The city of New Orleans, a launching point of various styles of music traditions, also produced one Leo Victor Smith, a transplant to Los Angeles (by way of Baton Rouge), circa 1963.
His own musical journey began at eight, as he watched his father build on the traditions of Mississippi bluesman Jimmy Reed, who inspired Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones. Fortified with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey, his father would relax with his Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars as the son watched his hands move up and down the fret-boards.
Whenever the old man took a break and put the instruments down, the youngster would pick up the object and try to copy the chords that came from the amplifier. When his father came back, he noticed something off, and demanded to know “…who been messin’ with my guitar?”
Years later, as Smith became proficient, he realized that his efforts at imitation knocked the peg-heads, and consequently the tuning, off. His father, amused by these juvenile efforts, had a brainstorm.
“You know what, I’m a see somethin,” he decided.
To test his offspring’s dedication, he purchased a $13 electric guitar complete with amp, and set the boy on his way. Aided by a $2 guitar book, Smith would shape his fingers to create the chords illustrated in the book.
“I would play three (new) chords a week, and kept at it ‘til my fingers was blistered,” Smith said. “Sometimes they’d be bleedin’, with fluid in the tips. Which I found that what you was gonna get anyway, once you first started playin’.”
And so he progressed, learning and practicing three new chords every week, then moving on up to “movable chords” and guitar solos. His mother encouraged these pursuits by sending him and his little brother off to drum lessons.
Call of the streets
These musical pursuits found stiff competition with a darker element of South Central culture. Smith’s introduction into this came through a chance meeting with his next door neighbor, the legendary Raymond Washington, credited as the founder of the Crips street gang, who helped the kid out of the endless drama that was (and is) a staple of life in the inner city.
“He inspired me,” Smith says.
Washington went to “the joint” while Smith moved on to the west side (67th & Western), and met such notables as Barefoot Pookie, Cutes, and (Stanley) Tookie Williams, or, as Smith calls them, “the nucleus of the west side.” Several years younger was Monster (Kody) Scott, who lived around the corner.
He eventually earned his own reputation as “OG (Original Gangster) Pretty Boy” Smith.
Several years younger was “Monster (Kody)” Scott, who lived around the corner.
Some of his friends also maintained dual interests in gang banging and music, such as Horace Mann Junior High classmate Herman Moncrief, an excellent drummer with 19” arms who earned a reputation as a knockout artist.
Street tribes of this era settled their grievances through fist fights, a tame alternative to the mayhem that came later.
Rites of passage: Feelin’ da funk
“Funk is the absence of any and everything you can think of, but the very essence of all that is. And saying that, I’m saying funk is anything that we create in our minds that we want to do, what we want to be…”
Like most of his teenage contemporaries, Smith was listening to a new hybrid of rhythmic music derived from 1960s R & B, distinguished by a distinctive groove, suitable for dancing. Prime purveyors of this new genre included bands from Dayton, Ohio such as Lakeside, The Ohio Players, and especially Slave and it’s hit song “Slide (1977).”
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the budding musician began copying his idols with repeated listenings of their recordings.
“Sly Stone was probably the first one that I started liking his cords,” Smith said.
His repertoire included the James Brown shuffle and especially his “Funkin’ in the key of E.” (“everybody wanted to learn that!”), along with Sly Stone sideman Larry Graham, once he started in on the bass.
Bestowed with role models from which to emulate, young Smith began buying their albums and studied them “…’til the records started getting scratched up and started skippin’,” he said.
This is how a lot of bands evolved in the neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, as many of them toiled away to copy top-40 playlists popular with their peers.
By the time Smith reached Crenshaw High School, he was a committed musician, always in the band room honing his craft. He was also able to join his first band, “Blacksteam” as a bass player with Delcy Fuller.
They made the rounds playing venues familiar to those who came up during the 1970s. These included the Crenshaw District’s “Total Experience,” and the “English Square” by the Compton DMV, where they became the house band.
Smith cultivated his own following of groupies, including women much older than him. Still, music and the availability of female companionship did not make up for the meager money the band received, and Smith turned to custodial work and other means of income.
The turning point
1979 was a landmark year in many ways. The years 1977 and 1978 had been a period of relative peace. Washington was released from prison, and shortly afterwards was killed in a drive-by. Meanwhile, June 1 was the occasion of one of the greatest non-sports events ever held in the L.A. Coliseum. The “World’s Greatest Funk Festival” had a lineup which included The Barkays, Bootsy’s Rubberband, Cameo, Confunksion, Lakeside, Parliment/Funkadelic, and Rick James.
Marijuana smoke cast a fog over the stadium, and the presence of PCP (AKA Angel Dust, AKA “Sherm”) laced cigarettes lowered the inhibitions of females in the crowd. The girls stripped their clothes off and ran butt naked onto the field.
The city’s whole gang culture was represented as well, Smith noted.
“No drama. We were allies.”
Toward the end of the concert, all the individual sets converged out onto the field in a mass demonstration of unity, as security made no attempt to get in their way.
Before the end of the year, things turned sour as an “ally” shot and killed a homeboy. This started the era of gun play that distinguished west coast hooliganism.
For Smith, a turning point came via his implication in the murder of a person he maintains he did not know. The next few decades saw his introduction into an ever-expanding prison system, starting with the reception center at Chino; then on to the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Lancaster; the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility; and on to the California Men’s Colony (CMC) at San Luis Obispo.
His incarceration had one upside, as he was able to focus on his music, especially at DVI. As a vocational facility, it had musical instruments, plus video equipment, which enabled him to record all his performances on VHS. These may be found today under his name on YouTube.
Grimm memories and present day realities
“If I had the money to move somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t a been in no gang. But I grew up in the wrong era.”
—Leo Victor Smith
Upon his 2015 release after 32 years of incarceration, Smith came home to a city he barely recognized.
“It looks like s—t! I hate to say it,” he moaned. “People walkin’ up to you askin’ for change. ‘Hey brother, can I —’ No, you can’t!”
“Look dude, I gotta take care of myself,” he explained to a homeless guy once. “Why would I give you all my money — and then I’d be doin’ the same thing you doin’?”
Instead Smith works on his craft, utilizing the overdubbing techniques he perfected in the joint.
Since his release, Smith keeps a low profile. He doesn’t frequent certain areas — even those populated by people he “is cool with.”
He acknowledges he has no patience with the younger generation and the whole atmosphere that exists in present day Los Angeles.
“People my age don’t go around these youngsters,” he explains, referring to those who subscribe to a code he is unfamiliar with.
Reflecting on his formative years, he thinks he made the best of a difficult situation.
“You had to deal with your environment,” he said. “You was either gonna fight, you was gonna get punked, or you was just gonna get ran over.”
Catch the guitar stylings of Leo Victor Smith at the websites below: