Lavay Smith: Miss Thing Talks Back
Rats. Why did there have to be rats?
There are few things in life that can kill the thrill of sharing a tiny umbrella with the heavenly not-so-tiny Lavay Smith as the two of you tipsily wander through New York City’s Bowery at 3 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning. (Or is it Tuesday night? Jesus, what day is this? And where’s my wallet?) But the scrum of vermin—slimy, skittery, sobering vermin—digging through some casually tossed garbage just a few feet away is seriously challenging my powers of fantasy.
“Oh, I hate rats!” the raven-haired Smith shouts, clumsily pulling us into the middle of the empty, puddly street. “Yuck!”
We’ve just been unceremoniously booted out the back-alley door of Lansky Lounge & Grill—a former speakeasy that still sparkles with the sepia-toned light of tough-talking yesterdays—but not without loosening up with a few too many rum and Cokes before our hasty exit. Or, in my case, not before almost spilling one of those tall boozy concoctions all over the breezily
And now, abandoned in the harsh elements, with the rats outnumbering the humans, and the cold April rain falling harder, faster, we decide that finding a jazz bar at this bleary-eyed hour is suddenly not as crucial as finding a bar that might have a few jazz tunes on the jukebox. Smith has little tolerance for today’s Total Request Live music—in fact, her clunky black shoes, hip red summer dress and noisy cell phone are just about the only things linking the 32-year-old throwback diva to current pop culture. But enduring Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears are small prices to pay when fleeing scavenging rodentia.
“Let’s try this way,” Smith says. Built with the exaggerated body and girl-power ’tude of a Tex Avery cartoon—and with a whole lotta Bettie Page thrown in for good measure—the 5-foot-6 Smith directs us down another dark and stormy street. Her energy and upbeat demeanor are unwavering, a remarkable display of stamina considering how just a few hours ago this Southern California native, backed by her eight-piece Red Hot Skillet Lickers, just about ignited the cozy confines of Central Park West’s Makor Cafe with multiple go-go-go sets of swing, jump-blues and blistering big-band jazz.
But Smith, a night person’s night person—the queen of the night people, in fact—rides the currents of a constant second wind. Then again, with her workload, she doesn’t have much choice. She’s been performing nonstop, in the States and Canada, in support of her sophomore album, last year’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout Miss Thing! (Fat Note), which enjoyed a solid sprint up the Billboard charts, and is overloaded with both sultry standards and steamy originals that should be standards. She’s often thrust into the role of makeshift den mother to her ragtag group of talented backing musicians, some of whom honed their chops playing with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. She’s a devoted girlfriend to head Skillet Licker and laid-back piano man Chris Siebert. (Sorry, fellas: “I have no desire to get married. We live together. Own a house together,” she says like a woman who has no intention of falling out of love.) And, if all that weren’t enough to break her stride—or at least make her want to take a very long nap—she’s a successful businesswoman, heading the independent label, Fat Note Records, along with Siebert.
Simply: To spend an evening with Smith is to listen to her cell phone ring and ring and ring.
But no matter. For Smith, if the sun’s not rising, then the night’s still very much in play—especially on this night, in this city. Although she calls San Francisco home sweet home, and there would no doubt be a riot if she ever fled the City by the Bay, New York and its penchant for never sleeping is her kinda town.
And I can honestly say she’s taken the Big Apple by storm like a beboppin’ Mother Nature with hell to pay.
After shooting down a few more of the Bowery’s busiest watering holes— “Too loud” “Too crowded” “Too bright”—Smith finally leads us to a welcome door. “This place looks OK. What do you think?”
This place would be Iggy’s—more dark and dank Last Chance Saloon than bright and bustling Cotton Club—but Iggy’s will have to do. Especially since my shoes are soaked and I definitely saw something scurrying over there by the dumpster.
Inside, we order the requisite rum and Cokes and wander over to the jukebox. This could be trouble. Not Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears trouble, mind you, but trouble enough.
