I spent quite a few of my earliest evenings on this planet inside the Cairo Supper Club.
Located on Sheridan Road just north of Irving Park in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, it was a classy restaurant where my mother worked long and hard waiting tables. I often tagged along to practice my head-first Jungle Jim Rivera slide on the slickly polished dance floor before they opened the doors, play my favorite songs on the jukebox (everything from Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” to “My Bonnie” by some unknown group called the Beatles), and dazzle the Cubs players that occasionally dined there with my encyclopedic knowledge of their meager stats (must have made those free steaks taste yummy). The spacious joint was located three blocks from Wrigley Field, and Cairo owner Bill Anastos encouraged them to hang out.
If I got to stick around late, which didn’t happen very often because I was barely in grade school and needed my sleep, I dug the lounge bands that were the main attraction most nights (probably influencing my future career path, for better or worse). Of all the combos such as Bill Skully & the Dynatones and the Pepper Pots that headlined at the Cairo along with the magicians and hypnotists then in vogue (Marshall Brodien, later Wizzo the Clown on Bozo’s Circus and pitchman for TV’s Magic Cards, was a frequent attraction from 1961 on), the hottest, hands down, was Tony Smith & the Aristocrats.
The ever-smiling drummer drove his quartet uncommonly hard and knew how to entertain a crowd with his humorous antics. He drew throngs whenever he was there until the joint was firebombed out of existence in 1964. Losing his regular gig didn’t slow Smith down. A half century later, he still delighted in entertaining the folks that came to see his show one Friday evening a month at Chambers, a supper club in northwest suburban Niles.
His first-call group long included his son Alonzo on piano, saxist Diane “Lil’ Sax” Ellis (niece of society band leader Morris Ellis), and bassist Jim Pryor. Seated behind drums illuminated with Christmas lights, Tony’s repertoire ranged from Motown to lounge standards, with occasional forays into country and rock and roll. The credo remained consistent with his Cairo days: to have a good time and encourage patrons to do the same.
Born in St. Louis on July 28, 1926, Alonzo “Tony” Smith picked up the sticks while attending Sumner High School. “My drum instructor was David Ricco from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. I was in my teens,” says Tony. “Gene Krupa and Cozy Cole, those were my two big influences.” The Gateway City boasted its share of swinging music emporiums, but Tony left it behind after a half year of study at a St. Louis college.
“I came to Chicago in 1947,” he says. “What brought me here was my brother. He was the superintendent of schools in St. Louis, and he traveled a lot. And he used to tell me about all the different places. So he made Chicago sound real exciting. And I said I could come to Chicago, form my own band, and do pretty good. I was inspired by my brother.”
But S.L. Smith couldn’t help much when his younger sibling made his big move. “When I first came to Chicago, I didn’t know nobody. So they told me to go to the YMCA,” says Tony. “I went down there and I got a room, I guess for about six or seven dollars. And then I saw a sign put up on a bulletin board saying ‘Home for rent, 1635 St. Lawrence.’ And that’s where I went. Got the room. The landlady, Mrs. Birch, liked me because I was ambitious.”
It didn’t take long for Smith to put together his first band with the help of pianist Harold Youngblood. “I wasn’t old enough to sign the contract,” says Tony. “He was well-known in Chicago. And he was the one that signed my first contract. I was put at the Whip. I went out there for an audition, and Harold Youngblood went out there with me.”
They always dressed in tuxedos, suits, and handkerchiefs, and had boutonnieres. I would look at movies of people overseas, over in London, England, wearing those aristocratic suits and boutonniere ties. “So I said, ‘I’m gonna name us Tony Smith & the Aristocrats!
The Whip was a Polish lounge located at 4334 N. Pulaski on Chicago’s Northwest Side, hardly prime gigging territory for an African-American combo. “I think Frank Yankovic was one of the bands that worked there,” notes Smith. Along with Youngblood, Tony recruited guitarist Lynn Sherrill, born in Dallas on February 28, 1918, from the black musicians union hall on the South Side. “Lynn was just hanging around,” he says. “He said, ‘I’ll go out there with you on that one.’”
