.Lavay Smith: Celebrating the life and music of Peggy Lee

Like most performing artists, Lavay Smith & Her Red-Hot Skillet Lickers faced the Covid lockdown with apprehension. Smith and her partner, the band’s pianist and arranger, Chris Siebert, were confined to their apartment in the Mission for most of the last two years, wondering when things might get back to some semblance of normality.

“We were housebound,” Siebert said. “Singing wasn’t allowed, even outside. San Francisco was strict and science based with their protocols, so it was tough for musicians. I don’t like to sing the blues too much, because everybody had it rough, but the performing arts were hit pretty hard. Any place people could congregate indoors got shut down. Then Lavay’s brother, Paul, opened the Royal Cuckoo Lounge. He let me put an electric piano out on the sidewalk. I could go out and hustle tunes, wearing a mask, although the weather was brutal sometimes.”

To keep their name out there, Siebert and Smith started live streaming shows from their living room. Their Friday evening concerts were dubbed “Lavay Smith’s Swingin’ Cocktail Hour.” Each week had a theme—Duke Ellington, Patsy Cline, Bessie Smith and other giants of American culture. They’re continuing that idea with their June 19 Centennial Tribute to Peggy Lee. 

“I love her music and approach,” Smith said. “Her arrangement of ‘Fever’ is so minimalist. Subtle drums, quiet bass and finger snapping. Right up to the end, she had amazing style, with the large eyelashes, big hats, her hair pulled back in a bun and huge glasses. She sang in bands, composed film music, wrote songs and made lots of money. She got to live in Bel Aire and sued Disney for back royalties and won three million bucks. She was a strong woman, a real badass and a role model.”

Smith and Siebert will be performing with an all-star lineup that includes guests like Rickey Woodard, Harold Jones, Suzanna Smith and Lee Bloom. “If your goal is to present swing, jazz and blues in the best possible way, you have to look at the whole talent pool,” Siebert said. “We want people who are good musicians and good story tellers, folks that can make you laugh and cry, and they often do. 

“SF Jazz gave us the budget to fly Rickey up from LA. He’s one of the greatest tenor sax cats around. He’s played with Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. He’s currently in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, one of the best big jazz bands in the world. Harold Jones is a national treasure. He was Count Basie’s favorite drummer. After leaving Basie, he played with Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae and Natalie Cole. For the last 16 years, he’s been flying around the world with Tony Bennett. Suzanna Smith knows a lot about Peggy Lee; Lee Bloom is her musical director and plays piano with her. 

“The rest of the band is me, our bass player Ron Belcher, who’s played with Bandford Marsalis and additional horn players—Mike Olmos, from Etta James’ band, on trumpet; Marty Wehner, from Mingus Amungus, on trombone; and tenor sax man Rob Barics. It’s nice to have them all on stage with us.”

“We’re proud to be able to present such amazing musicians,” Smith said. “The new charts we have coming in for the Peggy Lee songs are full of surprises. If a problem arises, or you get thrown a curveball, the solution always turns out to be a blessing. Some of my best moments on stage are listening to these awesome soloists. When they play, you don’t think about what you’re going to do next, or tomorrow. They put you in the present moment. It’s like they’re opening a portal into your soul. It’s a wonderful opportunity to shut your mind down and listen.” 

Lavay Smith & Her Red-Hot Skillet Lickers: A Tribute to Peggy Lee, with special guests Rickey Woodard, Harold Jones, Suzanna Smith and Lee Bloom, plays at the Herbst Theater on Sunday, June 19, at 8pm. For tickets and more information, go to sfjazz.org/tickets/productions/lavay-smith-in-a-tribute-to-peggy-lee. Videos and more information about the band can be found at facebook.com/people/Lavay-Smith-Her-Red-Hot-Skillet-Lickers,

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