Robert G. “Bob” Smith is a San Francisco Bay Area-born pianist, currently performing in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area. He has played for a variety of clients over the course of his career, from distinguished musicians to U.S. Presidents.
Bob Smith was immediately drawn to music from the age of two. As a small child, he would sit at a table in his parent’s home with a 78rpm record player and play records for hours on end. Needless to say, he went through many records and many record players. His parents were very much into square dancing and he’d go to all of their dances. “Other kids were bored, but not me. I was into the DJ – totally mesmerized. I loved the music. I was NOT like the other kids at all.”
Then, as he got older, he was moved by the family television set. In the ’50’s, 15-minute television shows were the norm and he became absorbed in a show produced by the DuMont network featuring Liberace.”He played this 9-foot Baldwin grand. He just fascinated me. He played so orchestrally. This was before all the glitz that was associated with him later.” Korla Pandit was another player that transfixed Bob. He was a pianist/organist/TV & Radio personality. He was also a composer. “He would come on and play these mystical pieces while wearing this bejeweled turban. He’d look up every once in a while and his eyes were simply hypnotic.”
Soon, he told his parents he was interested in learning the piano for himself. Since he’d often expressed interest in other instruments that he hadn’t followed through on, his parents were understandably reticent to get him a piano of his own. Instead, they rented one and sent him to Ms. Lorraine Bishop. It was Ms. Bishop who discovered that Bob had perfect pitch – a characteristic which can be both a gift and a curse to those who possess it. “She was simply amazed by how quickly I could pick things up. One day, she had me sit with my back to her and she’d play chords. She’d ask me to tell her what she was playing – that’s how this talent was discovered.”
“I chose the piano because it was an orchestra unto itself. You could sit down and be a one-person orchestra. I was drawn to orchestras. The piano could play all the harmonies. It did everything I needed it to do. I was also fascinated by the visual aspect – a big, sprawling 9-foot grand. I was fascinated that this one box could do everything I wanted to hear. I wanted to learn how to make those sounds.”
As time went on, Lorraine Bishop developed cancer and was unable to continue teaching. passed Bob off to Jean Drake. He remained with her for the rest of his piano education.
As well as playing the piano, he’s also proficient with a number of other instruments. “I took up the clarinet and the saxophone. My last year of high school, I didn’t play any piano. I played bassoon, I played clarinet, and I played lead tenor sax. What I would do is take a horn home for the summer, take the books, and teach myself. Before I joined the Army, I had a combo. Don Veca was my trumpet player. He would play piano when I would play sax and I would play piano when he played trumpet. When I’m learning a new piece, I’m never fingering the piano. I’m either fingering the clarinet or the saxophone. My first instrument was the ukulele. The reason I know as many old tunes as I know is because of [Bob’s sister] Marilyn and the ukulele books.”
In 1969, Bob enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for 32 1/2 years – spending most of his time as the premier pianist of the U.S. Army. From 1970 on, he co-founded and lead the Army Blues – an element of The United States Army Band. During his time with the Army, he was also the White House pianist. He played for a total of 5 presidents and their vice presidents from Nixon through Clinton. In 1991, he became Sergeant Major of the United States Army Chorale. He’s also played for a virtual “who’s-who” of the finest entertainers the world has to offer.
Artists Worked With
Over the years, Bob has had the privilege of performing alongside various distinguished musicians. A relatively complete list can be found here.
Bob currently resides in Woodford (Caroline County) Virginia with his wife, Kay Smith. He continues to work in the Washington, DC area at various “open mic” venues as well as many other engagements.
Bob’s main influence is Art Tatum. “I didn’t need to go any further. He was blind, yet he could do…many times, you could hear him and think it was more than one pianist. His harmonies, his rhythms, and his improvisations were light years ahead of anybody else. No one has been able to touch Art Tatum to this day. I also loved George Shearing, Andre Previn, and Nat Cole for his piano playing. I also liked Roger Williams. He was an amazing Jazz pianist, although you’d never know it because never recorded it. He had to put a sheet of paper on the music stand that said “Play the melody.” He had to force himself to be commercial. He was an amazing pianist. I also loved all the classical pianists. Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubenstein…there were so many musicians back then.”
Bob’s words of wisdom to aspiring singers? “So many vocalists are totally unprepared. They don’t know what they want to sing or what their repertoire is. They’re not really in tune with themselves. They need to sit down with a pianist and figure out keys, tempos, and songs. For those that are having trouble with rhythm, work with a metronome or sing along with a recording. Make a song list. Sit down and divide the list into sections such as swing, ballads, etc. If you don’t have all of those things to worry about, then you can concentrate on the music.”
He also has some advice for young musicians. “Learn tunes. Make yourself marketable. Learn melodies. Learn standard keys. It’s very important to know the songs that people want to hear. Do a lot of listening. That is where you will get the ideas for your improvisations.”