was a really great experience to meet her. She has this tune called ‘Take It Easy Greasy.’ You know, it was a thrill to meet these living legends I’ve listened to all these years, and to have that strong connection with Kansas City—and the home of Count Basie (laughs), home of the best music! You go to Kansas City and the people are so appreciative, they know all that stuff. They know their music and they know their roots."

As much excitement as Lavay and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers are finding on the road, touring is still hard work, and all work and no fun can make a gal go crazy. Shortly before their current tour Lavay made time for a vacation in Cuba. "That was another thrill of a lifetime!" she says, exuberantly. "The culture is so rich and beautiful and everywhere you went there was the most amazing music—first rate musicians everywhere! And straight out of the ’50s," she says of the supper clubs and salsa bands that flavored her stay.

She was also fascinated with the country’s culture of rhythm, and the fact that most things in Cuba seemed to revolve around music. "When you’re born with everybody in your family playing the maracas, the clave, and the whole family jamming, everybody dancing, it’s a strong part of your culture. Compared to our culture where we’re all learning how to dance now, these people were learning to dance at the same time they were learning to walk. Learning out of the cradle, I guess rhythm just comes naturally. I recommend that everybody go to Cuba!"

So with a first rate record still on the Billboard jazz charts and Cuban sunsets and cocktails on the mind, what’s next for Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers? The band is already thinking about recording the next album, Lavay says, and there is also rumor of a Lavay Smith calendar in the works, which the sexy songstress would neither confirm nor deny. In the meantime, she and the boys just finished their East Coast tour, which took the band through New York, Philly, Albany, Boston, Vermont, Montreal, Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and finally back to Kansas City again to wrap up the summer with the Kansas City Jazz & Blues Festival. The success of the new release and the support of the tour will undoubtedly keep everybody talkin’ ’bout Miss Thing for a long time to come.

Behind in your reading?
Check out past ATOMIC features.

Dear Dottie
1999 Article List
2000 Article List
2001 Article List
2002 Article List
2003 Article List
2004 Article List
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Catchin' Up With Claude Trenier
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