Dennis Smalley

Dennis Smalley @ The Bon Accord, Glasgow

Dennis Smalley @ The Bon Accord, Glasgow

Singer

Style:  Passionate, powerful, emotional

Influences:  Peter Green, Jack Bruce, BB King, Jimmy Dewar, Miller Anderson

 Connections

Strong connection with live performances in the Bon Accord

Interview

K: How did you get into the Blues Dennis?

D: The Electric Gardens was where is all started for me.  This is now “The Garage” but back then it was called the “Electric Gardens”.  I was going there to see a band called “Tear Gas”.  Have you ever heard of them?

K: No

D: I’ll tell you who was in the band then and you might hear some familiar names…Zal Clemenson…..Ted McKenna….and the vocalist was a guy called…Davie Bachelor.

K: So this was a pre cursor to SAHB (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band)?

D: Yes.  And Davie became SAHB’s producer but Zal and Ted moved on to become The Sensational Alex Harvey Band.  I’ve no idea how they met up with Alex but that was what happened.

After a wee while they became too big to play the Electric Gardens and the next time I saw them they were playing the Clouds Ballroom up in The Greens Playhouse.  But to get back on to the Blues.  This all happened about 1969 and I knew nothing about the Blues back then.  I was a pop guy.

My mother and father were both great singers and I listened to all the great crooners…Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra and loads more that I can’t even remember.  I used to really enjoy listening to my mum and dad sing these songs on a Sunday night while they were cleaning the house.  You know, dusting, furniture polish….and they used to sing to each other.  They sang duets and harmonised with each other.  The first thing I remember as a boy was being stood up on a kitchen table at Xmas parties and I would sing “Little Donkey” and “Mary’s Boy Child” and the first thing I ever recorded on one of the old tape machines owned by a friend of my parents was a song by an actor.  He was a singer and an actor by the name of John Leighton and the song was called “Johnny Remember Me”.  Do you remember it.

K: Sure.  Amazing song.  What age were you when you recorded that?

D: I was nine.

K: Did you know you could sing at that point then?

D: I knew there was something there but when you were a wee boy back then you never really thought about it.

K: Were you singing along to a record or were you solo

D: Oh just solo. As I grew up I joined a church group.  A children and teens club and they had a tiny stage. Each weekend you got a job and every now and again you would get a chance to go on to the stage and play some records and sometime you were allowed to play the music that you wanted to play.  So at that time I was playing Creedence (Clearwater Revival) and the Beatles because over the years, my mum and I had garnered quite a large collection of singles.  We used to go to this place in the High Street and they used to sell singles at really cheap prices.  I think were from old juke boxes because they’d had the middles taken out of them.  She would buy a few and I spent my whole pocket money on these.  We were buying everything.  Freddie and Dreamers, Gerry and The Pacemakers…I was really weaned on 60’s pop music.

As I got older I got into a prog rock band called Rare Bird and as luck would have it they were coming to play Glasgow, again at The Electric Gardens.  I was infatuated by their song “Sympathy”.  The lyrics are even more poignant today than they were then.  The supporting act that night was a guy called Rory Gallagher, who I’d never heard of and when he stamped his foot and started singing “Sugar Mama” …I can’t emphasis this enough…I had never seen anything like it!  It changed my whole life.  It blew me away and that was it.  The band was called “Taste” and although they played some of their own stuff, they played mostly covers…Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf.  I went to a record shop the very next day and bought his new album “On The Boards”.   And not a lot of people know this but he also played saxophone on that record. And then I backtracked and bought the first album as well and I cut my teeth on that stuff.  The next stage was John Mayall and The Blues Breakers.

K: At this point were you singing along with the stuff and trying to emulate who you were listening to?

D: No, at that stage I was just absorbing it, taking it all in.  At that point I didn’t know I could sing that stuff at all.  I didn’t start singing until months after that and it was a Rock group that covered Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and that kind of thing.  The first song we ever did was Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You Better Than Me”, and I still sing that stuff when I get a chance.  The Buddahs used to play it on occasion, we used to play it here (The Bon Accord). 

