With His New Funk and R&B Album, a Former Hackley History Professor Returns to His First Passion
By W.B. King–
Illustrating the twists and turns of a road less travelled, Eliot King Smith’s forthcoming album, Short Life, Small Planet, is an introspective look into his own past that included 12 years teaching American History at The Hackley School.
“I first saw Little Stevie in 66’ on the TV. I became blind so I could see. I was only 14, a shy little kid looking for someone to be and what he offered me was a chance to embrace my new reality,” Smith sings on the track, “Stevie,” which pays tribute to one of his musical heroes, Stevie Wonder.
The son of a concert piano duo, Smith grew up in Seattle, Washington. The family’s home was selected based on its ability to house two nine-foot grand pianos in the living room. As a baby, he happily swayed in a bassinet under one of the impressive ivory keyed instruments upon which he would later take classical lessons. At age six, he performed his first public recital.
“I was raised to be a prodigy child — the first generation [of my family] to actually rise at the right time and become a great pianist,” Smith told The Hudson Independent. “And that worked until I was about 12 when I heard [at a friend’s house] B.B. King’s Live at The Regal and Aretha [Franklin] Sings the Blues. On both of those albums there are great keyboard players — something spoke to me.”
Having no understanding regarding the complexity of “black music,” Smith endeavored to learn the style, which turned into a lifelong pursuit. “I’m done with the classical and going to play rhythm and blues,” he proclaimed one day to his chagrinned parents. “I was brought up and encouraged to write songs from an early age, so it was a forgone conclusion.”
By 14, Smith had formed his first blues band and nearly a decade later, he was living in London playing with Dark Star, a band that also leaned into British rock stylings. He would later land in San Francisco’s East Bay music scene where he played with Powerplay, founded by Tower of Power guitarist Bruce Conte. From the 1970s until the mid-1980s, Smith became a touring musician.
“Santana, Sly [and the Family Stone] and Tower of Power all played around and I was steeped in that kind East Bay funk movement — so those were my influences,” he said.
The rigors of life on the road eventually caught up to Smith. He came to a crossroads where he weighed the benefits of playing music versus his health and career longevity.
“That was a period of time where everybody smoked in the clubs and in the venues and I started having bad health effects from it — smoking induced asthma,” Smith said, adding that at the time he, too, smoked. “But it wasn’t all about smoking. I loved the road in my twenties, but when you get in your mid-thirties…as life goes on, the balance shifts and it wasn’t enough anymore.”
In searching for a new career path, Smith looked to his parents and sister all of whom answered the vocational call to teach.
“Teaching was something I swore I would never do,” he said with a laugh, conceding that he did teach music to students here and there over the years to make ends meet.
After giving up on the road life, he set his sights on earning a bachelor’s degree in American history from Bates College. A late comer to college, he said some students on campus thought he was a nark, a notion he found amusing. When he wasn’t studying, he played in local bands and upon graduating decided to pursue higher education.
“When I went to graduate school, I was recruited for American studies with a focus and representations in music — a literacy analysis of how musicians and fans are described in the media,” said Smith, who earned his doctorate degree from The University of Buffalo.
A Rarified Atmosphere
Reflecting on his time at the Hackley School where he taught from 2005 to 2016, Smith, who now splits his time between Southern France and Portland, Maine, said he often misses Tarrytown: grabbing a beverage at Coffee Labs with friends or a tasty breakfast sandwich from Bella’s.
Living on campus with his wife, Anne Longley, who taught French at Hackley, allowed the couple to live in a “rarified atmosphere.” The setting “up on the hill” was both pastoral and beautiful, he shared. “We loved the access to so many cool walks and cool places to go in town. It suited us great.”
Sounds emanating from Smith’s classroom ran the musical gamut — from Afro Pop to jazz to blues. He also served as musical director of the Hackley Upper School Coffeehouse, a program that hosted campus concerts.
“I can’t claim a whole lot of credit here. The students are thirsty for community events like this and they drive it every step of the way,” Smith noted in a Hackley publication. “All the faculty who give their time are facilitators.”
One of Smith’s former students, Felicia Schwartz, class of 2010, would go to become a journalist writing for CNN, Wall Street Journal, and is currently a U.S. foreign affairs & defense correspondent for the Financial Times.
“Doc Smith proved to us, through the readings, lectures and class discussions, that studying media went far beyond simply talking about our favorite TV shows. We learned about class, race and gender, and we saw firsthand how challenging it is to produce smart and engaging programming,” Schwartz shared. “Doc Smith sought to really challenge us and to make his classroom a place for smart dialogue. As a history major seeking to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, the impact Doc Smith had on me pretty much explains itself.”
Wing and a Prayer
Though Smith retired from Hackley in 2016, it took time before he undertook the writing and recording of Short Life, Small Planet, a process greatly aided by former colleagues and a student. Band members included trombonist Erick Storckman, who served on the music faculty, drummer Josh Greenzeig, a 2016 graduate, and current assistant director of communications/multimedia Wade Tonken who is credited as producer, mixer and guitarist.
The album, Smith explained, is influenced, in part, by his time in the East Bay. “What I would call a west coast, jazz funk style along with my own writing.” The recording date was scheduled to start on March 15, 2020, but the pandemic skewed the timeline. Over the next two-plus years, tracks were recorded at various studios and virtually. All of the background vocals, Smith noted, were recorded at Hackley.
“It ended up being four studios, two counties and three states,” he said, adding that the final mix of the album was done in Portland, Maine. “I don’t think from listening to it you would realize there were so many moving parts in so many different places.”
A few singles from the album, which will officially drop on November 3, 2023, have been released since July, including a “Wing and a Prayer” that might remind some listeners of Steely Dan.
“It is a testament to the power of pursuing one’s passion and following dreams, regardless of age,” Smith, 70, noted.
Whether or not he will hit the road in support of the album’s release is still being determined, but if he does undertake some gigs, a stop in Tarrytown is likely in the cards.
“I do plan on performing at Hackley again, in terms of when the album drops — I just have to sync things up,” Smith said.Read or leave a comment on this story...