Mean and Lowdown

Lavay Smith and her Skillet-Licking crew deftly balance attraction and aggression.

You can trace the appeal of Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers to myriad sources — the high-quality musicianship, Smith’s appealingly retro singing style, or her high-voltage charisma. You could also note that she’s hot: Critics tend to focus on her glamorous vintage outfits, buxom beauty, and simmering sexuality.

Fall for her if you dare, but be prepared for Tough Love.

“I was inspired by the strong female blues divas of the ’20s and ’30s,” Smith explains. “I started collecting the CDs Rosetta Reitz put out on her Rosetta label in the ’80s. She put together compilations documenting the contributions women made to jazz and the blues from the ’20s through the ’50s. The first one was Mean Mothers: Independent Women’s Blues. There was an attitude and a power those women had that was true to my heart. I do sing a tender ballad on occasion, but I love the Mean Mothers.”

She also emulates them. “Those blueswomen were very open about their sexuality,” adds Chris Siebert, the Skillet Lickers’ pianist and musical director. “They were probably able to get away with it because they were African American and overlooked or ignored by the mainstream. The lyrics were full of double entendre, but it was sung for the women, not the men. Lavay’s style is a link to that tradition and if you get the women to listen, the men will follow.”

Born in Los Angeles, Lavay spent her teenage years in the Philippines, where she sang with new wave and rock ‘n’ roll cover bands at the tender age of fourteen. Back stateside, she finished high school and tried a few Los Angeles singer-songwriter coffeehouse gigs before fleeing to San Francisco. “In 1989, I was singing on the streets with guitarist Craig Ventresco — who later did the music for the movie Crumb — and percussionist Pete Devine,” she recalls. “They both collected old records and knew all the songs I knew by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and the Mean Mothers. When we got a gig in a club, we hired Chris to play piano, and the band just grew from there.”

From the early days at the Tenderloin’s Blue Lamp, the audience loved Smith’s singing, attitude, and wardrobe. “I love the style of the ’30s and ’40s, but I was dressing like that as a matter of economics,” she admits. “I’d go to the clothes-by-the-pound bin and buy old dresses.”

Slowly, word got around that there was a singer doing stuff by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Esther Phillips, and Dinah Washington. “We were all fanatics about that early jazz and blues stuff,” Siebert says. “It was our hobby, our passion, our job, and our life. And unbeknownst to us, there was a whole world of musicians still living in San Francisco that were around when the stuff was first created.”

Smith and the Skillet Lickers migrated from the Tenderloin to North Beach, and finally to the trendy Market Street joint Cafe du Nord. Their incredible musicianship, a repertoire that blended blues and swing standards with risqué original tunes, and Smith’s smoldering stage presence attracted an audience of punks, indie rockers, blues fans, swing dancers, blues aficionados, and hipsters. Along the way, they picked up sidemen like clarinetist Vince Cattolica (whom Benny Goodman adored), Leon Oakley (who played cornet for Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band), and trumpeter Allen Smith (from Duke Ellington’s band). “People often mention the fact that we’re racially integrated, but it’s rare to see a band integrated agewise,” Siebert notes. “We have people from twenty to eighty, and it’s a big part of the story of the band. The veteran musicians who have always been the core of our band set very high standards for us. They were our teachers, and they have made our band unique.”

Smith and the Skillet Lickers played every Saturday night at the Du Nord for ten years, and put out two albums, One Hour Mama and Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout Miss Thing, the latter spending twenty weeks on the Billboard jazz chart, peaking at #10. (The band is currently recording a follow-up.) During the mercifully brief late-’90s swing revival, multiple labels courted Lavay and her crew; they refused all offers. “When the guy from Rounder found out we were already outselling everyone on their label, he gave up,” she recalls.

That trend is long dead, of course, but the Skillet Lickers’ exuberant nostalgia remains timeless and boundless, easy on the eyes but nonetheless mean as hell.

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