Tenor saxophonist Bill Casimir rounded out the new combo. The New Orleans native, likely born in 1916, was a more experienced hand. In 1946-47, following his discharge from the Navy, he backed Chicago blues stars Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Arbee Stidham, Eddie Boyd, Rosetta Howard, and Jump Jackson in the studio with A&R man Lester Melrose at the helm (Casimir’s guitarist brother Sam also did his share of sideman dates).
“One day I was down at the union, and I ran into Bill,” says Smith. “Bill said, ‘Sure, I’ll come out there with you.’” The lineup was set and a regular booking secured. Conjuring up a catchy name for the combo proved no problem. “We always dressed real good. And I liked guys like Duke Ellington, Count Basie,” says Tony, who also cites Cab Calloway as a favorite bandleader. “They always dressed in tuxedos, suits, and handkerchiefs, and had boutonnieres. I would look at movies of people overseas, over in London, England, wearing those aristocratic suits and boutonniere ties.
“So I said, ‘I’m gonna name us Tony Smith & the Aristocrats!’”
The Whip turned out to be the first of Smith and his Aristocrats’ longterm residencies. “We stayed out there for nine years, me and Bill Casimir,” says Tony. “Harold couldn’t stay with the band. He could only stay for about a month because the bar wasn’t paying enough money. Because Harold had a couple of children, and he and Lynn were only making about $60 a week. That’s what the sidemen were making. That was the scale.”
The engagement wasn’t entirely uninterrupted. “They got closed up for serving minors. So they told me about a place on the South Side called Ada’s Chicken Shack,” says Tony. “I called them up, and I got the job with no problem. That was out at 51st and Prairie.” But soon enough he was once again starring at the Whip. “When they opened that back up,” he says, “I went back.” Smith tried his hand at being a club owner in 1953-54, buying into the Chicken Shack, located at 6249 S. Cottage Grove Avenue, in cahoots with Youngblood and vibist Bobby Payne (he soon sold his interest in the joint to his partners).
I would bring both bands up on the stage, and we’d have a jam session. I’d walk the bar, go on outside, and I would get in police cars and they would drive me all around the block, Elston to Montrose, and come back. The band would be behind me, like in New Orleans.
At the Whip, Tony and the Aristocrats dedicated their combined energies to rocking the house. “We were doing songs like “Night Train,’” he remembers. “We were doing mostly big band songs— ‘In The Mood,’ because everybody was jitterbugging. Back in those days, they had something called the Harvest Moon Festival. And they had some good guys that could jitterbug. They would go down there and try out. It was a big thing in Chicago back in those days. All the jitterbugs—music like ‘Rock Around The Clock’ and all that kind of stuff.
“I think it was Monday night, I’d have my jam session, and I would hire another band from the South Side and we’d have jam sessions. I would do a show, and they would do a show. Then about 12 o’clock, I would bring both bands up on the stage, and we’d have a jam session. I’d walk the bar, go on outside, and I would get in police cars and they would drive me all around the block, Elston to Montrose, and come back. The band would be behind me, like in New Orleans. People would be looking out the window! Yeah, that was back in the early ‘50s.
I would put on different hats. I had a box onstage with bebop hats in ‘em, and Army hats. Folks would bring me different stuff: ‘Try this out, Tony, try this out!’
“Back in those days, they recorded that shuffle rhythm. Folks on the North Side, they really hadn’t heard that shuffle. That was a South Side thing. And man, when we brought it to the North Side, we had the place packed every night!”
At the beginning, the Aristocrats’ piano chair was fairly fluid. “When Harold Youngblood left, I had a guy up there named Curley Jackson. And he stayed with me for about three years,” says Smith. “After he left, I hired Jimmy Gilmore.” According to the indispensable Red Saunders Research Foundation website, which features a Smith bio as part of its Mad and M&M labels page). Gilmore, who grew up singing in a Vicksburg, Mississippi gospel group before heading north in the late ‘30s, was gigging at the Chicken Shack as a piano-playing balladeer in 1954. He’d made his name during the early ‘40s as a member of the Five Breezes, and mid-decade with the Four Jumps of Jive (Willie Dixon slapped his thundering bass in both groups). The Four Jumps of Jive cut the very first single on fledgling Mercury Records in October of 1945, “Satchelmouth Baby,” Gilmore earning featured billing on the label for his “special effects.”
