The Rhythm Cadets: Clockwise, from left,
Bebo Singleton, Leroy Mako, Otis Smith, Howard Scott and Mark Arns were
the members of the early, vocal rhythm’n’blues group.
“The people made it happen,” Smith
remembered about the success of the earliest Syracuse music scene.
“There were a lot of clubs. Each place was different, but they all
happened. They were black clubs, but they were mixed. The dudes would
come down off the Hill and get into it and be comfortable.”
Smith’s journey picked up when blues
guitarist Bobby Green, who continues to perform in the Salt City
circuit with his band, A Cut Above, brought Smith into the legitimate
gigging lifestyle. Even prior to that, however, Green recalls that
black, teenage vocal groups of the 1950s would assemble on street
corners and sing for female fans; Green’s group, the Eldaros, and
Smith’s Rhythm Cadets engaged in friendly competition, and both sides
met plenty of ladies along the way.
“He was a big part of the music scene
here in Syracuse back in the day,” Green says. “We grew up together;
Otis was a kid in the neighborhood. We all used to sing on the street
corners to get the attention of all the young girls, you know? His
group used to be over by Harrison and McBride, and we’d be standing on
the corner near a restaurant. One group might be singing and then the
girls would be running back and forth; then we’d start singing and the
girls would run over to us, you know, that kind of competition. And
then the people upstairs would say, ‘Get the hell out of here with that
goddamned noise!’ and they’d throw water out. They called it noise, but
we called it music.”
Smith went on to pair up with Lloyd
Baskins, forming the All Night Workers, which found national success
with its 1965 recording “Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket,” a tune
that was paired with “Why Don’t You Smile?,” co-written by friends Reed
and John Cale. However, the band’s popular single couldn’t stop it from
splitting up in 1968, by which point Smith had moved to New York City’s
Albert Hotel, a somewhat famed hangout for a variety of musicians at
the time. After achieving limited success in that circuit, Smith was
recruited to play percussion with Bob Dylan’s band in Los Angeles in
1979. Because Dylan was experimenting with a variety of bands, Smith
wasn’t selected to be a permanent part of Dylan’s lineup.
Smith began to have health problems by
the 1980s, which caused him to return to Syracuse, where he spent time
with family members who still lived in town. Ultimately, Smith was at
Loretto, finally passing away last week after a long illness.
Local musicians fondly recall Smith’s
prowess. Among those particularly moved by Smith’s passing is local
guitarist Mark Hoffmann, who performed in Jam Factory during the 1960s,
and who continues to play with groups such as Lisa and Mojo Filter.
Hoffmann recalls performing on the same stage as Smith at the Airport
Inn in Lake George sometime around 1969.
“He was a wonderful guy, and he had an
amazing voice,” Hoffmann recalls. “He was probably one of the most
soulful voices I ever heard outside of Otis Redding. . . a great front
man. He had it, that charisma thing, where you get up on stage and the
whole room turned to the stage, and he had them from the first. With
the right things happening for him, he could have gone all the way to
the top. But he was remarkable as a singer, and just a real gentle
giant of a man.”
Services for Smith were held at DeWitt Memorial Funeral Home on Sept. 22. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the same day.
Otis Smith: Local, vocal legend left a legacy of fine musicianship behind him after passing away last week. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO