Escanaba Bluesman “Smiley” Lewis and
The Grand Rapids Connection
Written by Steve Seymour with contributions by Steve Yankee
Within the liner notes from Jim Lewis’s last CD, named “Rebel without a Pause,” friend and fellow musician Jay Broderson suggests that “Jim was more than a musician and singer/songwriter. He was a true blues disciple who was into the blues long before it became trendy. He hitchhiked from Escanaba to Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago to seek out blues bars and the musicians who played there. Many times he would be the only white person in the club, listening and learning both the music and the history. Jim Lewis knew the blues.”
Yet all musicians have their beginnings and their influences, and Jim was no exception.
Early Bands: The Brimstone Trio, Beat Inc., The Trolls and The Lexington Project
Jim Donald “Smiley” Lewis was born in Escanaba, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on June 5, 1948. His parents owned a small grocery store there. Jim grew up there and graduated from Holy Name High School in 1966.
By 1965, Jim was playing drums with Hank and Corky Mroczkowski and keyboardist Bruce Douglas in a band called Beat Inc., also based in Escanaba.
Working with Jim was nothing new for Hank. A few years earlier they worked as a folk music duo which soon became the Brimstone Trio, when Barb Frasher joined them.
One of the earliest shows that Beat Inc. performed was for a homecoming dance at the Escanaba Area Public High School on Saturday, Oct. 2, 1965.
Their highest profile job was opening for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs at shows in Green Bay and Escanaba, in 1966.
Beat Inc. was scheduled to perform at a March of Dimes telethon at WLUC-TV-6 studio in Marquette during January of 1966. But in route to this job they got into an automobile accident. Bruce Douglas remembers: “Jim, Corky and I were sitting in the front seat of Jim’s car. Near Kipling, Jim reached behind him to grab something in the back seat and lost control of the car. The car left the road, hit a tree and then a school house. I was struck in the back of the head with a snare drum. I woke up in an ambulance with Corky sitting next to me. Jim’s car was totaled. Hank was following behind us. I spent a couple of days in the hospital. Jim was pretty banged up, too.”
After Jim left Beat, Inc. he played drums with the Trolls for a brief period. They performed at a high school dance on October 1, 1966.
A Kingsford-based band called Lexington Project, which included Jim Lewis on drums, recorded their only single in 1967 or 1968 at a recording studio in Rhinelander, Wisconsin owned by Mike Kuehl.
Jim’s first recording with the Lexington Project
Here are website links for these recordings:
They recorded two original tunes. Lewis and bassist John Heric Jr. wrote “It Looks a Lot Like Rain,” while Heric and guitarist Bill Morrison created “She Looks Much Older.” Most likely this was the first recording made by Jim Lewis.
Tennis Shoe Tongue Band aka “Tongue”
Tongue was based in Menomonie, Wisconsin. The band frequently toured the Upper Peninsula over a 10-year period. The band included Jim Lewis for about one year. He joined the group in 1968, drawn by their mutual interest in the blues. By this time Jim had switched from drums to rhythm guitar.
Lewis moved to Wisconsin to join the Tennis Shoe Tongue Band, which quickly became student body favorites for its blues-based, hard rock sound and interesting stage shows, which the group took on the road around the Midwest.
Founded in 1967 at the University of Wisconsin-Stout by singer/ guitarist Paul Rabbitt and bass player Bob “Hippie” Collins, Tongue was originally known as the Tennis Shoe Tongue Band.
By this time, Jim was intent about learning how to play the blues. To further his blues ‘education,’ he attended the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969, which featured blues legends B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Mama Thorton. The late 60s was not only an era for huge outdoor rock music festivals like Woodstock and Goose Lake, it was also the time when black blues music began to cross over and became more accepted with white audiences. Blues was especially popular with the children of the folk boom era, including Jim Lewis.
Jim Lewis as Solo Artist
Steve Seymour: “While I was in college, I attended a blues concert on Wednesday, October 14, 1970. About 150 young people packed the Bay College student center to hear local residents Jim Lewis and Dave Lark deliver songs by the likes of Willie Dixon, The Siegel-Schwall Band, John Hammond, B. B. King and Tom Rush, along with their original material.”
“I was there to photograph the event for the Bay Beacon student newspaper. It was the first time I saw Lewis or Lark perform in a solo context.”
“Lewis, or ‘Louie,’ which were the names that Jim was known by at that time, had just returned from a stint as a traveling bluesman. According to a concert poster from this same time period, Lewis had spent ‘three years as a rambler, hitchhiking throughout the U. S. with no responsibilities. During his travels he attended many rock concerts and festivals including the Ann Arbor Blues Fest, Bloomington Rock Fest, Milwaukee Rock Fest as well as weekly festivals which were held at Tartar Field in Detroit.’ Lewis had also performed at the University of Detroit, as well as at two Ann Arbor clubs, The Ark and Mr. Flood’s Party.”
Only 22 at the time of the Bay College show, Jim was already maturing as a blues singer and guitarist. Perched on a stool, he played songs which his audience probably had never heard before. Nevertheless, the audience responded enthusiastically.
Later that same year, Jim also performed as a solo act for a “rock concert” held at the Escanaba Junior High School on December 16, 1970.
Escanaba music promoter Gene Smiltneck lined up the best performers that the Escanaba area had to offer for this event, including Lewis, the Riot Squad and the Prophets of Doom.
Greg Tolman of Escanaba remembers Lewis’ performances during that era. “While everyone else was trying to be the coolest group and doing the grooviest songs, Smiley just ‘did his thing.’ Jim was always true to himself.”
Home Sweet / Jim Acquires another Name
Blues musicians have traditionally been tagged with such monikers as Slim, Blind, Big, Little, Sonny Boy, Junior, etc.
Lewis was still recognized as “Louie” on a concert poster promoting his solo performance at the Escanaba Junior High School Auditorium on Wednesday, December 16, 1970.
By the early 1970s, however, friends and fans began calling him “Smiley.”
Marc Maga, who played with Jim Lewis in the early seventies in a band called Home Sweet, claims that he knows how Lewis got the new label:
“We were learning the song ‘I Hear You Knocking,’ by Dave Edmunds.
About a minute into this record, Edmunds does some name-dropping, including Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Huey Smith and Smiley Lewis.
“So I started calling him ‘Smiley’ and it stuck, at least with the musicians that knew him.” Years later, with his nickname still firmly intact, Jim created his own band called the Smiley Lewis Blues Combo.
Some of the other bands that Smiley played with over the years were Black Dog, The Blues Bombers, The Shuffle-aires, Johnny Evil and the Spirits, Electric Grandmother, and ‘Lectric Mudd.
The Blues Come to Grand Rapids
Authentic black blues music is indigenous to impoverished black American communities, and was not widely performed by white musicians until the ‘folk-boom’ of the 1960s. Even at best, white renditions of blues music have been typically derivative.
Grand Rapids enjoyed the presence of a popular black blues band that played regularly at the Horseshoe Bar at 333 Grandville S.W. from 1956-1970, named Little Wolf and the Gullyjumpers. (To read more about Little Wolf see: http://www.westmichmusichystericalsociety.com/lw/)
Though Frank Salamone and Jim Steigmeier (known more popularly as Jimmy Stagger) were among the first white musicians in Grand Rapids to embrace and perform blues music during the late 1960s, there were a number of other musicians that showed strong interest and involvement by the early 1970s.
Some of the local white musicians interested in blues music in the early 70s included Fitz Green, Jim Galligan, John Schwander, Randy Marsh, Wilton Machen, Al Thayer, Heinz Jagger, Ed Powers, Keith Robb, Harry Lucas, Al Hafferty, Kirk Zillmer, Charlie Schantz (River City Slim), and Pat Hanson. Yet none of these musicians were able to maintain steady work playing blues music. Most of them were performing rock and jazz publically, and basically picking up whatever paying jobs they could locate.
Steve Yankee: “Jim Galligan was a great guitar player, but we were doing a mixed bag of music when I was with him –some jazz (Horace Silver)… a little Jimi Hendrix, some blues.”
Steve Yankee and Smiley Lewis were among this group of young men that were working intently to familiarize themselves with blues recordings and applying their creative musical skills to perform this type of music. To most of these musicians, the blues seemed new, exciting, and irresistible, and extremely fun to play.
Blues music was not a commodity musicians could peddle in the nightspots of Grand Rapids until the popularity of blues rock was ushered in during the mid- 1980s through influences like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s and other blues- rockers. Even after this awakening, blues-rock engagements in local bars were low-paying and far from steady.
Steve ‘Doc’ Yankee and Smiley Lewis
Keyboard player and vocalist Steve “Doc” Yankee comes from a long line of musicians. His grandfather, elected posthumously into the Concertina Hall of Fame, composed “The Yankee Waltz” in 1911, which is still played by polka and variety bands around the country. His father was a life-long musician and music teacher, and played a variety of instruments in various groups, including The Michigan Lumberjacks, who were occasional performers on the legendary Barn Dance radio program in the 1940’s.
Doc began his love affair with the keyboards at a very early age. “I can’t remember the time I didn’t want to learn how to play piano. My parents made me wait what seemed like an impossibly long time -my fifth birthday. My big gift that year was weekly lessons; one of the best presents of my life.” Doc’s musical career spans over six decades and stints with many groups, including Fast Eddie & The Smooth Talkers, The Union Street Boogie Band, and the Galligan Blues Band. He’s played in venues from Ann Arbor to Chicago to Seattle to New Orleans, and has toured with Junior Valentine, Nappy Brown, James Armstrong and other blues luminaries. Currently, he is keyboard player for the BMA-nominated blues band, The Vincent Hayes Project.
Steve’s friendship with Smiley Lewis began about 1974 while Lewis was performing around Grand Rapids as a solo act.
“I was also born in the U.P. in Iron Mountain but never really lived there. I grew up in Manistee, but had moved to Grand Rapids by 1968.
“I was impressed by how professional he was,” Yankee remembers, “and Smiley had exquisite taste when it came to the blues.
“Smiley was all about tradition and stripping away the non-essentials… roots blues… except we did a lot of Siegel–Schwall material … they were a white boys blues band from Chicago, formed in 1964… very, very tight and dynamically spot-on. Smiley was fond of saying “Tight is right, and noise is for boys.”
“He exposed me to cats like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, and a lot of the old Chicago guys. If they were quirky, that was all the better in his mind. He loved originality and the old blues masters, and he incorporated some of their touches in his own unique style. Compared to him, I was pretty light when it came to band experience, and he taught me how to work as a real team. As far as chops go, he got me to learn some of Corky Siegel’s stuff note-for-note. Smiley would say, “No sense reinventing something that’s already made well.”
“Smiley was really big on having keyboards for his blues bands, and we took to each other instantly. He taught me a lot, as he did most every musician he met. I think the secret to our long-standing friendship was that I wasn’t afraid of him, as a lot of cats were. He could be very intimidating. Smiley was his own man.”
Initially, Jim and Steve played together in the Jim Galligan Band. Steve Yankee recalls: “Smiley’s girlfriend was attending GVSC. Smiley came down with her from Escanaba and Smiley started to get some one-man gigs around town. I met him when I was playing with Jim Galligan, mostly at the old Intersection. I had just gotten my first electric piano (a Wurlitzer A200) and he was a big fan of that particular keyboard. I remember that we started jamming at my apartment on College SE. This was prior to moving over to 39 Union S.E., and eventually making room there for Smiley and Sudy.”
Together with a second guitar player, bassist and drummer, Smiley and Yankee soon assembled their own five-piece blues outfit called the Union Street Boogie Band.
“We played all over Michigan,” Yankee recalls. “We even went to the U.P and played five nights at Steve Mitchell’s Stephenson Street Distillery in Escanaba, also known as The Still, in 1976.”
“We did a few originals. Jim had written a fast instrumental number we used for our break song. We also used a couple of mine and a few that one of the other band members wrote. But most of our music was stuff that Jim picked out for us.
The band stayed together until 1976, and then reformed as a four-piece group called Bacon Fat. This band also included Gary Everling on drums and Kim Rush on bass.
Steve Yankee: “As I recall, we played a gig at some real bucket-of-blood on Plainfield N.E… Apparently Gary Everling was getting out of his car in the bar parking lot at the same time as one biker whapped another biker with a two-by-four…it really shook him up. Smiley told Gary something to the fact that he ‘was safe…no one messes with the musicians. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any music to listen to.’ But I don’t think that was much comfort to Gary.”
“A year later we started working as the Boogie Boys, doing a duet with guitar and keys. We did that for maybe half a year, before I got married and retired from the band biz,” Yankee related.
“I think Jim and his girl were breaking up at that time, too. He couldn’t get as much work in Grand Rapids as he could back at Escanaba or in Milwaukee… so it was time for him to go.
“He was bound and determined to go and I was ready to let the music and the madness go. He wanted me to go with him but I was ready to settle down a bit. Besides, I had a very good job and didn’t want to give it up.”
Steve Yankee: “I think he ended up in Milwaukee after leaving Grand Rapids. He was playing down there. I think he told me that he got married, but that was sort of short-lived.
“Eventually he went to electronics school and ended up getting a First Class radio license. This landed him a radio station engineer’s job. He also did a blues radio show for a good number of years. He returned to Escanaba in the early ‘90s.