No one approached Tony and his Aristocrats about recording until 1956. “Some folks came out to the club, and a fellow named Bill, he said, ‘Tony, you ought to be on record!’” says Smith. “And I said, ‘Well, hook it up for me!’ He was like a manager, you know, like a booking agent. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll hook it up, and maybe we can make some money!’ So he went down to Mercury Records, got me a contract, and we went down there and recorded ‘Wiggle Waggle Walk’ and ‘Wacker Drive.’” Bill, a schoolteacher by day, would continue to fill a managerial role for Tony. “He was with me for about five or six years,” says Smith.
Gilmore smoothly sang the rock and roll dance outing “Wiggle Waggle Walk,” its authorship credited to David Bohme, Albert Trace, and someone named Watts, during the session at Chicago’s prestigious Universal Recording. Casimir’s blasting sax ignited the “Honky Tonk”-style instrumental “Wacker Drive,” named after the downtown street where Mercury’s headquarters sat (35 E. Wacker, to be precise). Casimir and Mercury A&R man Chuck Sagle split writer’s credit, though Smith says he had a hand in its creation. “I think I hummed it,” he says. “Back in those days, I wasn’t writing music. But I could sing the music, and then I could hum whatever I wanted the band to play.”
Tony Smith and His Aristocrats’ debut single was released on December 27, 1956 but didn’t do enough business to convince Mercury to issue the remaining pair of titles from the date, “To Be Sure” (another Gilmore vocal showcase) and the instrumental “Lynn’s In,” ostensibly spotlighting Sherrill’s fretwork (it was also known as “Go Long Blues”).
Eventually Tony and his Aristocrats bid the Whip adieu. “After being there for about nine years, I got so tired of looking at the ‘26’ girl,” he says. “I got so tired of looking at the bartender. I got tired of looking at the same people. So I said, ‘I would like to leave.’ They said, ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!’ They didn’t want me to leave when business was good, and they didn’t want me to leave when business was bad. So I just had to make up my own mind. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m leavin’!’ Then I went to a place called the Picture Lounge on 5327 W. Madison.”
That engagement didn’t last as long. The club owner opened another joint on the North Side, and the band switched venues. “Every time we would leave a club, it would close down! Because back in those days, I had a big following,” says Tony. “We used to bring in people from Northwestern University, Loyola University. We’d pick up certain suburbs out there—Skokie, all them northern suburbs would come see our show. Jam-packed every night. It was real nice.”
For their encore platter in 1958, the band signed with tenor saxist Tommy “Madman” Jones’ Mad label. “We always called him Madman Jones and his Blue Saxophone,” notes Smith. “He said, ‘Tony! I want you to put some stuff on my label!’ So I said, ‘Okay!’ So we hooked up, and I put some stuff on his label.” Jones had played the South Side lounge circuit since 1945, launching Mad in ‘57 to issue his own stuff as well as sides by an array of local veterans, several of them prominent studio sidemen, who likely played the same Chicago clubs that Madman haunted: the Four Shades of Rhythm, guitarist Lefty Bates, saxman Red Holloway. One notable newcomer introduced to wax by Mad in 1960: the utterly unclassifiable singer Oscar Brown, Jr.
“Rippling Waters,” the highly atmospheric A-side of Tony’s Mad 45, was a departure from the socking fare that went over so well every night in the clubs. Gilmore’s ornate piano was front and center on the elegant jazz instrumental. “He said, ‘Listen, I’ve got something!’” says Smith. “And he played it. I said, ‘Man, the next time we make a record, we’re gonna record that. Yeah!’ That was his number.” Mad opted not to list Gilmore or anyone else as composer.
