The St. Louis Club Plantation.
And Floyd Smith.
Benny Goodman wanted him, Charlie Christian was his friend, and he met and jammed with Django Reinhardt. So why doesn’t everybody know St. Louis music legend Floyd Smith?
I first found out about Floyd Smith while interviewing St. Louisan and star of Earl Hines' orchestra, LeRoy Harris. As young boys, Harris and Smith played ukuleles for tips in saloons. Harris would eventually join Earl Hines’ Orchestra and Smith worked in the bands of the St Louis Crackerjacks and the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. It was while performing at the St. Louis Club Plantation, that Smith began featuring his electric guitar work in the jazz dance band. The Jeter-Pillars’ theme song, Lazy Rhythm, was recorded in the late 1930s and it turned out to be one of those milestone events in American music history, for the tune has the honor of being the first electric guitar solo on a recording. No one could have known at the time, but soon music was going to change from swing orchestras to smaller combos and the guitar would replace the trumpet as the star of the bandstand. And the electric guitar solo would become the aria of the rock and roll genre for a couple of generations.
The sound of St. Louis’ favorite band in the city’s most popular nightclub in 1937 is documented on an Okeh Recording Company 78 rpm record. The Jeter-Pillars Club Plantation Orchestra performs Lazy Rhythm and I Like Pie I Like Cake. This is the first electric guitar solo. The guitar revolution in popular music was still a decade away. And ironically, Chuck Berry lived right down the street, but was well younger than sweet little sixteen at the time.
No one really made a big deal of the pop-culturally seismic event at the time, or how Floyd Smith’s guitar would cause music to change. And this wasn’t merely a fluke either because a couple of years later when Smith was recording with Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy he waxed another historic milestone, Floyd’s Guitar Blues - the very first electric guitar instrumental recording.
Smith went on with the rest of his career while the guitar heroes that came after him took the glory. You'd think that inventing the amplified guitar solo would get a mention in one of the hundreds of those music Halls of Fame and museum-things, but apparently it's not.
Then in 1979, a Guitar Player magazine article about early guitar legends rightfully mentioned Smith’s name, but none of his achievements. Retired in Indianapolis at the time, he felt compelled to correct the inaccuracies in a letter to the editor. Smith seemed proud to say that he taught himself the ukulele and banjo as a young man, but he was modest about his groundbreaking recording of Lazy Rhythm, “I used octaves in my solo. That was the first amplified solo." And for the guitar fans he added that it was done on a Rickenbacker guitar.
"In the Jeter-Pillars band I learned the Hawaiian guitar on which I recorded ‘Floyd's Guitar Blues’ in 1939" he wrote.
He signed the letter proudly with his Musicians Union credentials, "Floyd Smith, St. Louis MO. Life Member, 10-208 Chicago and Local #3 here in Indy."
Certainly the credit for bringing the electric guitar to reign over pop
music belongs to a group of artists like Christian and Berry and others and it's silly to think that individuals can change the course of culture by themselves, but Floyd Smith has never gotten the credit he deserves for his contributions to American music.
And neither did his hometown.
And now the building where he changed music will soon be torn down.