Following on from that though I got into every British Blues band.  I learnt the Blues backwards.  Rory Gallagher, Chicken Shack, John Mayall, and the 2 loves of my life…Fleetwood Mac & Cream!  The British stuff really moved me it really struck a chord within me.  I was never into all the standard stuff and this is where some people might have considered me hard to work with in the past but I don’t think that is the case.  From my perspective I think that I can recognise a good song and as a singer I know when it’s good for me.  The thing is, I won’t sing songs that I can’t feel and that I don’t think are good for me.  I think my particular forte with the Buddahs was finding the more obscure songs.  Instead of doing all the standard stuff I wanted to do a bit more than that.  Everyone was great at finding good material but I took it on as my mantle.  An example of this is a song called “I’ll take care of you” by a guy called Brook Benton.  It was so obscure that people used to ask if we had written it.  Now, without trying to come across big-headed, that song has very recently been covered by Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart so I think I had a really good feel for the material back then.  People used to ask if we were a Cream/Fleetwood Mac tribute band and I would say “You’re not listening to the band pal!” There was all sorts of artists we covered…Taste, Butterfield Blues Band, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Ten Years After.

K:  It sounds like you almost went out of your way to stay away from the mainstream stuff.  How did that go down with the punters?

D:  I’ve always said the thing with us was that if you came to see us you would see something unique.  Something very different.  We could pack this wee area out on a Saturday night because of this.  There were regularly over a hundred people squeezed into this wee space.

Now this might upset some people but one thing I can’t stand is the Stevie Ray Vaughan thing that went on and is still going on in Glasgow.

K:  The SRV thing is a rites of passage though.  I think you have to go through it as a guitarist.  The guy was a genius!

D:  Kirk, don’t get me wrong.  I love Stevie Ray Vaughan.  I’ve got a whole section on him in my collection at home but I think people get obsessed and saturated with it.  It was like, if you’re not playing SRV style there must be something wrong with you!

I always demanded light and shade in the songs we played.  A lot of starts and stops, a lot of light and shade, a lot of things that made people stop and look.  We weren’t playing straight Blues.  We added wee nuances.

I think you’re there to entertain and a lot of people have commented on the amount of passion that flows out of me when I sing.  I firmly believe that when I am up on a stage my job is to stop the chatter about football or whatever and to get people to put their pints down and turn round and say to themselves “What the hell is this?”  I like to get a crowd in the palm of my hand and I like to give a performance.

K:  Can we go back and talk about the way your singing developed?  At what time did your confidence get to the point where you were confident in your ability.  I mean, you can pick a song up and do things with it that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  That just didn’t happen overnight.

D:  No your right.  That was a very gradual thing.  What happened was that I was introduced to performing via a heavy metal band.   The band had a god awful name which I hated.  The band was called…”J Arthur”

K:  As in ….?  (Note:  “J Arthur”:  Shortened version of “J Arthur Rank” – rhyming slang)

D:  Aye.  We actually went out with a drum head with “J Arthur” written on it.

K:  🙂

D: Aye.  I know!  I know!  You see the thing about this band was that they were 3 brothers and their parents had died tragically in a car crash and when they reached a certain age they became heirs to a large sum of money and they bought a house in Brighton Place, Ibrox and you would not believe the things that went on in this house Kirk.  They bought this Transit van and we traveled around all over the place playing this brand of Heavy Metal and we even wrote a few tunes.  For a while at least, everything went well but then, as now, there weren’t that many good gigs to be had and the money was drying up and the band kind of naturally disintegrated.

After that I sat down with a couple of the guys I knew, who became “Sunrise”, and we worked out where the money was at that time.  And that was cabaret.  We had the curly hair and the ruffled shirts and we played the Labour Clubs, The Legion Clubs, Bowling Clubs, all these sort of places.  That lasted a good few years and all I can tell you that I was earning more in that band, playing a couple of nights a week, than I was working a 5 day week.  Actually my boss at that time found out about the band and gave me an ultimatum that I had to get my hair cut and stop playing in the band or I was out the door.  Of course, I agreed and then kept playing in the band 🙂

And that’s where that chapter closes.  I finished up doing all of that about 1973, although in the early 80’s I did guest vocals regularly for about a year with Blues ‘n’ Trouble at the old Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.  Tim Elliot and I share a great love of the band “Canned Heat”.

After that I never got back into to it until, would you believe…1999!  I just gave up.  I loved singing and I always will, but I just didn’t think there was any future in it.  During the time with this band though, I did learn a very important lesson.  At the end of the gig the crowds were so drunk that they didn’t care what was being played, they just wanted you to play something…anything…so that was the point where I started to introduce Blues songs into the set.  Cream songs, Fleetwood Mac songs.