The rowdy houserocking flip “Big Nellie’s” moved Gilmore over to the organ and saved room for Casimir to blow up a storm between vocal ensemble passages, Sherrill taking a slithery solo as well. “That was my song,” says Smith. “My wife’s name was Nellie, so I wanted to write a little song, give her a little recognition.” Mad cited someone named Marlene Nores as its composer; it’s the only song her name is attached to at BMI.
Madman moved the band over to his M and M logo in 1960 for their all-instrumental encore outing, Casimir and Smith splitting compositional credit on both sides (the intricately designed bright red label listed all four members of the band and their chosen instruments, their billing changed to Tony Smith & Combo). Sherrill’s crisp guitar riff kicked off the zesty A-side “Mr. John’s Cha Cha,” remaining prominent in the mix while Bill laid down some lusty horn wails (a sly spoken aside in Espanol from Smith capped the number off). Its title paid tribute to a bar regular. “His name was John, and he loved to cha-cha,” says Tony. “So that was his song.” Snaky Sherrill fretwork also led off the swinging flip “Salem,” constructed around a Casimir horn melody; Tony adopted a hip marching beat while Gilmore supplied the bass line on organ.
The quartet headlined several additional famous Chicago lounges during this period. “We went from the Pigalle to the Playboy Club, and from the Playboy Club to the Cairo Supper Club,” he says. That’s where kindergarten-age Billy Dahl first encountered the fun-loving crew.
I particularly recall one evening when Brodien was gearing up for his big finale, which involved a fake but legit-looking guillotine. Someone thought it would be cute to get me up there to stick my tiny head into the evil-looking contraption, which I fully believed to be real. As I trudged stageward, Casimir opined in his squeaky voice that I was about to lose my head, which left me terrified. I retained my cranium when the blade fell, took a quick bow, and got off that stage as fast as possible.
An evening with Smith and the Aristocrats wasn’t complete without the romping “Hi-Yo Silver.” “I heard a guy sing that. His name was Harold Burrage,” says Tony, who saw the young Chicago singer perform the tune at the Trocadero (it was Burrage’s 1950 Decca debut single). The anthem served Smith well. “Man, I took that song and started singing it, and that was my trademark all through my career, ‘Hi-Yo Silver,’” he says. “The Lone Ranger, he was hot. I had that shuffle beat and that backbeat on it. Oh, man! I rode with that; I’m still ridin’ with it!”
The band’s other crowd-pleasing centerpiece was the clever double-entendre “The Big Bamboo.” “I got ‘The Big Bamboo’ from the islands,” explains Tony. “‘The Big Bamboo’ was a story about the bamboo tree. The bamboo tree is a tree that grows in the islands, so they made up a song.” Of course, the humorous ditty wasn’t really concerned with a tree at all.
The Cairo gig ended with a bang around 9:30 p.m. on May 11, 1964. A thug tossed a firebomb into the spacious club at 4017 N. Sheridan, which was open for business at the time (incendiary material was reportedly strategically stashed in four spots around the room). A poster advertising Tony and his Aristocrats and Brodien flaps forlornly by the front door of the burned-out building in a dramatic photo snapped just after the blaze. My mom learned she was unemployed while dozing on the couch. Carl Greyson gravely announced the Cairo was burning on Night Beat, WGN-TV’s late-night newscast, and five minutes later her phone was ringing off the hook. Detectives stopped by our tiny apartment in days to come, grilling my mother as they tried to connect the arson to the mob.
She rebounded with a waitress job at the Black Knight, which sat on Central Avenue near Montrose on the Northwest Side. Guess who one of the club’s headliners was? None other than Tony Smith and His Aristocrats. Owner Bill Markers had good taste in bands, also booking saxman Dave Mitchell and Singing Sam & the Sparks, whose leader, Sam Chatmon, had played bass with blues piano legend Memphis Slim. The Black Knight wouldn’t have the opportunity to present Tony on its stage for all that long.
“They sent somebody up from the 4 Horsemen, Fred Allegretti. So from the Black Knight, I went to the 4 Horsemen. That was in 1967, when the snowstorm was.” This lounge was located on the far Northwest Side at Mannheim and Higgins.