Iggy—assuming, of course, that there actually is an Iggy—is not exactly a jazz fan, and his musical selection leads us to believe that he once dutifully followed the Doobie Brothers across the country. On the other hand, Smith is what you might call a music snob, her tastes mired mostly in the mid-century and her outbursts at certain modern music frequent and comical. (During our taxi ride from the Makor, her unprompted outburst of “I hate the Human League!” almost caused our cabbie to swerve into a bus. And don’t even get her started on Soft Cell and A Flock of Seagulls.)
Flipping through Iggy’s playlist, and shaking her head in clear disapproval, Smith says, “I hate ’80s music. I can’t stand ’80s music. It makes me sick. I have no interest. The ’80s weren’t a good time for me. We had just moved to Orange County from the Philippines. It was hard living in Orange County. I hate the suburbs. Can’t stand the suburbs. Everybody’s moving back to the city.”
I smile and hand over a bunch of quarters, and calmly tell Smith to try and make due with the longhaired classic rock at her disposal.
“I love Lil’ Kim, though,” she says, her eyes zipping through so many track listings, her face aglow with the lights of the juke. “She’s straight out of the ’20s. She really is a blues queen singing rap. I love Eve, too.”
So here we go. It’s 3:30 a.m., and the battle lines have been set: Iggy’s jukebox versus Smith’s musical snobbery, the suburbs versus the city and so many more rum and Cokes versus so little sleep.
Things are about to get interesting—especially that stuff about her stripper friend. But wait; just wait.
“You know, I am so jealous of you guys. I want to live in New York so bad. I’m gonna come back here more often.”
With her white-gloved hands floating high above her head, a stargazer lily tucked behind her ear and a heart-shaped bauble enjoying a bouncy dip in well-displayed cleavage, Smith welcomes the sold-out Tuesday crowd at the Makor with some I-dig-New York sentiment. She then kicks off the show with her rave-up theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout Miss Thing,” co-penned by Smith, Siebert and arranger David Berger, former conductor and arranger of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
This is certainly not the Smith you expect after staring a little too long at the cover art of Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout Miss Thing!. And what cover art it is, too: There she is, perched on a Tiki bar, her thigh-high-stockinged legs crossed at the knee, her leopard-print top barely concealing a bursting black bustier, her sinfully red lips and shocking white teeth all doing damage to a tropical drink. No, the Smith here at the Makor is not like that at all. Then again, the show just started.
The Makor is the perfect setting: low intimate ceilings, shadowy booths illuminated by candlelight and a long bar lit from below. And like a femme fatale in a Raymond Chandler novel, she leads her band with three key superpowers that mesh seductively with the joint’s throwback vibe: a flirty stage presence, vocal inflections that range from Bessie to Billie and a snug, low-cut black dress that reveals just how retro-fit she really is. She takes her performances seriously—jazz is what she adores more than anything in life—although after requesting that the soundman “turn me down some more,” she does joke, “I feel like Diana Ross.”
Behind the glamorous Smith—a woman that Los Angeles magazine deemed one of the sexiest people of 1999—is a stellar cast of jazz notables, men who always manage to sound tighter than tight, including trumpeter Bill Ortiz, alto saxophonist Bill Stewart, and pianist Siebert, who’s grinning wide and pounding the keys. And although tonight is all about Smith, she will modestly grant each and every one of the men in her onstage life—“Take your time, boys”—plenty of solo time. (“It’s not just about me—it’s about the whole band,” Smith later says about her troupe. “I’m a fan. A lot of times, I just have the band play, because I love to listen.”)
In front of her, staring at their feet as they awkwardly one-two-three around the dance floor, are a group of kids who Smith will playfully call “such dorks.” These are the same kids who, just a few minutes before, were leaning on each other in the downstairs coat-check line, pulling on two-toned shoes, straightening fat ties and tugging two-sizes-too-big suits. Twenty-somethings desperate for a hobby to call their own, the swing kids, herky-jerking like busted Tilt-A-Whirls, have the unintended ability to make Smith and her cohorts feel very much like the novelty act they most certainly are not. Sure, the band also attracts appreciative jazz aficionados and the folks who just wanna hear some good music—Smith’s 1996 debut album, One Hour Mama (Fat Note), is a declarative history lesson in Waller, Basie and Berlin—but the Daddy-O Jrs. are ruling the capacity crowd tonight.
