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Donnie Smith
Engineer for 38 Special, the Austin Nickels Band,
Johnny Van Zant, Henry Paul, Danny Joe Brown
Interview by Luc Brunot.
Original version of the interview published in Bands Of Dixie #62 (May - June 2008)
Donnie Smith in the seventies
Probably, you don't know Donnie Smith but Donnie, more than being a musician, is an engineer. And, as such, he worked with 38 Special, the Austin Nickels Band, the Johnny Van Zant Band, the Henry Paul Band or the Danny Joe Brown Band. Bands Of Dixie wanted to talk a little with him to know his biography and, be able to get some informations about the history of these mythical bands.
Hello Donnie,
You are living in Jacksonville, Fl and you've worked with some famous bands from this city. Are you from there?
Yes, I was born and raised in Jacksonville.
You worked at first with the funk band Music Machine. Is it a band from Florida?
The manager was from Florida, the band was made up of people from everywhere.
Next, you went to work with 38 Special. When was it?
I'm really bad with dates, but it was just before the first record was coming out. 76? (Editor's note: 1977)
What was your job?
I was always an engineer, but at first they wanted me to be a drum tech. I was a terrible drum tech.
How long were you with 38 Special?
Less than a year, seven or eight months.
Donnie Smith today
Who was leading 38 Special: Donnie? Don Barnes? Jeff Carlisi?
It always seemed to me that Donnie and Don pretty much ran things together.
Do you have some anecdotes about this period with 38 Special?
One of the things that always hit me about 38 was how tight they were and how good they sounded live. I still say they are the best sounding live act you will ever hear. As far as war stories most of those were things that the road crew did. I would say we were typical, a lot of drinking, fighting and chasing chicks.
Why did you leave 38 Special to join Johnny Van Zant?
Well I had a court date, the judge would not change it. So I couldn't do the tour. Donnie asked to me help Johnny till I got my court thing taken care of.
On the Web, sometimes the first band of Johnny Van Zant is called sometimes Austin Nichols Band and sometimes Austin Nickels Band. Isn't this last name the good?
You are correct, they did spell it Nickels.
Why this name?
A lot of southern rock bands take real names, change them up a bit and use them for the band name. This was no different and it sounded cool. And I guess most of all Johnny wanted to use it.
When was created the band?
I'm not sure, they were already a working band when I met them. Probably sometime 1975 or 1976, but I'm guessing.
Larry Junstrom with Lynyrd Skynyrd
I have listened to a tape from a 1978 show in Orlando. Do you remember the songs names that played this band?
And what was the line-up? I have read on the Web that Robbie Gay (guitar), Robbie Morris (drums), Larry Junstrom (bass) were playing in the band. But isn't there a second guitarist?
I don't remember every song title, "Standing In the Darkness", was to be the single if I remember correctly. The line-up was Robbie Gay on guitar, Marvin Garrett on guitar, Robbie Morris drums, Danny on bass (can't remember Danny's last name). Later Erik Lundgren replaced Marvin Garrett. And, of course, Johnny on vocals. Marvin left the band before the record was done. Erik played on the record. Larry Junstrom was the original bass player for Lynyrd Skynyrd and later he replaced Ken Lyons in 38 Special and is still with 38. The tape you heard was recorded directly off the mixing console or a room tape
I know of course Larry Junstrom's participation with Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special but I have read somewhere that he was the bass player of the Austin Nickels Band. Is it a mistake? Was Danny Clausman the bassist since the beginning?
As far as Larry he was a roadie for 38 before he got the bass gig, so I'm pretty sure he never worked for Johnny. Yea there was a guy named Gene Glover he played bass originally
On this show, was it still Marvin on the guitar?
Hard to say, Orlando is only two hours south of Jacksonville. The band played Orlando a lot. I think it's Erik on those tapes. Don't forget Robbie, he was a smoking guitar player. You may be hearing Robbie on some of those leads.
Johnny Van Zant Band
Were the solos shared equally between Robbie and Erik?