Tony expanded his Aristocrats during the late ‘60s by bringing in Lacy Gibson, a veteran of the Windy City blues scene, to play electric bass. “He wasn’t with me that long, but he was a good singer,” says Smith. The Salisbury, North Carolina-born Gibson had cut an unissued vocal side for Chess in 1963 as Buddy Guy’s rhythm guitarist, contributed stinging lead axe to Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s dance workout “The Whip” the same year on M-Pac!, and waxed two late ‘60s 45s of his own for the tiny local Repeto imprint that he cut in his basement. Gibson’s debut album was released by a most unlikely source: jazz great Sun Ra’s El Saturn Records (Ra was Lacy’s brother-in-law).
Live at Fred Allegretti’s 4 Horsemen Lounge, Tony and the Aristocrats’ debut album, came out somewhere around the end of the decade on the Sanns label, which also issued a handful of Chicago soul singles that included Kitty Montgomery’s seductive “Hey Boy.” Vocals were divvied up between various band members; Gilmore and Smith teamed to rattle the rafters with “Hi-Yo Silver” and a remake of “Big Nellie’s.”
Sherrill’s showcase “In Like Lynn” finally made it to vinyl on the set, more than a decade after his original version was left behind in Mercury’s vaults. Casimir ripped into the national anthem of barwalkers, Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train,” as well as a revival of Lee Allen’s “Walking With Mr. Lee” retitled “Walking With Mr. Bill” for the occasion. Smith’s wild sense of humor surfaced on the novelty “Mau Mau Are Coming,” and his distinctive timekeeping was spotlighted on “Drums Of Four” and “Suburban Cha-Cha.” Three of Gibson’s Repeto sides (“She’s My Baby,” “Easy Woman,” and the bizarre “Unmask The Batman”) ended up on the album as well, along with a rendition of O.C. Smith’s ‘68 smash “Little Green Apples.”
The album must have sold off the 4 Horsemen bandstand like hotcakes, seeing as how the band cut another live LP at the same bar, Especially For You, for the Sands label (its offices were located at 7604 S. Cottage Grove Avenue). The long-player underscored the versatility of the band. “Big Bamboo” finally made it to wax; Tony exhibited his stellar stick work on “Marmalade,” and hauled out the latest addition to his expansive kit for “Yellow Bird.”
“I started playing the steel drum at the 4 Horsemen,” he says. “I would go to the islands about twice a year. I would go to Trinidad, Jamaica, Nassau, Freeport, all around. And I fell in love with the steel bands. I started picking it up then.” Smith also sang “Tighten Up, Don’t Lighten Up” (a Smith/Casimir original) and “Red Headed Woman.” Perhaps recalling his long-ago days at the Whip, Bill penned a polka for the set, “Bolek And Antosz;” the album’s back cover claimed it “gives you the feeling of being located near 47th and Pulaski.”
Gilmore had departed to join one of the many incarnations of Ink Spots scattered around the country, so there was room on the album for 4 Horsemen bartender Michael Rio to croon the time-tested lounge standards “My Way” and “Where Or When.” The bass chair was now held down by Petersburg, Virginia-born Norman “Doc” Jones, who had played with jazz greats Dorothy Donegan and Teddy Wilson as well as blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon. Doc stepped behind the mic to deliver the Beatles’ “Something” as well as “More Today” (likely the Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday”) and “If I Loved You.” “I was always looking for a bass player that could sing,” says Smith. “That’s when I got Doc Jones.”
Tony launched his own De Tone label to release his two early ‘70s albums with the Aristocrats. The first one was named after his longtime crowd-pleaser Hi-Yo Silver. In keeping with the Lone Ranger motif, the drummer headed out to Northwestern Stables in suburban Morton Grove to shoot a striking cover photo astride a steed named Cloudy. “I said, ‘We’re gonna go out on this farm and get us the right horse and make this album cover,’” he says. “So instead of them putting the mask on me, they put the mask on the horse!”
