Record collectors revive the career of Hyattsville soulman George Smallwood
Tom Noble knew only two things about George Smallwood: He had an awesome record and an address.
Back in 2006, Noble, the owner of Lotus Land Records, a small San Francisco-based label that re-issues obscure disco and R&B tunes from the late ’70s, came across the D.C. singer’s first single, 1974’s “Touching Is My Thing.” He was intrigued enough to contact Smallwood. “I hand-wrote him a letter,” explains Noble. “I didn’t even know he was blind. Luckily, he has a lady friend who reads his mail to him. He got back to me pretty quick.”
Through Lotus Land, Noble tracks down artists, like Family of Eve or Wind Chymes, who pressed records in very limited quantities during the ’70s. He checks to see if they have any copies hanging around in their basements, and, when appropriate, helps the artists sell the records off to collectors. The songs he really likes, he licenses and re-releases himself.
So, after hearing back from Smallwood, Noble went out for a visit. After conducting some business in Pittsburgh, he rented a car and drove down to Smallwood’s home in Hyattsville. “I was going to take some pictures and go through his master tapes to see what he had on the table,” explains Noble.
He didn’t count on getting a show, though. “I walked in and he was playing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Then his friend came over and started playing congas,” he recalls. “I had a flight the next morning and I had to sleep on a bed downstairs. But it was really hard for me to get to sleep with them playing. I missed my flight. I tried to watch as much of the show as I could, but around hour six.…”
As it turns out, Noble was only the first of several record collectors to come knocking on George Smallwood’s door. But just like Noble, everybody gets a show.
George Smallwood’s home probably hasn’t changed all that much since the heyday of disco. On the living room floor there’s a dusty sculpture of a man and a woman in a carnal embrace. The parlor table hosts a large zodiac-themed ashtray, and the backyard is largely occupied by a giant above-ground swimming pool.
And then there’s the keyboard: The Yamaha PSR-510 sits in the corner of Smallwood’s rec-room—a converted garage—next to a microphone. It doesn’t take a lot of coaxing to get Smallwood, who is nearing 65, to climb behind it.
One Monday afternoon, Smallwood—looking relaxed in a white athletic suit, shades, and hiking boots—plays some of his standards. He sets off one of the keyboard’s pre-programmed drum machine rhythms, considers it, and decides it’s the right fit. Then he slows the tempo down some. Then he slows it down some more. “Touching is my thing, what’s yours?” Smallwood sings over a bed of tinkling quiet-storm chords. “I like candy canes and toys.”
He’s practicing songs that he’s planning to perform during a show at Comet Ping Pong, booked for him by Andrew Morgan, owner of the record label Peoples Potential Unlimited. It’ll be Smallwood’s first gig in some time, not counting the concerts he occasionally gives at retirement homes and churches. “That’s the song I was going to open the show with,” he says. “Once they get inside those doors, all the problems and troubles of the world are left outside, it’s my job to make them totally forget.” It takes Smallwood's voice a minute to get going, but once his pipes are warmed up he can croon like Luther Vandross. His Balmy take on the Carptenters' four-hanky weeper "Superstar" flows forth like Kahlúa into a snifter.
When Smallwood is really feeling the rhythm he flips on the keyboard’s metronome, letting the steady click add some oomph to the backbeat. This usually happens around the second verse.
And the music never stops—instead, it just fades away. This is the singer’s preferred method for getting from one song to the next. The keyboard is equipped with a fade-in/out button that, when pressed, causes the backing track to slowly evaporate into silence. Even on his records, it’s rare to hear him stop on a dime.
Then it’s on to another song. “Put on your wings and let’s fly,” sings Smallwood over a the keyboard’s Kraftwerk-ian Latin groove. It’s "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This goes on for hours.
Smallwood loves to talk as much as he likes to play (“I walk with 450 hours of music in me,” he says). But getting details out of him is difficult. He tends to deflect questions or shift the subject. “If you don’t know him very well, he’s not very forthcoming with information,” says Kevin Coombe, who runs the archival website D.C. Soul Recordings. “Since he lacks the ability to see he has to get to know somebody before he reveals details of his life.”
Born in D.C. at the end of 1945, Smallwood grew up in a musical family but had little interest in pursuing music full-time. He drove trucks professionally until 1968, the year he lost his vision. George doesn’t like to talk about how or what happened. If pressed, he’ll say that he “had an accident.”
Once Smallwood went blind, music became his life. He taught himself to sing and play keyboard. Because of his disability, forming a band was a bit of a challenge. So he recruited people who were in his immediate vicinity: his family and, later on, his mailman, who turned out to be a pretty good bass player.
Over the course of about a decade, Smallwood and his group, Marshmellow Band, released six singles and an LP, Just 4 You. None of these took off. “His singles really did not go anywhere,” says Coombe. “They were mostly distributed to family and friends and maybe put in a few record stores. He got on a public access show one time. It was very local. About as local as it gets.”
But somehow they found an audience abroad. Northern Soul DJs in Britain picked up on Smallwood’s songs. “When big Motown hits were coming out people would self-release copycat singles and the British would hear about it. Rich DJs would fly out here and bring them back,” explains Noble. “That’s how all the records got discovered over there. People in America didn’t start caring until after eBay.”
These days they’re willing to drop some pretty tall paper on them, too. Copies of Just 4 You have fetched $1,000. Smallwood isn’t necessarily cashing in big-time, but some of the money from the sale of his old records has made its way back to the man who made them. Some labels have also licensed his songs for re-release. Peoples Potential Unlimited recently re-issued Smallwood’s single “Lady Disco” and London-based label Jazzman will be putting out a compilation album later this winter.
“George’s songs aren’t picture-perfect Northern Soul,” explains Noble. “It’s a little bit different. There’s this extra touch to it. When he was doing that version of ‘Thriller,’ it was this epic 30-minute song. But I didn’t know it was ‘Thriller’ until 15-minutes in. He can take any song and Smallwood-ize it.”
Coombe provides a sharper definition of Smallwood-ization. “He really is Mr. Mellow,” he says. “He takes the song and no matter how much energy the song had originally, he makes it smoothed out and very soulful in his own particular way.”
“They say, ‘George, do you ever do a song the way it’s written?’ And I say, ‘I just don’t hear it that way,’” says Smallwood. “I ain’t Prince, I ain’t trying to be Prince.…Being different, I find, is the hardest thing.”
Smallwood performs at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13 at Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Avenue, NW. $5. (202) 364-0404.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Coombe, DCSoulrecordings.com