At first, but it didn't take long for Erik to make his place in the band. Erik was the guitar player that everyone was watching. And after he was in the band he was contributing to the writing the so he began to take more of solos.
Does the Austin Nickels Band have recorded songs before they change their name?
I made some live tapes, those have long been lost though. I don't think there's anything out there maybe some long lost demos. Johnny may have some stuff, I don't.
Did you have the same job?
Yes, I did sound, booked the band, handled the club owners. Johnny and I both kinda booked the band. We would get calls from people wanting to book the band stuff like that. I called a lot of clubs to get gigs. Then some agent started doing it.
Why did the band change the name in Johnny Van Zant Band?
It was from the record label, Austin Nichols (the company that makes Wild Turkey) may have had issues with it. I also believe the record label like exposing their tie to the Van Zant name.
Did you take part in the recording of the Johnny Van Zant LP's?
No. I worked on the demos that Donnie produced. We did the demos at Phil Driscoles studio in Jacksonville. Donnie produced, I engineered.
On the demo, were it the songs that were recorded on "No More Dirty Deals" or other stuff?
A lot of those sessions did turn up on the record. I don't remember every song that was cut. I think some songs were added in the studio when the record was cut. But for the most part those demos turned out to be used on the record. I do remember once we got setup to record Phil, the studio owner, had to leave town. Just before he left he called me over to the side and said, Donnie please no fighting or trashing the studio while I'm gone. I said no problem Phil its all under control, Donnie (Van Zant) is here he won't let anything happen. Everything will be ok. A little later Donnie was working on a bottle of wine. He looks up at me and says "I like this stuff it makes you happy not like whiskey that makes you want to fight". It wasn't even ten minutes later I hear all hell break lose. I ran into the break room, were the noise was coming from to find Donnie beating the shit out of Marvin. Me and Johnny grabbed Donnie and Marvin took off running. The water fountain was broken water was everywhere. The break room was trashed. After that Marvin left the band. Erik took over. That was the only really crazy thing that happened during those sessions.
Johnny VanZant Band 1980
On the 1978's tapes, we can listen to songs that had been later recorded on "No More Dirty Deals". Were the others songs from this album created at the time of the sessions?
Yea, I'm sure there was. Johnny and the band had a lot of songs to choose from when they hit the studio. Not everything made that record. I think a few made the second record.
What was the band's reputation?
Just another hard working hard working band.
The sound of the Johnny Van Zant Band was quite different from the sound of his brother's bands. Was it his choice?
Yes absolutely, Johnny did one song of Ronnie ("Working for MCA") and that was it. Johnny came at it from a harder rock edge. I can tell you this: the last thing Johnny wants to be was a clone of his brothers bands. He was out to do his own thing.
How did he react to the death of Ronnie?
Everybody was in shock. To be honest with you we didn't talk about it that much. Sometimes Johnny would tell a story about Ronnie or something they did together.
What were the highpoints of the life of the Johnny Van Zant Band?
I guess for me seeing the band go from clubs to arenas, that was cool.
Were the personalities of Johnny and of his brothers similar or very different?
Donnie and Johnny are a lot alike. Very friendly, always polite to everyone. You never get the rock star bullshit from these guys. Very down to earth; very real people. Ronnie was pretty much the same way.
Toy Caldweell - Dobie Gray - Henry Paul - Jimmy Hall
You say on your website that you worked with Johnny on the two first LPs of Johnny Van Zant and you joined the Henry Paul Band when he left the Outlaws but "Round Two" is from 1981 and "Grey Ghost", the first disc of Henry Paul is from 1979. Were you working with the two bands at the same time?
No, I didn't write my bio, it was done for me. I should have taken the time to proof it better. I have made the corrections. I worked with Johnny on the first record. We were friends and working together for sometime before the record came out. And continue to be friends to this day.
Why did Henry Paul call you when he began his solo career?