K:  Was this the cabaret band?

D:  Aye.  Between 11pm and midnight nobody cared, you could play anything.  And that’s when I learned “I can do this!  I can sing this stuff!”  But even though that was happening, I just started getting a bit disconsolate about the whole thing and just decided to chuck it as marriage and career became more important.

K:  You say it just wasn’t happening.  What did you want “IT” to be?

D:  A 5 piece Blues band with a guitarist playing like Peter Green and me singing like Peter Green.  That was the ultimate aim for me.  And that is virtually what I got with the Buddahs!  All those years later the pain of wanting to do that, because it was a pain, never went away.

K:  How did the Buddahs form Dennis?

D:  When I worked in the record shop “Lost In Music” this guy came in and said that he’d heard from a friend of a friend that I could sing the Blues and although I wasn’t really interested any more, he wore me down and got me along to Berkeley Studios for a rehearsal.  I immediately knew that I had to do this!  There was a suggestion that we might sound better if we had another guitarist or a keyboard player and that’s when I got Big Al involved, albeit reluctantly at first.

K:  Who thought up the name?

D:  Well, I’d been to India 5 times and I was standing in the shop rattling on, as I do, about Buddhism and how I embraced the roots of it and right out of the blue Big Al said “Great name for the band!….  The Blues Buddahs!!”

We practiced for a long time.  Probably about a year.

K:  Why did you wait a year until you played live.  Was it a confidence thing, a perfection thing?

D;  Probably both but there was something else.  It was just great fun to play with these guys.  There was a camaraderie and enthusiasm.  We met every Wednesday night and rehearsed at Berkeley then we moved on and ended up in a wee studio opposite what is now Rockus and we had our fish and chips in the studio and we sat there and talked about the Blues and came up with numbers that we could try.  And that was the joy for me and I know it was the same for the rest of them.  That camaraderie and the ability to sit and hammer things out until it worked.  We used to polish the numbers until they were, what we called, “Buddahlised”.  It was an amazing thrill when we played them for this first time…and most songs were “given birth” here (The Bon Accord) .  We played here an awful lot.  I still think we hold the record for the most gigs played in the Bon Accord.

The band was just going from strength to strength at that time.  We played the Dundee Blues Festival, the Arbroath Blues Festival, Hawick Jazz & Blues Festival, Callander Jazz & Blues Festival and we were on the verge of getting gigs down South.

K: So what was the line up at this point?

D: Al Morrison on guitar, Willie Whitelaw on bass and Stephen “Stix” McGowan and for almost a year, Richie Rinn on magnificent Harp

K:  Did you ever release any albums?

D:  Yes there were 5 in total.  We released 3 commercially and the other 2 were just jams and compilations just for ourselves.  We used to launch them here (The Bon Accord).  The first album was called “Too many Fleetwood Macs” which came from a “review” of the track listing by a friend of mine and as soon as he said it I knew that was the album title!  The cover was psychedelic purple, it was a cracker.  The other 2 were also launched here as well (The Bon Accord).  I love this place.

Too ManyFleetwod MacsWe're Going Wrong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At about the same Jim Ward asked me to play with The Magic Blues Surfers with John Doole, Scott Pentland and Miles O’Neill on bass.  I was with Jim and The Surfers for 2 and a half years and the people that I met during that time taught me a lot.  People like Fraser Spiers, Alan Nimmo, Gary Miller, Brian Carpy, Scott Pentland…they all helped me a lot.  It cuts me to the quick that the Studio One stopped those sessions.  I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have kept going.  The place was absolutely jumping.

During that time I was playing with 3 bands.  I had the Buddahs, The Surfers and another band called The King Bees with a guitar player Henry Riley.  Then in 2005 I left the Surfers and the Buddahs folded in 2007 and that was me virtually finished and then I lost my hearing in 2011 and I thought that that was the end but it was then that I bumped into Scott Pentland again with Blues Power and more so Snakeskin Boogie and he very kindly invited me along to their gigs and gave me the chance to get back up on stage for a couple of numbers every now and again.  I’ll tell you, it surprised me that after being out of it for so long that my voice was as good as it always was.  I really enjoy these sessions jamming away with these guys.

