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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011 11:45 pm

The Don Smith Band, a State Fair tradition

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Celebrating their 31st consecutive year at the State Fair, the Don Smith Band plays the Twilight Ballroom, 7-10pm, Sat., Aug. 20.

Here’s a fairly interesting fair fact. During every Illinois State Fair for the last 31 years, some version of a Don Smith group played somewhere on the fairgrounds.

The really cool thing is this: the 71-year-old, Lincoln native has played the fair for more than half his 57-year career as a trumpet player and bandleader. Yes, young Don played his first gig in 1954 at the tender age of 14 with the Nu-Notes at a Bloomington Eagles Club. He liked it so much he hasn’t stopped since.

“That first gig I made $9 for three hours. Boy, that was big money,” explained Smith, a Springfield resident since the 60s. “I was delivering the Decatur Herald for $1 a day. That settled that.”

Smith received his first instrument, a cornet rented by his mother from Musser Music in Lincoln, while recovering from a bout of rheumatic fever in the sixth grade. Every Saturday morning he took lessons from the band director at the Lincoln state hospital (who knew they had a band?) in lieu of playing sports. He couldn’t take part in sports because of health issues resulting from the fever. Obviously a quick study and talented player, he continued on after that first gig to form Don Smith’s Stardusters in 1956, making the move from big band swing to rock ’n’ roll.

“We’d throw those little 7-inch records on the spindle and learn songs from Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry,” says Smith. “People wanted to hear rock ’n’ roll and see it live then, so that’s what we did. Played all the places.”

Around 1959, performances of the songs “Suzie Q” and “Don Smith’s Boogie” garnered only a second place finish in a Greenville talent contest and thwarted the teenage band’s dream of appearing on television’s “Original Amateur Hour” (the American Idol of the 50s) hosted by Ted Mack in New York. By 1961 Smith formed a large band to play classic jazz and swing, staying busy playing more than 150 dates annually in the Bloomington market alone. In 1974 he started the Don Smith Band, a streamlined version of the larger band, organized to play dances, weddings and whatever occasion required live music, adjusting the group’s size to fit the gig.

“When Bob White had to leave the band he suggested John Ridge as a replacement. John said he couldn’t play steady, then stayed for 16 years. He taught me the business,” says Smith. “We lost him in 1986. All the original members of the 1974 band have passed. I continue to walk this musical path.”

That path included releasing two full-length records, holding significant positions in the musicians union, an induction into the Big Band Hall of Fame and playing several cruise ships plus all the big ballrooms in the Midwest, including the Aragon in Chicago, while gigging hundreds of shows annually. Smith credits versatility, diversity, frugality and hard work for his success. He calls it, “having fun in the interesting world of a musician.”

“People ask me, ‘How come you don’t work, Don?’” he says. “I tell ’em I work this band, that’s what I do.”

With plenty of shows through the rest of the year, including the upcoming opening of the Bass Pro Shop in East Peoria (he did the recent Springfield Scheel’s opening as well), 18 dates already in 2012 and 13 booked for 2013, Smith shows no signs of stopping, though he is slowing down a bit, spending more time with his wife, Dana, their two children and five grandkids.

“I owe it to all my men. Without the good guys behind you, you don’t cross the bridge. They get all my respect,” Smith explains. “My horn introduced me to a lot of nice people. We all get back what we put in.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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