At the time I was engineering for a lot of the bands that were coming out of the area. Henry was doing a show in Jacksonville with the Charlie Daniels, he mentioned he needed an engineer. Someone there passed him my phone number. He called a few days later. And a few days after that we were on the road with Charlie Daniels.
Do you know why he left the Outlaws to begin this solo career?
Not really, I know he was ready to do his own thing.
Was it easy to work with Henry Paul?
Yes, Henry was great to work with. He was the leader of the band, no one challenged that. It was very much like a family. We may argue between ourselves, but we always watched out for each other. Henry is also a very savvy business man. All of us trusted his judgment.
Dave Fiester "I Gotta Cure For That"
Guitarist Jim Fish was replaced by Dave Fiester after "Grey Ghost". Why?
First let me say, everybody in the band loved Jim. He is a great guitar player and singer. And just and all around great person.
Henry wanted to make changes to the band. He wanted to go a bit harder more rock less country. Jim was the guy that held down the country end of our sound. He played a telecaster with a b-string bender. He could get sounds like a pedal steel. Henry dropped Jim and brought in David. David was a rocker. He played slide excellent, much like Johnny Winter in his hay day. "Feel The Heat" was more of a rock record, so Henry's plan worked. David fit in really good with band, and more importantly he fit in with Billy Crain. Billy was and still is one the best southern rock guitar players of all time. Billy has gone on to write hits for the Dixie Chicks, Sara Evans and many others. His guitar playing is also featured on these records. David Fiester passed away a few months back. We all miss him greatly and feel honored to have worked with him.
Do you know both Dave Fiester's recordings ("I Gotta Curre For That!", "Jammin' Live") with Bill Hoffman (Henry Paul Band), Austin Pettit (Grinderswitch), Steve Miller (Grinderswitch, Elvin Bishop, Linn County)? It's highly bluesy.
I never heard it. I'm sure it was good. Great line up. Every one of those guys are great players.
Again, there were musicians changes between "Feel The Heat" and "Anytime" (departure of Monte Yoho and Barry Rapp). Why all these changes?
Monte left the band for health reasons and took a break from the road for awhile. Why Barry left, I'm not completely sure. I know Barry had songs he wanted to use for a solo project. There were some differences between Barry and Henry in the direction of the music. There is no bad blood between them, they remain good friends to this day.
I still see Barry often he lives in Jacksonville. He is in several bands right now and has released several solo CD's. Look him up on the web, he's got some really good tunes.
Could you summarize us the story of the Henry Paul Band?
It was a great band. Henry was a great band leader. They were some of the best players I have ever worked with. We had really good tours, The Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top, Peter Frampton, The Rolling Stones. I truly believe had the band got started earlier on they would have been huge. Southern rock was falling out of its glory years .The music industry was changing .Glam bands were getting big. Thank. God it's changing again and Southern rock is making a big return.
"Danny Joe Brown and the Danny Joe Brown Band"
After the Henry Paul's adventure, you joined Danny Joe Brown. As I know, diabetes was the cause of his departure of Molly Hatchet. Why did he form his band rather to come back with Molly Hatchet?
At that time he had no plans on going back to Hatchet. Danny still owed Epic a record. He really wanted the solo thing to work. After the solo record it seemed to be a good idea to put Danny back in Hatchet.
How were recruited the players?
John Galvin heard from Donnie Van Zant that Danny was going solo and wanted a keyboard player so that's how he got there. Everyone else was friends or former band mates.
Were the musicians from Jacksonville?
Danny, Bobby Ingram, Steve Wheeler, Buzzy Meekins, and Jimmy Glen were from Jacksonville. John Galvin was from Detroit and Kenny Mc Vie was from Thomasville Ga.
The Danny Joe Brown Band did only one disc. Why?
It was a one shot deal, if you do good you get another record. Also the label wanted Danny back in Hatchet.
If I have well understood, you were on the road two years with Danny. It stopped because Danny Joe Brown joined again Molly Hatchet?
