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A Riff of Affection From His Friends : Jazz: Fans and pals of musician Howlett Smith are raising funds to replace gear stolen from him last month.

April 25, 1993|LISA KLUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — At Bob Burns Restaurant, the ambience never seems to change.

When the carpet is worn, it's replaced with an exact replica. Regular customers, such as actress Jane Wyman, claim the tables as their own. And the dimly lit lounge, with its fireplace and dark low beams, just wouldn't be Bob Burns without the music of keyboardist and singer Howlett Smith.

In the 11 years that Smith has filled the Santa Monica eatery with his soulful blues and jazz, he has attracted a steady following. And manager Bonnie Burns considers Smith, also known as Smitty, vital to the restaurant's appeal.

"People come to hear Smitty," said Burns, the late restaurateur's daughter. "Why change a good thing?"

Smith, who recently turned 60, has no plans to retire. But his musical career, which includes composing a lot of the music he performs, suffered a serious blow last month when his central Los Angeles home was burglarized. Taken was almost $10,000 worth of equipment, said Smith, adding that he can't afford to purchase new gear.

Smith has borrowed a keyboard from a friend in order to continue appearing at Bob Burns. But he has been unable to replace one of his most important pieces of equipment. The burglar also took a specially-equipped Macintosh computer that Smith, who is blind, used to compose his music. An internal speech program in the computer took musical dictation and read it back; it also sent the information to a synthesizer.

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Cheryl Harriman is among a cadre of Smith's fans who are organizing a fund-raiser to replace the equipment he lost.

"Howlett (Smith) is incredibly gifted, and we love him," Harriman said. "It's like one big family here (at the restaurant). We want to do whatever we can to help him."

Smith said he is touched by the outpouring of affection for him and hopes it will allow him to quickly return to his songwriting.

"I want to write as much music as I can," Smith said. "I think that there are various types of success in this life, but the one that we measure most frequently is the size of our wallets, and in that way I'm not very successful. But I am very fortunate."

Although Smith was born blind, he was not deterred from pursuing a musical career, he said.

A Phoenix native, he began playing piano at 8. By the time he enrolled at the University of Arizona, he had decided upon music as his major. But it was the sound of the Nat King Cole Trio that made him a jazz musician, he said.

"Cole led me in the right direction," said Smith, who added that he knew he would never be a great classical pianist.

Listening to the great pianists, such as the late Vladimir Horowitz, made Smith feel as if he would never succeed, he said. "I would come back to my dorm room, hide in my closet and just cry," he said. "Hearing Nat King Cole turned my life around. Jazz was my salvation."

Upon graduation in 1955, Smith moved to Berkeley, where he met his wife, Judy. In the 1970s, they lived in New York, where Smith worked as musical director for the Broadway show, "Me and Bessie," which starred Linda Hopkins. Eventually, Smith and his wife settled in Los Angeles.

Smith's songs have been recorded by other artists and a few have even become hits, such as "The Little Altar Boy," which was recorded by several performers including Andy Williams, Karen Carpenter and Jack Jones.

In addition to performing at Bob Burns, Smith plays organ and piano at two churches in his neighborhood and is not about to let his bad luck get in the way of his first love.

"I absolutely love my work and not only that, I don't know how to do anything else," Smith said. "I'm going to keep playing and keep smiling until the last breath."

A fund-raiser will be held for Smith on May 9 at the Bob Burns Restaurant. Dinner reservations and information are available by calling manager Bonnie Burns at (310) 393-6777.

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