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Signifiers, for Free : They play 'blues with rhythm instead of rhythm and blues'--music that the dancers want to hear.


Want to go to a concert? Got a million bucks? Taking a date? Got two million bucks? The tickets are about 20 bucks each, then there's gas, dinner, drinks, rock 'n' roll T-shirts and maybe breakfast.

Back in the '60s when Buddy Smith was playing around Ventura County, rock 'n' roll was more affordable. A couple of bucks for a Hollies' show in Oxnard or a Jimi Hendrix show in Santa Barbara and they didn't even serve booze or sell T-shirts then. Those were the '60s--the years your parents can't quite remember.

Smith remembers. He was here then, and he's still here now. The blues guitarist plays with the Signifiers every Saturday afternoon at Hi Cees in the Ventura Marina. And this is one show you can afford--it's free.

Smith has been in a zillion local bands since he began playing professionally in 1962, and he has done about everything except get rich off it all. The Signifiers were formed by Joe Warner who recruited Smith and also drummer Paul Fasulo. When he's not driving a moving van, bass player Gary Brenner sits in.

Smith has a lot of stories to tell, so without further ado:

What do you think of the local music scene these days?

It's pretty bad for the blues because everyone seems to want to hear all that modern stuff. I can't stand that modern music. Each to his own, I guess. I'm still playing songs I used to play back in the '60s like "Walking the Dog." Anyway, if it wasn't for Blue Monday at Alexander's and the Hi Cees, there's not much happening around here for the blues.

How did you get started in the music biz?

I started playing guitar in 1960 after my dad died. I wanted a telescope for Christmas, but I got a guitar instead. By 1962, I was playing surf music and by 1963, I had my own band, the Corvairs, an eight-piece surf band. Back then we used to play mostly at the bases--Oxnard Air Force Base, Point Mugu and Port Hueneme. We played the whole gamut of music from surf to R&B. Sometimes, I'd ditch school and go hang out with the DJs at KACY (a local station in the early '60s) like Bob Eubanks. That's the way it was growing up in Oxnard.

Then what?

I stayed in the Corvairs until about 1965 when I got "psychedelicized" like the Chambers Brothers said. I formed a group with Alan Thornhill called E.S.P. which stood for English Sound Project. Jim Salzer used to own this little record store in Oxnard. He became our manager. He was doing shows at that time at the Starlight Ballroom in Oxnard. We opened for Captain Beefheart in 1966. Bob Dylan came to that gig, too. We also opened for the Hollies, Them, the Swingin' Medallions, the Leaves, all those bands.

So did you talk to Dylan?

Naw. He just hung out. Pretty soon Salzer moved his shows to the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. I left E.S.P. and started a band called Captain Speed. The Strawberry Alarm Clock from Santa Barbara, managed by Johnny Fairchild of KIST, was our main competition, and Salzer promoted us. Captain Speed opened for the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, all those bands that played up there. Another time, we opened for the Mothers of Invention who held a 'freak out' at San Marcos High School in 1966.

Did you talk to Hendrix?

Yeah, we hung out backstage and talked the whole time he was playing. He could talk and play at the same time.

So what happened to Captain Speed?

I got drafted and that was pretty much the end of that band. In the early '70s, after I got out of the Army, I started a band called Rolled Oats, which is when I started playing the blues. This one guy that used to come and sit in with us turned out to be Kim Wilson of the T-Birds. Then in 1971, I started a band called Blue Midnite. We played at the Cold Springs Tavern in Santa Barbara for years, and we were also the house band at a blues place called Fergie's, which isn't there any more. Since most blues singers don't have bands, we backed up people like Albert Collins, Margie Evans, and Pee Wee Crayton. Then the band moved back to Minneapolis, which had a happening blues scene. When I came back to California, I bounced around in a few different groups, until some friends and I formed the Pontiax. That was about 10 years ago. I played with them for about five years, then I left and formed my own group, Buddy & the System. Out of that group, the Ex-Husbands were formed; then about 1987, I left that group and started the Stepsons.

Wait a minute, are there any groups you weren't in?

A few. I still play with the Bombers now, too, as well as the Signifiers.

So which of these bands was the best?

The Ex-Husbands was a good band. We had three guitarists, plus bass and drums, and the original Pontiax were pretty tight. Now, the Signifiers are doing fine. It's Joe's band; he started it. He's come a million miles since I met him. He's growing by leaps and bounds; sometimes, he scares me.

How would you describe Signifiers music?

It's blues with rhythm instead of rhythm and blues that's danceable. We know what the dancers want to hear. We do a lot of oldies, a few originals, but mostly covers.

What do you like best about being a Signifier?

I like to give away my music to people who don't play an instrument. I like to see people enjoy and feel what I feel in my songs. I'm just trying to convey my feelings.

What about this Hi Cees gig?

Well, it's a steady gig and we don't have to drive to Santa Barbara and play for the door and get 10, or six or three bucks. We get some tourists, but a lot of regulars, too. We'll be there every week from now on.

So what's next for the Signifiers?

Go into the studio and make a quality demo tape, and possibly get an agent. Any band can make it if they have the drive, the desire and the talent.

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