It was more like a year and a half , sometimes it felt like ten years. The band didn't break up because of Danny going back to Hatchet.
There were a lot of factors that finally ended the band. Danny's health was part of it, it was getting hard for him to keep up the heavy touring. There were also personal problems Danny had. The end began when Danny hit Foghat's tour manager in the head with a tennis shoe because he wouldn't let us have a sound check. He thru us off the tour the next day. He was very nice about it, he came up to me and said "Tell your crews don't bother unloading the truck, you're off the tour". He even offered myself and some of the crew a job. I went back on tour with Henry Paul. DJBB did a few more shows, a few with the Kinks and that was pretty much the end
The Danny Joe Brown Band
Can you tell us about this period? We don't know too much things of the solo career of Danny Joe Brown.
It was short, we toured constantly. It could have been huge, another three months on the road would have made the difference but it didn't happen. It was a great band, and if we had come out of the saddle and sold a million records you would have seen more records from DJBB. But that didn't happen, so it was back to Hatchet for Danny.
What did you do after?
Went back out with Henry Paul for awhile. I worked for some sound companies. Did some studio work. Put a band together, did some gigs. Then eventually became partners in a studio in Jacksonville. This studio is where I met the guys from Limp Bizkit, did the demos for them. Those led to a record deal with MCA that feel apart, Then saved by Jordan Shure of Flip Records. I was the tour manager and front house sound engineer for Limp Bizkit. Finally got out of that and went back to working on my band.
You're now a musician? Professionally?
Well, I usually get paid when I work. (laughing) I am better known as an engineer and producer than a guitar player. But yes it's what I do to support myself and family.
Can you tell us about your band?
My band is recording and writing at the time. We are focused making the record we want to make, more than doing gigs right now. I have two projects coming up that I will be producing. And then there is talk about a tour coming up with a new artist Craig Hand. Southern rock/country, he's going to be huge .Steve Wheeler is in the band (Steve was one of the guitar players in DJB. He wrote "Nobody Walks On Me" [Editor's note: one of the songs of the Danny Hoe Brown Band's disc]) and Banner Thomas from Molly Hatchet is on bass.
Tommy Steele - Jeremy Clement - Banner Thomas - Donnie Smith - Steve Wheeler
What is the musical genre of your band?
It's a lot of things, Southern Rock, Blues, Rock, Americana. I will send you a copy when it's done. We didn't try to be any one thing. We just let the songs develop as we go. When were done then we decide if it will make the record or not. It's really going to be a bunch of songs we like, and we hope everyone else does too.
Jacksonville was the hometown of some of the most famous Southern rock bands. Is there still a Southern rock scene ? New Southern rock bands?
Yes, I see it coming back. Although there will always be traditional country music, I see country leaning really hard towards a new version of country that is straight up southern rock. Southern rock never went away, its fans have always been there. And now there is a whole new fan base, the people who like their country with a little rock to it. I see southern rock coming back strong.
How would you define Southern rock?
It's a combination of country, blues, rock and gospel. But even more it's about the South, most of these guys wrote songs about the life they lived in the South. Like blues I guess, some people have to live it to completely understand it.
Donnie Smith today
Listening to you, country music is an important part of the Southern rock. Do you even find a country side in bands like Molly Hatchet?
Yes lyrically, Gator Country could have been a country song. Blackfoot did a train song, train songs have been big in country music forever. Country has always been considered by some to be a Redneck form of music and so has Southern Rock. Maybe not musically but lyrically I see strong connections. Country people seem to be mostly from the south so yea I do.
What are your favorite Southern rock albums?
"Give me back my bullets" of Skynyrd, "Drippin' Wet" of Wet Willie, anything by Little Feat, Marshall Tucker, Blackfoot, Hell I like it all.
We have been recently informed of the death of Jacksonville's singer Jimmy Daugherty. We knew him as the singer of the Allen Collins Band and Alias. Could you tell us about him? What was his musical career?
I really don't know Jimmy. I know who he is, but I never worked with or hung out with him.
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