Scorching blues and soul collective has been tearin’ the roof off Harvelle’s for nearly two decades
By Michael Aushenker
Harvelle’s Santa Monica has been a home to the blues since 1931, but it’s doubtful any of its recent acts has had quite the longevity of the Blowin’ Smoke Rhythm & Blues Band — regulars at the venue for 19 years, going on 20 after the New Year.
These days, Blowin’ Smoke gig twice a month at Harvelle’s. Their next engagement, featuring soulful singers the Fabulous Smokettes, comes Saturday night.
“The reason why we have longevity is that our approach to playing is very close to Bruce Springsteen’s: it’s all high energy; we put our soul into it,” said the band’s leader, vocalist and bassist Larry “Fuzzy” Knight.
What Blowin’ Smoke — with Dave ‘the Rave’ Rutchinski on guitar, Carl Thomson on drums and Jan Garfinkle on keyboards — put their soul into is performing everything from early music by James Brown, Etta James and Aretha Franklin to classic tunes by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.
Originals are not a priority, Knight said, because Blowin’ Smoke follows the genre tradition in which many a blues artist “covers a lot of music that’s been written and already recorded, but what makes each artist’s version is the treatment. Ours are all re-arranged and done Blowin’ Smoke style.”
Self-described “St. Louis blues-soul man” Knight, 70, grew up in Missouri at a time when Albert King, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry and Little Milton used to tear up the clubs and be broadcast live over KATZ (“The Sweet Sixteen”), a local black radio station broadcasting live from hip joints such as the Moonlight Lounge or Midtown Lounge.
“I was so curious. I snuck out and snuck into the black clubs,” Knight recalled of how, at age 16, he needed a permit to play bass for King and Jackie Brenston (who, with Ike Turner, recorded “Rocket 88,” the first rock-slanted R&B record out of Memphis’ legendary Sun Records).
As a kid, Knight loved “Shine on Me,” “Turn on Your Love Light” and everything else Bobby Bland recorded. “His voice was gruff and yet there was a beautiful sound to this tonality,” Knight said. “His music was recorded with a lot of horns and a lot of drive.”
Cut to 1995, when a saxophonist friend convinced original Harvelle’s owner Reiner Beck to give Knight’s newly formed band a break, and thus Blowin’ Smoke began its long association with the club.
“We couldn’t fit on the bandstand, so we separated the horn players and put them on the floor,” Knight recalled, laughing.
Three original members of his 11-piece collective have remained since day one — his horn section: tenor sax men Tom Morgan and Jim Thompson, and tenor sax and trumpet player Johnny V. Knight sometimes employs a fourth seat in this department, either a baritone sax or a trombonist.
Blowin’ Smoke typically opens a show with a big band instrumental, warming up for the hot stuff featuring the Smokettes: Lyrica Garrett, LaQuita Davis and Dwanna Parker, a.k.a. Madame D.
Discovered at 17 by Tina Turner, who took her on as a backup singer, Garrett went on to sing behind Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn and Luther Vandross. She likes performing “Lady Marmalade” and a slow rendition of “Dr. Feelgood.”
Davis’ signature numbers include “It Won’t Be Long” and “You’re No Good,” while Madame D does one crazy twist on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.”
“They are scorching. They’re sexy, they’re sassy, and they are entertaining!” Knight said of his female frontline.
Knight, who from 1971 to 1981 played in the rock band Spirit, loves playing Z.Z. Hill’s “Stop You from Giving Me the Blues” and Wilson Pickett’s “99 and a Half.”
Over the years, venues on the blues circuit have diminished and continue to languish. Yesteryear’s Long Beach Blues Festival, which Blowin’ Smoke used to look forward to each year, is now in the rear-view mirror of music history. Ditto B.B. King’s Universal City club and, any day now, the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip.
Thank goodness for Harvelle’s Santa Monica, Knight said: “It’s funky, it’s got an old-time blues club feeling, like a juke joint. It’s darkly lit and it holds 130 people at a time. People just know that’s where you go if you want to hear rhythm-and-blues music.
In addition to a 2001 live album recorded at B.B. King’s called “Beyond the Blues Horizon,” Blowin’ Smoke is readying a new studio album for 2015.
Knight concedes that with most practitioners of his genre these days, if you’ve heard one song you’ve heard the whole set: “Nine out of 10 blues bands sound like that to me.”
Blowin’ Smoke, he said, has more to offer. “If you like to dance, you’re gonna dance your brains out!”
Blowin’ Smoke & the Fabulous Smokettes perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Harvelle’s, 1432 4th St., Santa Monica. Cover is $10, plus a two-drink minimum. Call (310) 395-1676 or visit harvelles.com.