One More Adventure

The music of Sheila Smith lives on.


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Working from the house he shared in Alameda with his wife, Paul Smith has spent years combing through their archives, editing a series of videos that has put her music back into circulation.

Photo by Mike Rosati

Paul and Sheila Smith shared countless musical adventures over the course of their relationship, a near four-decade marriage born in the band of the brilliant Brazilian composer Moacir Santos. An African-American woman from Boston with a strikingly sensuous voice and a mastery of various percussion instruments, Sheila moved to Los Angeles in 1969 to join Santos’s band, where Paul, a young man from Reno proud of his Portuguese heritage, held down the bass chair.

Fed by their commitment to music and passion for travel, their love affair yielded a breathtaking repertoire reflecting their love of jazz, soul, and a verdant array of Latin-American traditions. Sheila Smith’s sudden death from asthma in 2007 left Paul Smith shattered, but their musical sojourn continues to bear luscious fruit. Working from the house they shared in Alameda, Paul Smith has spent years combing through their archives, editing a series of videos that has put Sheila Smith’s music back in circulation via the ever-expanding website www.PaulAndSheilaSmith.com.

A prolific composer and songwriter, Sheila Smith wrote tunes recorded by the likes of Tito Puente and Cuban conga legend Mongo Santamaria. She contributed background vocals on Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book and 1973’s Innervisions (credited on the hit “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” as Sheila Wilkerson). Many of her originals could easily slip into the standard repertoire, though she is just as evocative crooning pop hits (“Killing Me Softly With His Song”), American Songbook chestnuts (“September Song”), and Brazilian standards (Edu Lobo’s “Vento Bravo”).

“When I met Sheila, she was a master of this stuff who had studied with Don Alias as his only student,” Paul Smith said, referring to the future percussion star who went on to record with Miles Davis, Weather Report, and Joni Mitchell. “She got her start with Don in Los Muchachos,” Boston’s pioneering Latin jazz band that also launched the Latin jazz career of Bay Area pianist Mark Levine.

Beautifully recorded and shot with professional quality using several cameras, the videos feature songs from the five albums the Smiths released 1989-1997. Their far-flung musical interests made the recordings hard to pigeonhole, and they ended up reaching fans through emerging online distribution channels.   

“We were so eclectic that we never had any commercial success,” Paul Smith said. “We could hardly get gigs, but we decided we didn’t care, and around 1989 we started producing our own material.”

An accomplished bassist who mastered an array of African diaspora rhythmic idioms early on, Smith rarely wanted for work; he spent years touring with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. Before he met Sheila in LA, he was a footloose sideman who palled around with Beats like Neal Cassady, Lew Welch, and Jack Kerouac (who mentions Smith in his thinly veiled account of his central coast adventures Big Sur). He spent years working in Mexico City and ended up moving back stateside when he heard about a gig with Moacir Santos.

Despite recording several classic albums for Blue Note, Santos’ band didn’t work much, and the Smiths decided to launch their own quartet featuring Brazilian drummer Chico Batera, who had come to LA in the mid-’60s as part of Sergio Mendes’ first trio. When Batera moved back to Brazil in 1972, he brought a tape of the quartet, which led to Paul and Sheila Smith landing a six-month gig at a Copacabana night spot.

They quickly started keeping company with some of Rio’s best jazz musicians. Pianist Wagner Tiso joined the band, and when Batera was on the road with Elis Regina, he would send subs like Nana Vasconçelos, Chico Buarque drummer Boto, Azymuth’s Ivan “Mamão” Conti, and Brasil ’66’s João Palma (pianist Marcos Silva, the future Bay Area institution, was working in a samba band downstairs).

“We played in Copacabana at night and went to school during the day studying Portuguese,” said Smith, who noted they were already fluent in Spanish. “Our goal was to be in with the Brazilians.”

Their Brazilian idyll lasted about six months. They arrived back in Los Angeles and continued their itinerant ways, eventually settling in the Bay Area. Unwilling to play music they found uninteresting, the Smiths stopped performing publicly in the late 1970s, a hiatus that lasted for about a decade. They spent time in Costa Rica, where the arrival of Africanized bees shuttered their incipient beekeeping business.

In their downtime, Sheila Smith continued to compose while Paul Smith learned to play the cello. Smith never expected to get back to Brazil after Sheila’s death, but when a Brazilian journalist working on a project about Moacir Santos got in touch, Smith provided photos and stories that made it into the book. Invited to Rio for a concert celebrating Santos’ music, Smith connected with a new generation of Brazilian masters, and earlier this year he found himself in a Rio studio recording new versions of Sheila Smith’s songs performed by a brilliant cast of players, including guitar star Lula Galvão and rising vocalist Indiana Nomma. On Sheila Smith’s piece “Inspiração,” which features a lyric by the celebrated Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão, Smith included her original vocal track recorded on reel-to-reel tape, seguing into Nomma’s version.

“I wanted to include Sheila’s tapes in the recording, an idea I got from Natalie Cole,” Paul Smith said. “Salgado Maranhão heard Sheila’s recordings and thought she was Brazilian. Sheila was directing every step of the way.”

 

Published online on Nov. 10, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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