“He and his pal Al Ek and Al’s wife had a popular band called the Shuffle-Aires. They played
rockabilly-blues stuff. They worked a lot in the Upper Michigan and Wisconsin areas.
“But this was not providing enough work for Al, so he and his wife Mary moved to Las Vegas, and Smiley stayed behind.”
Smiley recorded a CD in 1991 entitled “No Explanation Necessary.” Fourteen years later, he decided to create another CD project.
Within the liner notes for “Rebel Without a Pause,” Jay Broderson relates: by “2005, Jim knew it was time to record his songs, as years of poor health were taking their toll….without saying it, I knew he looked at this as his last recording project….Many recordings sessions were cut short or cancelled due to Jim’s failing health.”
“Rebel Without a Pause” contains seven tracks Smiley recorded at home with Jay Brodersen on stand-up bass, four songs with the Shuffle-Aires, and included five numbers from an old reel-to-reel tape recording from the 1990s.
Steve Yankee played on the studio take of “Bad Dream Blues” as well as two other selections on the CD.
Steve Yankee: “I recorded a song with Smiley for his CD in 2005. Originally, he named it Nightmare No. 9. Actually, I wrote the song and we recorded it together, with me singing the lyrics I had written. A while later he called me to tell me that he actually did have a really bad dream and accordingly, he created a whole new set of lyrics for this same song. So he laid his vocals over the existing instrumental bed. It wasn’t totally finished … but it’s where we were with it when he passed away.”
Here’s another song from the same CD with Jim on guitar and vocals and Jay Broderson on bass:
Steve Yankee: “here’s a recording called “Died Last Friday” which I made with Smiley in 2004 or 2005 which was not on his 2005 CD. He plays guitar and drums on it. I did the vocals and piano:”
( ©Yankee Music)
Jim “Smiley” Lewis, who died on August 13, 2005 at the age of 57, was living in Escanaba at the time of his passing.
He had resided in Milwaukee and Las Vegas for many years, before returning to Escanaba in the early 1990s.
Tribute shows, featuring musicians that had played with Smiley at various times during his career, as well as other blues musicians who wanted to honor him, were staged in 2006 and 2007.
An 2009 tribute was also organized by Wendy Pepin, Smiley’s girlfriend in Escanaba. This event, called “Paws for the Blues,” benefited the Delta Area Animal Society, Smiley’s favorite charity. He was known for doting over his pets.
This event was held at Escanaba’s Terrace Bay Inn. The show was headlined by “Big Al” Ek, the Las Vegas harmonica player who had played with Lewis previously in the Shuffle-aires.
These tribute shows were obvious labors of love. They were arranged, conducted and enjoyed by the numerous people who knew him well and loved him dearly.
Steve Yankee recalls the origins of Smiley’s decline:
“Smiley was riding his motorcycle and was involved in an accident with a car. He got banged up pretty bad, but received a large settlement. However, he also acquired chronic post-accident pain and had to take pain medication to deal with it. When we hooked up again in 2002 he was playing an occasional solo gig or a duo with Jay Broderson. I did a duet gig with him back then in Escanaba. I also returned on Labor Day weekend of 2003 to do another concert gig with him at an Escanaba venue. We did some recording for his album during this same trip.”
“At that time, he was dealing with even more health problems. He was always diabetic and ended up having to have a leg amputated. He also went blind in one eye. Yet he could play as well as he ever could! We stayed in touch every week by phone.
“His health problems worsened and he had a series of heart attacks in the spring of 2005. He was in and out of the hospital. Before he passed away, as always we kept in touch via telephone and had some wonderful conversations about music and life. He spoke his heart as I’d never heard him speak it before. I will always miss one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known.”
This article is copyrighted by Steve Seymour and is being used with his generous permission. Most of this article was supplied from the writings of Steve Seymour. Steve is a music columnist and author of the book entitled “Rock and Roll Graffiti.” Steve has written extensively about Jim Lewis in this book and for his website called Rock and Roll Graffiti. A huge portion of the information as well as many of the photos in this article have been previously published in these source materials, which are the sole property of Steve Seymour. Here is a link to Steve’s website: http://rocknrollgraffiti.blogspot.com/
Information in this article pertaining to Steve Yankee and his times with Smiley Lewis was supplied primarily by Steve “Doc” Yankee, an accomplished pianist and member of the award winning blues band, The Vincent Hayes Project.
The short portion of this article entitled “The Blues Come to Grand Rapids” was written by Kim Rush, with assistance from Keith Robb and Steve Yankee.