Bacon Fat (Drums)
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.
Yankee’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.”
More can be found on Jim “Smiley” Lewis page in this website: http://www.westmichmusichystericalsociety.com/jim-smiley-lewis/