G.E. Smith once joked that he hadn’t slept since the 1960s.
Don’t laugh. That might actually be closer to the truth than you could imagine, considering that Smith has crammed in more music and more gigs with some of the world’s most notable musicians than seems humanly possible.
It’s no wonder, as Smith long ago established himself as one of the most prolific guitarists in the nation, and one of the most sought-after musicians, songwriters and musical directors in the industry.
And while most music fans simply know him as the floppy-haired guitar player who fronted the Saturday Night Live band for a decade, Smith actually has a resume that most musicians can only dream about.
George Edward Smith’s stint on SNL proved to be a guitarists goldmine, setting him up with jam sessions with a variety of the show’s musical guests — everyone from Eddie Van Halen and David Gilmour, to Buddy Guy and Lonnie Mack. But Smith was hardly a new kid on the block when he took over as SNL’s musical director in 1985.
Born in rural Pennsylvania, Smith took to the guitar pretty much from the start.
“I started playing around the age of four, and started getting good at seven,” he says on his official website. “Eventually, the girlfriend of one of my Uncles bought me a Martin, a real good guitar, in 1959. Then when folk the music scene came around and Bob Dylan was first performing, I got really into that.”
The 1952 Fender Telecaster his mother gave him as a birthday present when he was 11 started a love affair with that particular guitar — although Smith is known for his extensive collection of vintage electric and acoustic guitars. It seems fitting, however, that Fender now has a G.E. Smith signature Telecaster on the market.
Smith eventually made his way to the East Coast, where he made his way through music clubs and found himself on a world tour with singer/songwriter Dan Hartman. Finding himself in New York, Smith took a job playing on Broadway in “Gilda Live,” featuring original SNL cast member Gilda Radner, his future wife.
Smith was making noise in the music business by then and caught the eye of Daryl Hall and John Oates, one of the era’s most successful pop hit makers who hired Smith in 1979 for what would be a six-year stint.
Hall & Oates took a break in 1985, leaving Smith looking for a new job. His ties to Radner and the SNL braintrust helped land him the job of musical director.
“I’ve been so lucky to get into these fantasy situations,” he said. “That happened over and over on ‘SNL.’ I got to play with everybody.”
But Smith wasn’t one to settle for one gig, even one which won him an Emmy. In what proved to be a frenzied series of years, Smith also found himself playing in Bob Dylan’s band, forcing him to juggle his TV duties and guitar duties with the legendary singer/songwriter.
“During one particularly tough period, I played a stadium concert in Sao Paulo, Brazil, flew back to New York for SNL, then flew to Rio to play several concerts with Bob, flew back that Saturday, then flew to London for a week of concerts with Bob, came back to New York, then met the band for concerts in Paris,” he said.
Touring with Dylan led to more opportunities, and Smith has since been called on as musical director for a number of high-profile events, including the Emmy Awards and Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. It found him on stage with giants like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Roger McGuinn.
Smith also founded Green Mirror Music with his current wife, Taylor Barton, and has continued to write, play and direct on a variety of projects — including the West Coast band Moonalice and more recent gigs touring with Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna and Roger Waters on his “The Wall Live” world tour that launched last fall.
But ultimately, Smith’s career is one of those that’s impossible to sum up, particularly as he’s still out there and still waiting to get some sleep.
Sorry G.E., but we hope that won’t be for some time.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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