Along with the title track (which incorporated equine sound effects and comedic references to the Lone Ranger, Montrose and Central, the Big Bamboo, and Jeno’s Pizza Rolls), Tony sang Mac Davis’ “I Believe In Music,” while Doc crooned a pair of ballads, Ruby & the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come” and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye).” The steel drum got a workout on a medley of Joe South’s “Games People Play” and the captivating “Spanish Eyes.” The band also roared through Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special” (Tony took an extended solo midway through), the easy-swinging “Drum Drum,” and an amusingly ribald “Love Comedy.” The latter two were penned by Casimir, Smith, and veteran drummer Armand “Jump” Jackson, whose own recording career harked back to the ‘40s and included owning his own LaSalle label during the early ‘60s.
De Tone followed it up in 1974 with another long-player from the quartet entitled Maharajah Man. The cover photo found Smith modeling a turban adorned by a large red feather and a jewel (the band had their own turbans on the jacket’s rear photos sans feathers). “This woman who was a customer at the 4 Horsemen, she made me a hat to go along with the song,” he says. The relentlessly jumping title track was another Smith/ Casimir/ Jackson creation, this time joined by another collaborator, Delores Lutz. The same quartet brainstormed a zesty “Bill’s Merengue,” spotlighting Casimir’s horn.
Then-recent pop hits were a major component of the album with covers of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock,” Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times,” and Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” Chuck Berry’s chart-topper “My Ding A Ling,” sung by Tony and Doc, provided a little playful naughtiness (Allegretti enjoyed a name-check, as did the intersection of 63rd and Halsted). It was contrasted by a pair of jazz standards, Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” (sporting a crashing drum solo) and Xavier Cugat’s “Nightingale.”
After nine long years of starring at the 4 Horsemen, Tony was again ready to move on. “When I signed the (last) five-year contract, Allegretti said he was going to take care of me. But I never got the raise,” he says. “Instead of giving me a raise, he let me have the parking lot. I had about five guys parking cars, and at the end of the night, I would collect $25 apiece from ‘em. That’s where I made my extra money.” A nearby competing club, the Flying Carpet, offered Smith a better deal. “He liked my show, and he would come over, and he would ask me, ‘Tony, do you think you could turn all these people across the street?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’”
“I didn’t let nobody know I was going across the street. But I let one waitress know that I was going down on Rush so I wouldn’t get no static from Allegretti. And I told her, I said, ‘Don’t tell no one.’ But I knew that she was going to tell everybody,” he says. “About a week or so after that, I went right across the street. And man, folks were coming to the 4 Horsemen looking for me, but Allegretti told the parking lot guys, ‘Let nobody know that Tony Smith is across the street!’ In fact, the last night I was there, the waitresses and the bartenders, they had a big cake for me. Allegretti wouldn’t even let ‘em bring it out.”
Allegretti tried to counter the loss of Smith and the Aristocrats by bringing in another talented local drummer, Jimmy Mayes, but Tony brought his strong following over to his new stomping grounds, soon renamed the Grand Plaza. “I had me a limbo dancer. I had me a fire dancer. And I was playing the steel pan,” he says. “Had a hell of a show.” Smith stayed put at the Grand Plaza for nine years (that timeframe had apparently become a tradition).
Over the years, the Aristocrats have been lost to the sands of time. “Bill died first, and then Lynn Sherrill died, and then Doc Jones died,” says Smith (Jimmy Gresham had replaced Jones). Casimir’s loss was particularly huge. “That had to be about 1983 or ’84, somewhere around there,” notes Tony. But the veteran drummer persevered. Still a devotee of flashy caps, he long ago perfected a formula for longevity in a very fickle business. How does he do it, decade after decade?
“That’s what everybody asks me,” he says. “Because I thought music should be a happy thing. When people came out to see my show, I wanted to give them recognition from the bandstand. Make ‘em feel real important. And they liked that very much. It made them feel good. It made me feel good. And I could crack jokes to ‘em and everything.”
On May 23, 2014, Tony played his last gig at Chambers. He announced he was retiring and moving to Florida—a happy ending to the career of one of Chicago’s most enduring and ebullient entertainers. We can only hope he comes back for a visit once in a while and finds his way behind an illuminated set of drums in some swinging gin joint for a few choruses of “Hi-Yo Silver.”