Tour Tales | Common’s keyboardist Johnnie Smurf Smith shares untold stories from the road
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Common’s longtime keyboardist discusses how the artist brought people to tears on stage, K. Michelle’s unpredictability while performing, and more.
Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
For the last 15 years, Johnnie Smurf Smith has used his piano skills to add that church soul to Common’s performances. “One of the craziest reactions was when we were in New York and Q-Tip came out. We were doing ‘Award Tour,’ and I couldn’t hear the music because it was that loud. It almost felt like the building was shaking,” Smith told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Common’s longtime keyboardist discusses how the artist brought people to tears on stage, K. Michelle’s unpredictability while performing, and more. Read below.
When did you connect with Common?
I first connected with Common after one of my friends, Omar Edwards, got called to do Kanye West in 2006, and he called me three times in a row while I was on the organ at church. So, I tiptoed out of church and asked, “What’s up, O?” He was like, “I need you to rock with Common.” I told him, “Done. Send me the music. I’m there.” There was no rehearsal, all we had was a soundcheck, and I had to learn his whole show — 15-16 songs in a matter of two days. This was around the time right after Be. I was so excited because this was somebody I was listening to forever. From that show, I’ve been rocking with him all the way until now in 2021.
How has your role in Common’s show evolved over time?
I got that gospel background, so I try to add that soulful church sound in there. One thing I love about Common is he gives us the freedom to be artists and express ourselves. A lot of time, he’s like, “Yo, Smurf, just go.” I think because we’re able to create on the spot, when he comes out with a crazy freestyle, we’re also going off the top. We may start off a freestyle with just piano and then throw a crazy breakbeat. Then, he’ll just start flowing and freestyling on top of it. That’s been the magic. That freedom of creativity.
What are your favorite freestyle moments with him?
There’s this one segment in our show where he’ll sometimes bring a girl up on stage and it’s amazing because this dude will just speak to them as if he knew them. He’ll see they have a yellow shirt on and will be like, “Such and such with the yellow shirt/It’s all cool because I’m a flirt.” We’ll be in a city and he’ll call out a street name, but then reference back to the lady he brought on stage and it would be so creative. This dude is a lightweight genius. He’s super educated, so it makes his freestyles greater.
Have you and the band ever had to pull some audibles at shows?
On one particular tour early on, I was still learning the ropes, even just being part of the squad. I didn’t understand what I rehearse doesn’t always translate to the people during the show. There were times where we’d do a show in the first two cities and certain things didn’t go over well. A lot of stuff we would add, like an intro of something, may not connect. So, we’d decide, “Let’s not do it with the track. Let’s just do straight keys and Common.” There have been moments like that where the song doesn’t translate with us doing it with the record, but we just strip it all the way down and just use the piano while Common rhymes over it. Those moments where we’ll come up with ideas like that will make that moment more memorable because it’s more personal due to they’re not being distracted by all the other stuff in the track and they can hear the lyrics.
What are some of the songs that have stayed on Common’s setlist all these years?
“Come Close” is always a great one. “Testify” is a dope one. He adds theatrics to certain parts of “Testify.” He’ll go into acting and other gifts he has, which makes the song come alive. “Black, Maybe” is another one. Also, “Love Of My Life.” The moment the drumbeat for that drops, all the ladies are on their feet like, “What up?!”
What was a memorable crowd reaction?
One that was one of the most touching was one of the first times we did “Glory.” We saw tears in the audience and people had their hands lifted. You saw women and men in there crying. I felt like I was in a church service.
I always hear people tell me, “This is one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.” I’ve played with a lot of artists, but I hear that a lot with Common. He may not have records like JAY-Z that are just out of here. It’s a different translation when you have a record that is performed where you connect with the crowd. JAY-Z can literally play a record and we’re singing lyric for lyric. But, you have a Common that would perform a record where you’re like, “Wow, I never liked that song until I came to the show. The performance just took it over the top and now this is one of my favorite songs.”
I know Common is on his healthy tip, but what has been on his rider over the last 15 years?
You’re going to laugh, but I promise you it’s Martinelli’s Apple Juice (laughs). Also, Oreo cookies. They’re always in there. Growing up, I only saw that apple juice on “The Cosby Show” (laughs).
He’s had so many big artists come out at shows. What were some of the best surprise guests?
I had two favorites. One was when Stevie Wonder came out on stage. This was someone I studied to learn how to structure song arrangements…and now I’m on the piano playing behind this guy while he’s freestyling. One of the craziest reactions was when we were in New York and Q-Tip came out. We were doing “Award Tour,” and I couldn’t hear the music because it was that loud. It almost felt like the building was shaking. It was during the ‘Nobody’s Smiling Tour.’
What is Common like on tour?
He’s a very spiritual person. His heart for God is so huge. There are times we’ll be on the tour bus just talking about God, how God saved him, and how much he loves God. He wants to give love to the world through his art. One of the reasons why I loved touring with him is I would know the purpose behind what he’s doing has always been spreading that love and unity. Also, his creativity. He’s always been true to himself and never let himself get stale. It’s like, this may not be popular, but it’s true to him. If it’s not popular, he’ll be the one to step out and set the trend for it.
I saw you all went to the Australian Zoo in 2014.
Yessir. There were snakes, koala bears, and some stuff I couldn’t pronounce. That’s another thing, he’s very touchable. Some people are like the artists go over here and the crew go over here. He’s like, “Nah, let’s all go to the zoo. What’s up? We all going to eat?” That’s the relationship we have. It’s all love and family.
What else have you done with him offstage?
Basketball. We all are basketball fans, so we all took it to the court. I had to destroy him one time in a game. I remember we were in Spain and I almost dunked on him (laughs). We all love bowling. Any city we go to, we’re like, “Where’s the bowling alley?” We’ll hit up an amusement park, arcades, and everything. Sometimes we’ll go into one hotel room looking at the game.
Let’s move on to your work with K. Michelle. How did you link up with her?
I remember she was looking for a new band, and I remember Darrell [Robinson] and I sent an .mp3 of us playing the song. When they heard it, they were like, “Oh yea. Come pull up.” We went up to MBK in New York with Jeff Robinson, Jeanine [McLean-Williams], and all of them. She met us and loved us instantly. Around this time, they were shooting “Love & Hip Hop.”
It was amazing because she’d be like, “Can I have my keyboard player play the piano in this one scene? I want to sing a song while we’re doing this.” So, I went into the other room, and she was singing “Can’t Raise A Man” while I was playing. From that moment on, we hit it off.
What are some of her tour hits?
“VSOP,” that’s a good one. “Can’t Raise A Man.” Another record that is amazing on tour is this song “Cry.” When she sings that song, I’ve seen grown men in there crying. “Love Em All” is another good.
What’s on her rider?
What I see at every show is that Jack Daniels.
What’s the most memorable show you did with her?
Essence Festival. That was one of the greatest shows and experiences I remember. That lineup was crazy. We were maybe like third, but I remember how the crowd responded to her. She killed that show. That was one of the craziest shows.
You performed with J. Cole at Day N Vegas. How’d you get involved?
Cole is such a smart dude. He’s very genius. I’m still trying to digest that show because it was like a prophecy that was said without being said. It was right before 2020 and he said, “The Fall Off 2020.” I would’ve never thought about a pandemic, the deaths that took place, or the flu vaccine. It’s like he prophesied it. To be honest, it was one of those things where we came together about the setlist and what we thought was the best set. Cole is a very hands-on person who sees the vision in his head and is like, “This is what I see and how I want to see this executed.” He’s very honest and in touch with the show.
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