It’s 1973. A 22-year-old Steve Smith hops out of the ocean in the haze of a Matunuck Beach summer. He shags his hair, throws his longboard up over his head, and takes off at a gallop towards the special community that is Roy Carpenter’s Beach: a collection of “shacks” which features porch sittin’, beer drinkin’, guitar strummin’ men and women playing tunes and wailing notes into the sun-kissed night. Smith jogs through the place he’d spent every summer as a kid and stops quickly at the cottage he grew up in with his cousin (John Cafferty, of the Beaver Brown Band), to change into his night attire. As he waltzes to the fridge to grab a cold beer, he is struck by a fading childhood memory: Saturday night kitchen performances for his father and his uncles, a skinny 4-year-old swinging hips to a high-pitched rendition of “Love Letters in the Sand.” He sits reminiscing for a few minutes, allowing the memories to flow through him like the beer. Sweltering days at the beach, barefoot nights hopping between shack porches… a jukebox that ran in the corner of a crowded room, its bright lights whirling with each tune… a night of opportunity all under one chaotic musical roof…
Shit! Smith is now running late for his first gig with his new band The Nakeds at South Kingstown High School: a show that would solidify state-wide recognition for the 10-piece, Rhythm and Blues groove phenomena, Steve Smith and the Nakeds.
I crossed paths with our protagonist on a blustery winter afternoon, very far from his native beach vibe. A casual man in a black coat and blue jeans, Smith met me in the parking lot of Motif’s office in Pawtucket, and as we took the five million or so steps up to the third floor we talked about everything from surfing to the Ocean Mist to what CD he has in his car right now. Turns out Smith is a Spotify-er like the rest of us, but it did bring up an old memory of his father’s words after returning home with the first Beatles album: Listen to these guys, they’re going to be great.
“My father loved music,” Smith said. “He was a salesman, he was on the road all day… he listened to the radio constantly.” He smiled in his reverie. Smith appreciates his father for having the foresight to send him to voice lessons at a young age, endowing him with a skill he can reach for again and again.
Smith went to PC and was juggling a lot of extracurriculars, including his college band, Bloody Mary. He decided in his sophomore year to pull the trig’ and dedicate most of his effort to being “in the band,” a decision described by Smith as being a “pivotal moment.” By the time his senior year rolled around, he had formed The Naked Truths (a precursor to Steve Smith and the Nakeds) and was ready to hit the scene running. They began touring up and down the East Coast, rocking 7 nights a week at colleges when the drinking age was 18. When it upped itself to 21 in 1984, they had to go down to only weekend nights and navigate the new world of the dry college campus.
“I remember playing Princeton University in the fieldhouse. This was a year after the drinking age turned 21,” Smith laughed. “We played to 20 people and it was a dry concert. The director came up to us and said, ‘You guys might as well pack up and leave, but if you want, go down to [Prospect Street] because there’s a keg party going on.’”
I instantly imagined a group of 10 or so mullet-sporting, talented young men racing down to get a solo cup, no idea where the road would take them but feeling, in that starry-eyed night, that it was going to be good.
“We always focus on the music. When you’re younger, alcohol becomes involved, women become involved, drugs become involved… These things are temptations, they’re easily acquired, and we’ve had guys leave the band because they’ve lost their focus on the music. We have a reputation that you’re going to see good music, and there’s no bullshit.” 50 years later, Steve Smith and the Nakeds are as intrinsic to RI as coffee milk and Iggy’s doughboys.
Steve Smith and the Nakeds are a show-stopping, foot-stomping, wreck of a time and the vast assortment of people at Steve’s shows will attest: from 70-year-old women to 16-year-old kids, parents and infants; from a man called “hop-scotch” (seriously), to people laughing, kissing, hugging and howlin’ at venues from beer-sticky floors to suit-and-tie gazebo-based affairs. It is an experience that encapsulates Rhode Island — an honest, genuine allure that truly is, to quote Smith, “No bullshit.”
Their consistent, athletic showmanship, larger-than-life attitude and frequent sweaty bare-chestedness has won the band renown in every corner of our state, throughout the region, and nationally – they are the only RI band to have appeared, in caricature, in Seth MacFarlane’s RI-based series Family Guy, and one of the few still-performing bands to be inducted into the RI Music Hall of Fame.
Next time (or the first time) you see Steve Smith and the Nakeds, and he roars “Hi Neighbor!” from the stage with a Narragansett can in hand, make sure to shout back “Howdy Neighbor!” and take a slug for our li’l corner of the world.
Steve Smith and the Nakeds celebrate their 50th anniversary at Cranston’s historic Park Theatre, with special guest appearances by The Cowsills and Family Guy Executive Producer (and Steve’s brother) Danny Smith, on Saturday, February 11, from 7pm – midnight.