The Divine Miss Thing
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 Lavays 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 its like to
be a modern day jazz diva.
always sangits what Ive 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
rapidly from playing the streets to playing the clubs, Lavays
first gig was in a little bar she frequented in San Franciscos
Tenderloin District sometime around 1989. Even then the bandnow
known as the Red Hot Skillet Lickerswas 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.
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 bands co-leader and musical director.
As theyve 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, Everybodys 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 Amazon.com
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.
taking notice, you know, since we are whooping all these other
peoples butts on the jazz charts! Were the only independent
act on the jazz charts. The rest are all on major labels,"
says Lavay with girlish enthusiasm.
asked about the new album and what makes it different from the
first, Lavay says its 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.
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."
"I Want a Little Boy" and "Gee Baby, Aint 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.
to me, is modern-day feminism, which dates back to the
early 20s, with vocalists singing that type of material.
Theyre really funny lyrics. To me theyre sexual
lyrics, but really funny," she says. "I think
its great to bring problems out into the open and
be able to laugh about them, like saying Im
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 Daddyespecially
the big daddies!"
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.
"Were havin a ball!" she exclaims,
band members echoing agreement in the background. Whats
more, Lavay has been hanging out and jamming with personal
heroes, such as legendary piano man Jay McShann.
also sang with Myra Taylor, a woman who Ive had
records ofshe 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 Ive listened to all
these years, and to have that strong connection with Kansas
Cityand 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."
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 musicfirst
rate musicians everywhere! And straight out of the 50s,"
she says of the supper clubs and salsa bands that flavored
was also fascinated with the countrys culture of
rhythm, and the fact that most things in Cuba seemed to
revolve around music. "When youre born with
everybody in your family playing the maracas, the clave,
and the whole family jamming, everybody dancing, its
a strong part of your culture. Compared to our culture
where were 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!"
with a first rate record still on the Billboard
jazz charts and Cuban sunsets and cocktails on the mind,
whats 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.