The first Email I received this morning was from Jeannie Smith, wife of the Kountry Kings’ lead guitar player and harmony singer, Wayne (Smitty) Smith.
Richard passed away in his sleep this afternoon. Dolores is beside herself with the shock of it all. There will be no services. We will be spending the afternoon tomorrow with her and her children (not his, since he cut them out of his life years ago). Just thought you’d want to know.
Let me tell you about Rich. He was a true Georgia redneck. A racist to the core. He almost had a heart attack when he learned that Country Charlie Pride was black. A couple of times I thought he wasn’t going to play his drums when I’d sing a Charlie Pride song.
He worked as a dredger operator clearing boat and ship lanes along New Jersey’s rivers and harbors. He did his best to arrange his work schedule so as not to miss the band’s performances. I appreciated his work ethic. Band playing was a second job for the five of us.
The Kountry Kings started out as a quartet. We all took a part of our nightly pay to allow the band to grow by adding drums. But Richie was more than another musician. He was a singer and a showman as well. He had his solos and added a third voice to the country gospel songs we included in every set. He was really the only authentic hillbilly in the band.
He had a wife, Eileen, and a young son back then. We often practiced at his house and enjoyed the Dailey southern hospitality. We made a lot of memories in the 1960s and enjoyed a great deal of popularity. We even won some prizes in band contests. We were a good team. Smitty on lead guitar, Frankie on his steel guitar, Harvey on bass, Richie and his drums, and me singing and playing rhythm guitar. It was one of the best and craziest times of my life. Oh, there are things I’d take back or change if I could. But the experience of playing with Rich and those guys was never replicated.
Rich decided to move back to Georgia. Smitty, a lifetime New Jerseyan like me, soon followed. Harvey left for South Carolina. Frankie hooked up with another band. I reformed the Kountry Kings with new musicians and played for another decade before admitting to myself that I was never going to enjoy what the original band had.
Decades passed and I lost track of my friends. Through the Internet, I located the Smiths and with Skype was able to “visit” Rich and his second wife, Dolores. We even tried to trio “I’ll Fly Away” after 45 years and it didn’t quite come out the same. I had learned of Frankie’s passing and wrote about him on this blog. Harvey was now the oldest and didn’t travel much but was in good health. Wayne has had some medical problems as well. I’m living in El Salvador in retirement with a wife half my age and two young kids. I enjoy listening to a night’s performance of the Kountry Kings from a long time ago and have wished we could have one more chance to play together. Oh, I know my voice is shot. Smitty has played more bass than guitar over the last half-century. I don’t know if Harvey can still hold a heavy Fender bass on his shoulders in his 80s. We’d have to do without Frankie’s steel. And now Richard is gone. We’re a bit like the Beatles except that we’re probably not remembered by more than a few in our old stomping grounds in Central Jersey.