And it’s up to Smith—it’s always up to Smith—to prove with her powerhouse pipes and smooth-swaying transcontinental hips that although the neoswing movement is all well and good, there’s nothing “neo” about what she and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers do so goddamn well.
After all, good music prevails; fads don’t.
“We’ve always tried to distance ourselves from [the neoswing scene],” Smith says later. “The next time we play Makor, we’re gonna have one night no dancing, and one night for the dancers. I can’t play for dancers all the time. We really enjoy not playing for the dancers”—she laughs—“but the dancers have so much fun and they’re so appreciative. A lot of our fans are underage, and they know a lot about jazz. They know all of Basie’s stuff. They even know a lot about modern jazz. So they started with the classics, and they’ve become more and more sophisticated about jazz. So I think it’s been a good trend. But now all those other bands, those kinds of pop bands, those less jazzy bands, have fallen. They’re not around anymore.”
In the span of two high-octane sets—if the kids wanna dance, well, Smith’s gonna make ’em pay in nonstop sweat—she unveils tributes to Holiday (“Now or Never”), Ellington (“I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues”), Gillespie (“He Beeped When He Should Have Bopped”) and Basie (“Going to Chicago Blues”). But it’s her original numbers, written and arranged as if the last 50 years had never happened, that really get the swing kids to stop gawking at their collective left feet and pay attention: “Honey Pie,” a love song in the style of Louis Jordan (with the popular lyric “Your luscious tongue a dreamy-dream”), “Big Fine Daddy,” inspired by Dinah Washington, and the unmistakable Basie riffs of “The Busy Woman’s Blues.”
The show is an unforgettable then-and-now display of bop, boogie-woogie and barrelhouse blues. But Smith seems bothered when she finally bids adieu way past midnight, and it’s no big mystery what has her feeling less than triumphant.
“I just try and stay in the moment,” she says. “I think that’s important for whatever kind of music you’re doing. Tonight was a good show, but it wasn’t my favorite type of show. I felt the dancers were a little overwhelming. The energy was different.”
I inform Smith that by the second set, most of the swing kids had abandoned their dance lessons and were pretty much just making out.
At this, she perks up a bit: “Ooh, well that’s good.”
“I’m not afraid of my femininity. Up until my late 20s, I was kind of hiding my curves,” Smith says, taking a pull on the straw that runs deep into her Iggy’s special. “Finally, I said to myself, You’re going to have plenty of years to wear these types of clothes that make you look straight up and down. I love the styles of Marilyn Monroe. A lot of women my size, they aren’t in the magazines, doing these things. All I can say is that my girlfriend was a stripper, and when she got pregnant and gained 18 pounds, she made more money that she ever did!”
Iggy’s is ours, and we’re talking sex. Sometimes life doesn’t get much better.
The bestooled denizens holding up the dusty drinking spot’s well-worn bar left a while ago, but it certainly wasn’t Smith’s DJing that ushered them out. After studying the jukebox for a good long time, she settled on John Lennon (“Imagine”), Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”), Lauryn Hill (“Doo Wop (That Thing)”), Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), U2 (“Bad”) and a heaping helping of the Rolling Stones (“‘Wild Horses’ is my favorite,” she says. “The music I grew up with. I like any of the Stones up to 1980. After Tattoo You, I kinda lost it.”)
But let’s get back to that sex chat, shall we?
“I think [what I do] is all about modern feminism,” she says. “Not to be afraid of your femininity. To be feminine, totally feminine, not just burning your bra and growing a mustache. Like Madonna—you can totally be sexy but be in control, too. Most of the time, the women in my audiences are screaming ‘One Hour Mama’! ‘One Hour Mama’! or ‘Sugar in My Bowl’! The women want to hear those tunes. The guys aren’t yelling out ‘One Hour Mama.’ The guys look at their feet when I sing that song. They look at me like, ‘Lady, don’t sing that tune to me.’ They do. They hate it. The men hate ‘One Hour Mama.’ But the women love it.”
(This makes sense, of course. Because as far too many of you women know, a “one-hour mama” has no patience for a “one-minute poppa.” Extremely important relationship advice for you hasty gents to keep in mind.)
The fourth of five children, Smith—named after her grandmother—was born in Long Beach, Calif. Her father, who worked for the government, eventually moved the family to the Philippines when she was 12, where Smith would spend a good chunk of her formative teenage years. When she was 14, she would get her first taste of stardom, performing onstage for American servicemen in Manila—and usually rocking out to covers of Blondie, the Pretenders and Marianne Faithfull. A beyond-her-years mature Smith would return to Southern California—to the dreaded Fountain Valley High—when she was 16, knowing two things for sure: that she really wanted to be a musician, and that she really, really hated the suburbs.
“I never liked teenagers when I was a teenager,” says Smith, who, it should be revealed, once sported green hair as a teenage rebel. “Most of my friends were Filipino musicians. And when I moved back [to Southern California], the teenagers were hanging out in McDonald’s. I was like, ‘Honey, I’ve been hanging out with gay hairdressers and big-time fashion designers in Manila.’ I went to Hollywood as much as I could. Not that Hollywood’s that great, but it was better than Orange County.”
(A brief note: Smith may look like she could do some serious damage to a dinner of Jack Daniel’s and a porterhouse, but, as it so happens, she’s been a vegetarian since she was 13. “I was vegan for years, and now I do a little bit of dairy. But if I actually was to think about it when I drank a latte...and think of the crusty, ugly old cow the milk came out of. It makes me sick. I love cows from afar, but when you get up close, it’s nasty, it’s all nasty. The sleep in the eye, and the big old nasty...yuck.”)
Smith’s saving grace from the perils of suburban teendom would be jazz, the American-born art form that would soon send her escaping up the Golden State’s coastline to San Francisco, where she’d eventually meet Siebert—then with the washboard-jazz trio Bo Grumpus—and where they’d fall in love and form the Skillet Lickers, in 1989. (Just in case you’re wondering, the Red Hot Skillet Lickers get their name by combining Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and Georgia fiddler Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers.)
It should also be noted that Smith and Siebert formed their band a good four years before the neoswing craze took form. Not that anyone’s counting, of course.
“When I started listening to music, I wasn’t a music snob,” Smith says. “Teenagers are a lot more open-minded. I listened to death-rock and Bessie Smith at the same time. I got into jazz at an early age. My dad loved Fats Waller. When I hear Bessie Smith or the Memphis Jazz Band or Billie Holiday, that’s my childhood music as well. In fact, I could listen to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, and that would be it.”
The night (or the day, at this point) is finally catching up to Smith; tomorrow, she’ll head due north, to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where the crowds won’t be as dance-mad and more of the focus will—thankfully—be on the music. After that, she’ll return to San Francisco, and continue playing her regular gigs at the Top of the Mark and the Cafe du Nord.
But just mentioning the names of her heroes—soulful women’s-rights revolutionaries that also include legendary singers Ida Cox and Little Esther Phillips—provides Smith with one final burst of late-inning oomph.
“I think that what I’m doing is a lot different from what Dianne Reeves is doing,” she says. “I think she’s a gorgeous woman, but I don’t think it would be appropriate for her to have the same album cover as me, because it’s not in tune with the music she’s doing. The music that I’m doing is much more in tune with the earlier jazz and blues women who talked about sex. I sing about sex. I’m not ashamed of my femininity. I’m not ashamed to be too expressive with people. Jazz is about expressing yourself. It’s a very important part of the music I do. What attracted me to the music were women singing about their sexuality and being so free about it.
“I actually learned a lot about sex from these women,” she continues. “And how to deal with men and sexual issues. To know that you got it going on, no matter what. You know more about your power. When I started listening to this music, and I’d look at a picture of the woman who’s singing it—it was like, whoa! She’s telling it like it is! I love the double entendres.”
The Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” is playing us out of Iggy’s. Smith smiles that smile—sweet and sexy and smart all the same—and walks into the morning. The rain has stopped. The rats have returned to their underground lairs.
It’s just the two of us.
“The good thing about jazz is that it’s great at any age,” Smith says. “I really enjoy the thought of being 65 and singing ‘One Hour Mama.’”
That’s certainly a nice thought. Not to mention a fair warning to all you one-minute poppas. And you know who you are.
Originally published in December 2001