K:  Thanks very much and it’s been a real pleasure talking to you.  I can see that the Blues Buddahs, Blues and music in general continue to be huge part of your life.  Give me a shout the next time you’re heading down to Rockus.  I’d love to hear you again!

D:  It’s been an amazing journey and yes, playing with the Buddahs was the love of my life.  These guys gave me the vehicle to do what I always wanted to do and I love them for that.  They let me be the singer that I wanted to be.  Oh, and I just remembered, there used to be a thing that I ended the night with.  Something I would scream down the mic at the end of every gig.  It became a band catch phrase and it ended up on the albums as well.

K: What was that Dennis?

D: “We are, always have been and always will be … The Fabulous Blues Buddahs”

Links

http://www.thebluesbuddahs.4t.com/index.html
http://www.thebluesbuddahs.cabanova.com/

Date: 28/06/2015

Location

The Bon Accord, Glasgow

Camera info

Camera: Nikon D750
Lens: Nikon 24-120 f/4
Focal length: 28mm
Exposure: f7.1  1/40s
ISO: 500
Time of day: 15:10
Conditions: Interior
Lighting: One speedlight bounced off the low roof

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Comments
  1. Kenny Robertson says:

    Nice one Dennis.

    Like

  2. Classic Dennis. I played with the Buddahs from around 1999 to 2008 and what a laugh we had. Fond memories and I particularly remember Dennis’ eye for a song. We played a lot of great stuff which other bands didn’t touch. I’m Your Witchdoctor by John Mayall etc, Born to Die and Sinnin’ for you by Keef Hartley, Ten Years Aftera cracking version of Leavin’ Blues by Taste, the list is endless. I still have a copy of ‘Blues Matters’ which describes Dennis as Scottish blues best kept secret following our gig at the Dundee Blues Festival I think around 2005. Great to see him featured here and well deserved. No one can do Peter Green and the late lamented BB like Dennis. G’on yerself wee man.

    Link above is to one of our original numbers, ‘Mexico!’. Recorded around 2005 but added to Youtube with some footage years later.

    Like

  3. Odd Sock Willie says:

    Great to see Dennis Smalley’s talent recognised. I enjoyed reading this. Even though I know Dennis well, I feel I learned a bit more about what keeps his flame burning after reading this interview. Dennis has a rare talent and always gave each song 100% commitment. Good photography too.

    Like

  4. Willie was the bass player in the blues buddahs.He and steve were the backbone of what we created.Ihope like steve and al,willie will always be part of my life.

    Like

  5. Lindsey Reid says:

    Love this interview!!! The picture captures who you are too, I think anyways. Just a normal Glaswegian who loves the blues….until you open your mouth and start singing. You’re like a little gem hidden in the sand. So proud of you Uncle!

    Like

  6. Traudi and Eric says:

    Dear Dennis,
    what an impressing biography.
    The extraordinary love to music is visible through your whole life. You talked a lot about famous artists in the interview – we want to say: you are a great artist too, even more, a free-spirit and also a life artist!
    We especially liked your performance in the songs “Mexico” and “Walkin’ In Darkness” – great voice Dennis!
    It was a real pleasure for us to meet you at Queen’s Hall – Jazz Festival and talking about music and your wonderful country.
    All the best to you and your friend Raymond
    and kind regards from Tirol / Austria
    Eric and Traudi

    Like

  7. Stephen 'sticks' McGowan says:

    All you Dennis fans may enjoy this: https://www.dropbox.com/s/trag0t44avy554x/i%27m%20your%20witchdoctor_track1.aiff?dl=0

    This is a previously unheard (apart from those who were there on the night) live version of ‘I’m Your Witchdoctor’ recorded at The Bon Accord circa 2005.

    Like

  8. Stephen 'sticks' McGowan says:

    Here is another treat for fans of Dennis, an original studio track from the Blues Buddahs, first recorded around 2003 although I’m not altogether sure. It was first on our Middlemuir EP but also appeared on the ‘We’re Going Wrong’ album shown above, our last. And a daft wee video to go with it showing the band having a carry on https://vimeo.com/115795312

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Davy Gallagher says:

    Everything I know about the blues, I know because of Dennis. I’m sorry I’ve not seen him in so long.

    Like

  10. Sven Kalweit says:

    Great to see you made it here. Hope you will perform in the Finnegan again. Gretings from Germany

    Like

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