One of the most in-demand blues/rock guitarists in the world is a mysterious character who goes by the name of G.E. Smith. Millions of TV viewers know his face -- and the shock of unruly blond ponytail that was always falling across it -- from his 10 years (1985-1995) of fronting the Saturday Night Live band.
For G.E. (George Edward) Smith, a soulful guitarist, composer, singer and bandleader, it all began in rural Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where he was just about born with a guitar in his hand. "I started playing guitar around age four, and started getting good at seven," he says.
"Eventually, the girlfriend of one of my uncles bought me a Martin, a real good guitar, in 1959. Then when the folk music scene came around and Bob Dylan's first album came out in '63, and Peter, Paul and Mary all those people were performing, I got really into that." By chance, he attended a taping of the television show Hootenanny in Princeton, New Jersey, and saw the legendary Odetta and Josh White perform, further inciting his musicality.
On his 11th birthday G.E.'s mother bought him his first electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster, a model that dated to his birth year - 1952 ("I still have that guitar, and there's no sound that I can't find in it. It's so friendly to me, so warm.") By then he was already supporting himself as a musician, playing in numerous situations — Poconos resorts, high school dances, you name it -- often with musicians more than twice his age.
After accomplishing all he could in the bar-band scene as a teenager, Smith left the Poconos to conquer new worlds in the New Haven, Connecticut area, quickly establishing himself as a "top gun" guitarist and hooking up with the legendary Scratch Band, which scorched clubs up and down the east coast during the early to mid-70s.
In late 1977 G.E. got his first break, in the form of Dan Hartman, fresh off his hit "Instant Replay". He hired the guitarist to front his band for a "lip-synch tour" of Europe and the US. Upon his return to the East coast Smith moved to Manhattan and became the guitarist for Gilda Radner's 1979 Broadway show "Gilda Live". Radner and Smith became friends; shortly afterward they got married.
During that period of Smith's life another big break took place when the blue-eyed soulsters Daryl Hall and John Oates came calling. Not only was Smith hired to play lead guitar for Hall & Oates, he stayed for six years (1979-85) constantly touring and recording with them, racking up hit after hit with songs like "Private Eyes", "Man Eater", "Kiss On My List" and others. "It was insanely fun," he recalls. "We were so big that one year, we decided we would perform during summer -- all year 'round! We toured the northern hemisphere in the summer and the southern hemisphere during New York's winter."
Another fortuitous event was the Live Aid and Farm Aid benefit concerts in early '85. "At the Live Aid concert the Hall & Oates band ended up being the house band. I ended up being the de facto music director for a lot of what went on, as we backed Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and whoever didn't have a band.
G.E.'s hard work earned him a commanding position in the music industry as a first call blues/rock guitarist, sought out by major recording artists like Jagger, who, shortly after Live Aid, called Smith to work with him on his first solo album, She's the Boss. ( Smith also played on Jagger's Primitive Cool.) During this period Smith also did a few one-off recordings and concerts with David Bowie, and Peter Wolfe, among other notables.
When Hall & Oates decided to take a long break from the music scene, Smith was chosen to be musical director for Saturday Night Live. "The way it happened was, I knew Howard Shore, the show's original musical director, and producer Lorne Michaels, from my stint with Gilda," says Smith. "In '85, when Lorne returned to produce the show again, he asked me to be the musical director. And I was thrilled to take it."
Leading the SNL band for 10 years (1985 - 95) - it was arguably the best late-night band on television at the time - and G.E. won an Emmy. "I definitely grew a lot from playing with those world-class musicians, especially the horn section. I really had to learn to play in time and in tune. It was a great education."
The SNL roster of guest musicians read like a Who's Who of contemporary music: Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, Rickie Lee Jones, Al Green, Bryan Ferry, et al. In fact, many of the best musical (surprise) moments came when G.E. invited guitar heroes to play with the band, unannounced. Eddie Van Halen was the first, followed by an amazing roster that included David Gilmour, Lonnie Mack, Dave Edmonds, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, and others. The Buddy Guy visit eventually resulted in the 1996 Grammy-nominated Buddy Guy - Live CD, with G.E. and the SNL band. "I've been so lucky to get into these fantasy situations... that happened over and over on "SNL". I got to play with everybody . "
SNL also provided Smith with a songwriting opportunity when Mike Meyers asked him to help write a tune. "Mike had this bit, called 'Wayne's World', and he needed a theme song. Aerosmith was the musical guest that week, so Mike and I sat down and wrote a song that Aerosmith could sing and play along with." Of course the "bit" became a hit film, the soundtrack (and song) a platinum-selling smash hit.
Even more amazing, in the midst of his SNL tenure Smith toured for almost four years with the legendary Bob Dylan. "I would fly home from various places on the globe to do the SNL show," says G.E. "Both Bob and Lorne were very understanding about giving me the time that I needed. I would work with Bob during the week, then come home for Saturday's show." This setup was a true test of his stamina. "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."
During his SNL years Smith was also honored to be the musical director for special events such as the 1988 Emmy Awards, the 1993 Rhythm and Blues Foundation Awards and the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden. The latter event was another of those "fantasy situations" that G.E. keeps getting involved in. "The rehearsals for that Dylan concert you wouldn't believe. I was rehearsing with George Harrison in the morning, Eric Clapton in the afternoon, and Lou Reed at night. One afternoon, rehearsing the finale, I had Harrison, Tom Petty, Clapton, Neil Young, Dylan and Roger McGuinn all lined up and I'm saying, 'OK, George you sing here, Eric you play now, Bob you come in here...'" Smith also has written with his friend and fellow musician Jimmy Buffett. "Six String Music" appears on Buffett's album Fruitcakes.
Smith acted as musical director at the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame Museum Concert in Cleveland.
Following his departure from Saturday Night Live in 95', Smith and his wife, singer/songwriter Taylor Barton created their new label Green Mirror Music.
Smith released his electrifying, high octane CD, 'Incense Herbs, and Oils' in 1998. Between live dates, he has been the musical director and band leader honoring Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. . He also led bands for The Muddy Waters Tribute, and The 1998 and 1999 Mark Twain Awards honoring Richard Pryor and Jonathon Winters which aired on PBS, and Comedy Central. Smith has kept a steady presence on the national scene. Is he too busy? Smith laughs and says, "I haven't slept since the sixties." Rumors are there is a CD in the works for this fall.
Another highlight of Smith's history was hosting an interactive show on the Electric guitar over the internet, on NPR, and a live presentation at for Smithsonian Institute.
1999-2000 brought Smith back to SNL, appearing in the 25th Anniversary show and other guest appearances. He was featured on VH1 in the history of SNL, and even hosted the New Year's Eve bash inaugurating the new Rose Center at the Museum of Natural History, (formerly the Haydn Planetarium).
Smith has played with the broadest possible spectrum of artists, from Red Buttons to Allen Ginsberg, from Desmond Child to Bob Dylan and all points in between.
"I've had an incredible ride in the world of Rock N' Roll and American music," says Smith, looking back over his career. GE Smith is possibly one of the most brilliant guitarist's out there.