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Thursday, July 14, 2005 02:44 am

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Don Smith began playing the trumpet in 1954 as a high-school sophomore. He soon joined the musicians’ union in Lincoln, Ill., and two years later became leader of his own band. During the ensuing half-century, Smith has mostly stayed true to his big-band beginnings, with a few forays into rock & roll and jazz.

“We learned the rock & roll songs in 1958, when Elvis, Little Willie John, and Gene Vincent were big,” Smith says. “The Harmony Brothers were doing it, too, but mostly you could only hear those songs on the jukebox.”

By the mid-’60s, Smith had ventured into jazz, but, he recalls, “that was going no place fast.” He formed his band in 1974 and has worked steadily ever since.

“The whole secret is having the right guys at the right spot,” Smith says. “Treat them right, pay them right — they become just like family.” Some of the musicians playing with Smith have been with him for nearly 25 years; others come and go as hired hands.

“We do a lot of work with the quartet, but we can add up to eight pieces for the big-band shows,” he says. “I’ve got a core group and plenty of other musicians to call if needed.’ Diversity has been the key to his success and longevity. “We can do ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ then go right into Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ Most of our big-band competition can’t slam into rock & roll like we do.”

Smith’s group was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame in the mid-’80s, and 2005 marks the band’s 25th straight year at the Illinois State Fair. When Smith retired in 1996 from his other job as a chemical-sales rep, music became his full-time occupation. Never one to lose tempo, the venerable bandleader averages around 80 dates a year, including cruise ships, local bars, weddings, anniversaries, and high-school reunions.

After 50 years in the music business, what strikes him as the best part? “We’ve had a lot of big experiences and met a lot of nice people who have us back to play again and again,” he says. “That’s one of the greatest feelings of being a musician.”

The Don Smith Quartet performs 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, July 15, at Robbie’s (4 Old State Capitol Plaza, 217-528-1901) and 8-11 p.m. at Norb Andy’s Tabarin (518 Capitol Ave., 217-523-7777).

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