Sacramento keyboard master Roger Smith has been a key member of Tower of Power’s rhythm section for over two decades. The band recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Famous for laying down a funky groove, the band’s horn intensive sound has been featured on albums by Elton John, Santana and Aerosmith. Their many hits include “You’re Still a Young Man” and “What Is Hip.”
Before joining Tower of Power, Smith toured the world with major artists, including Jeff Beck, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. It was during these tours that Smith developed a taste for fine wines, leading to a life-long passion.
Nine years ago, Smith and his longtime friend Mike Smolich founded Bump City Winery. Named after TOP’s second album, this boutique label sources grapes from Sonoma and Lodi and has already won numerous awards. Their Rhone-style wines reflect Roger’s personal taste for a smooth, appealing wine.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Roger in his own words
On auditioning for Tower of Power
Smith’s band was playing in Tahoe at the same time as Tower of Power. Many members of the band came to check him out and stayed for both sets. Shortly after that, the band’s agent called and asked him to travel to Los Angeles to audition. Smith, not wanting to travel at his own expense for a possible job, politely declined.
About two weeks later, I get a call from Dave Garibaldi and he says, “Hey man, would you mind coming to my house (in Livermore) and me, Jeff, and Rocco, we can just jam, okay?” I was very enthused about that, so I took all my stuff and went down to his house, set it up. We jammed; we had a good time playing and had a good camaraderie. I’m sitting in the kitchen, drinking a beer. Dave is right by me. He gets on the phone and calls Emilio and says, “Emilio, we got our organ player.” And the rest is history!
On fitting into the rhythm section
These tunes are set up in a way, rhythmically, to where it has to be precise. Every part that you play has to intertwine with the horns, the vocal, the guitar. Everything has a space. Now we all know the way (drummer) David Garibaldi plays. He’s a rhythmical genius. He’s an innovator of a specific sound. That sound is Tower of Power, between him and Rocco (bassist). That was my most daunting task, to find my voice in there. Where does Roger fit in? That was the most difficult part for me. Trying not to overdo it, for about a year that I was in the band. Everybody was scratching their head. “I don’t think this guy is going to make it!” Because I was overplaying a lot. But I didn’t realize it. It didn’t settle in until we actually got in the studio to do one of the records. And I said, “Oh man, that’s not going to work, so how do I do this?” And it took a while to listen to the guitar; between him and the bass, man okay, there’s a spot! And I found my spot! It took a while to find my piece of the puzzle, if you will.
On touring with a band that plays a great many dates, year in, year out
When you’re touring with 14 people, it’s a rolling juggernaut. With grown men, not boys! And I think everybody is aware of the next guy. Everybody is aware of everybody’s space and we know how to make it just down the middle! You grow up, in this life, having done just about everything you can think of – sex, drugs, rock and roll. And you come out of it on the other side! First of all, you’re grateful that you made it to the other side! Now what’s gonna keep me on the other side? This is what I’ve learned: Focus, be kind to my brother over here. If I have an issue, if you’re over here on the left and I’m on the right, how can we bring it to the middle? How can we talk about this so we can keep our common ground? And that’s what we’ve all learned how to do. To take left and right and bring it right to the middle, to keep it going down the road!
On beating cancer
I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and given a year (to live), six months quality life. That was 17 years ago! All three of the big major urology specialists said that was it. The first diagnosis was very emotional; it kind of sat me back. My outlook was a very positive, and aggressively positive attitude toward it. “This isn’t going to get me. This isn’t going to stop me from living and it’s not going to stop me from pursuing what I want to pursue.” Having said that, I’m still here!
On running the winery
Running the winery is a passion. It’s also a learning process, because I spend a lot of time with our winemaker and with a lot of the other old winemakers I know up in Amador, just watching their craft, watching them do it, and just understanding this craft that I’m in. I pretty much just stand aside, take notes, and do a lot of reading. Then I do my own experimentation.
On making good wine the focus
My thing was to make the best wine I could make. I wanted my wine to be the focus. I didn’t want Tower of Power to be the focus. I wanted the wine to be the focus. I never put out or marketed that we were a Black-owned winery. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to set the story and get it established from the ground up as being a very good winery, a very well-run company. And it kind of balances out. It’s not all about “What’s it like, or how did you do this, or what brought you into this.” It’s like, “I love this wine, and oh, You’re in Tower?” Then the conversation goes on. I’m really happy about that, because the first four years, I kept that on the down low. We just worked to make good wine.
On the “soul hippies”
We do have, I call them the soul hippies, that follow the band. And it’s amazing. Some people say, “This is my hundredth show. I remember when you played for my high school.” And at the winery, a lot of the younger Gen-Xers come in and say, “My dad and my mom are going to be so jealous. They are going to wish they were here. They say you played for their high school in San Bruno.” It’s amazing!
Defining Bump City
It’s the Oakland Hills and, well, there’s so many variations. Bump City started out there on MacArthur Boulevard, where the old clubs used to be. That’s where Tower of Power started, and also the old elevated freeway on 880. A lot of kids were under there doing things they shouldn’t be doing back in the day, and then trucks would come over and you’d shake, rattle, and roll. So, you’d talk to your friends and say, “Hey, what you doin’ tonight? I’m going to head over to Bump City, you wanna meet me over there?” So anything that’s East Oakland or East Bay is Bump City!