Steve Mann borrowed a harmonica from me back in 1966. At the time we were both playing with the City Lights (along with Vic Smith on guitar, Llyn Foulkes, the painter, on drums and Frank Sommers on bass). In matters non-musical, Steve was often scatter brained so it wasn't news when he told me he lost my harp. In 1966, I was a door-to-door peddler so a harmonica, at about $2.50, represented a quarter of my daily income. The City Lights were playing Bido Lito's in Hollywood and it was typical for the band to gross $15.00 for the night. But Steve was also playing union studio gigs with Sonny and Cher, among other things. He would sit in a finger picking section with guys like Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel, reading charts. Listen closely to some of those Sonny and Cher cuts and you'll hear some smoke in the mix. It's Steve, Barney and Kenny. So one night Steve called and said "meet me at Nashville West on Melrose in Hollywood, I'm doing a date with Sonny Bono". Somehow I ended up sitting with Cher in the studio, watching Sonny run the big show. It wasn't a terribly memorable song they did that night but the Local 47 pay rate for Steve was $65.00! Huge money back in the day. Afterwards, Steve and I went to a shoe store where he bought himself some Beatle boots. Then he took me to Wallach's Music City, at Hollywood and Vine, and bought me a new harmonica. Finally, we drove to the Melrose Apartments where Steve had a tiny bachelors flat. He pulled out the guitar and taught me the line for "Jive Samba". We jammed on it for hours. Steve's jazz influences always turned heads. It's one of the influences he seamlessly incorporates into his blues chops as well as anyone I've heard.
Steve isn't really a group type player. His take on a tune is so personal and idiosyncratic that he shines as a solo performer but a band tends to get in his way, impede his improvisational genius. Also, some nights, his sense of time is his own. Eventually, the City Lights fired him. We all converged on the Melrose Apartments and let him go. I was the dissenting vote but I knew the guys were right, and Steve knew it, too. It just wasn't the right format for Steve's brilliance.
I did a few duo gigs with Steve but, after awhile, he drifted North and I lost touch with him for over 20 years. I thought he had died until, one night, in 1983 I was playing at the Breakaway in Venice, CA with a band called Mindless and there on the stage, doing a solo warm up for us, was Steve. He looked up as I walked in and said, without dropping a beat, "Rick Smith, got your harps?" We hadn't seen each other for decades but when I walked in he made it sound like I was just a little late for the gig. Turned out Steve was back in Los Angeles and living in some Westside board and care.
Steve is like that, he welcomes you to his world, whether it be from the stage or from a table at a coffee shop. He can make you feel like a long lost brother, one he's been expecting… He welcomes you but, in many ways, you can only knock on his door, you can't truly enter. He wants to be a generous spirit, he wants to invite everyone to his party. As a young man, Steve's between song patter was punctuated with hip allusions and references to cutting edge literary and comic sources, such as Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. Over the years though, Steve's world has become very exclusive and even more private. I don't think he's ever driven a car and, then, there are word finding and organization problems, the residuals of decades of neurological and associated misadventures. Basically, he doesn't get out much.
In 1970, Mike Perlown, the guitarist who now plays Stravinsky and Bartok on the pedal steel, approached me with a tape he had acquired and which had been made in 1967, on a poor quality portable cassette deck placed on a table during a Steve Mann appearance at Los Angeles' famed Ash Grove. The sound quality was terrible but the performance was so stunning, so thrilling that I decided I had to put it out on an LP. Using 1970 technology. John Lyon did his best to address the hiss, the crackling, the distracting warbling and pitch variances inherent to the amateur recording. It still had a lot of sound problems but I put it out anyway, in March, 1975; as "Steve Mann, Live At the Ash Grove." I think 500 copies were pressed but the printer was short on the cover run so some of the vinyls languished in paper sleeves. The reviews were great. The Guitar Player Magazine piece, in March, 1977, generated many mail order sales. I peddled the LP to retail stores in New York, Boston, Berkeley and Los Angeles and the tiny pressing sold out quickly. Over the years, critics and supporters have turned all three of Steve's LP's into cult classics; Unauthorized tapes and MP-3s are making the rounds among collectors. All the LP's are out of print and scarce. Janet Smith produced a CD, "Alive and Pickin", in 2005; it includes some of the songs from the Blue Goose release, Elephant Song, along with duets with Janet Joplin and some other rescued basement tapes. Janet has been the impetus for reissuing "Live At the Ash Grove", as well as "Straight Life" which is in the planning stages.
Steve became the bluesman he always wanted to be. He paid a dear price for his legacy and is now, as are many, down on his luck. It is time to honor the contributions he has made to preserving and interpreting the music that he loves. In his catalogue, there are some lovely and moving original pieces, like "Holly" but, for me, Steve's major impact has more to do with taking a known song and putting a stamp on it that stops you in your tracks. Someone said "if Ray Charles played guitar, it might sound something like this…" Steve is one of the rare interpreters who might actually transform the original artist and that says a lot.
Finally, I need to say, Steve is a kind and generous spirit. He gives credit, he makes others feel included and important. He remembers people he played with years before and acknowledges them with praise and affection. Anyone who played with him or heard him in some club or restaurant will never forget him. Here is your chance to share in a truly remarkable set that, by all odds, should have been entirely lost and forgotten had some stranger not decided to turn on a portable Sony in a dark Los Angeles night club in 1967.
Rick Smith plays with Mescal Sheiks (firstname.lastname@example.org).