Throwing down for a guitar hero

03/08/2013 1:08 AM

03/08/2013 1:09 AM

SMOAKING GUITARIST: Frank Smoak, the local musician who died Feb. 27, was considered a guitar hero.

That’s a description worthy of few, but Smoak, who was a popular player on the scene in the ’70s and ’80s, earned it. Just ask people who saw him play. Better yet, talk to the people who played with him in bands such as The Brother Band, The Lame Ducks, The Whatever Band and The Rob Crosby Group.

“His songwriting, vocal and musical skills made him one of the most important musical artists to ever live and work in Columbia,” Crosby said. “Frank was the consummate gentleman and intellectual with a keen mind and a wry wit.

“His many friends will miss his warm, if reserved, spirit, his loyalty and his amazing talent.”

Smoak was 63. A memorial service is at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Dunbar Funeral Home’s Devine Street Chapel, 3926 Devine St. After the ceremony, a wake will be held at Utopia Food & Spirits, 3830 Rosewood Drive.

“Everybody that knows Frank knows that there will be music there,” Margie Hicks, a bandmate of Smoak’s in The Rob Crosby Group, said.

It was some time in the ’80s, Hicks said, that The Rob Crosby Group toured Europe for the Department of Defense, performing at concerts attended by NATO troops. Between shows, the band had five days to kill in Madrid, Spain. Smoak and Hicks objected to staying in the city.

“All of us were broke,” she recalled. “We were just making enough to cover our expenses. The Department of Defense didn’t pay enough money.”

Hicks said Smoak, who spent part of his childhood in Germany and France, rented a Peugeot and the two of them drove through France’s mountains.

“We did a five-day tour and it was so much fun,” Hicks, a vocalist in the band, said. “We lived on wine, cheese and bread.”

They stayed in farmhouses along the way. Hicks chuckled when she recalled that some of their French hosts didn’t like the concept of giving them a room with two beds.

“Frank and I got a big giggle out of that for the rest of our lives,” she said.

Smoak could adapt to just about any style — blues, rock, country. He once played weekly gigs with the Amazing Buddy Ray. From Sunday’s obituary printed in The State: “Frank will be remembered by all who knew him for his kind heart and his magical skill with his Fender Stratocaster guitar.”

Smoak was a supremely talented guitarist who could play circles around other players, but he wasn’t a showoff. He just played the music.

“He was a graceful,” Hicks said. “As far as his whole stage presence, the way he presented himself, there was no ego involved.”

Off the stage, Smoak was reserved, quiet. Nobody had to ask him twice if he wanted to jam, but his arm had to be twisted a bit to attend dinner or a party.

“If he had something to say, you needed to listen,” Hicks said. “He was a very brilliant guy. He didn’t say much, but he said a lot, if you know what I mean.”

Tom “T-Bird” Toglio said he never heard Smoak raise his voice.

“He was a really humorous and a really nice guy,” Toglio, a drummer, said. “He was cordial to everybody. That’s why it’s hard sometimes, why some go and some don’t at such an early age like that.”

Smoak’s health rapidly declined in just over two years. According to Hicks, Smoak has a large mass in his esophagus, the passage to the stomach for food and drink in the human body. The edges weren’t cancerous, but it was too big to biopsy. Smoak couldn’t swallow solids or liquids.

“His esophagus just quit functioning for him,” Hicks said. “He wasn’t forthcoming with his struggle, and none of us knew. It was a hard way to lose someone you love. By the time he was able to reach out to someone, it was basically too late.

“We’re all kind of holding each other up. It’s just not been the way I wanted to see that man fly away.”

What’s left is the music.

“We’re going to have a throwdown at Utopia, I can guarantee you that,” Hicks said. “You have to. That’s where his life was.”

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