G.E. Smith & LeRoy Bell – Stony Hill
Format: CD
Label: Bmg Rights
Rlease: 2020

Considering their prodigious respective careers, the upcoming release of legendary G.E. Smith and LeRoy Bell’s Stony Hill, sets the bar high. Between them, first-call blues/rock guitarist Smith and revered soul/R&B singer-songwriter Bell have crafted a uniquely compelling rock ‘n’ soul record that’s poised to attract all music loving audiences. Why the name Stony Hill? It signifies the struggle of ‘pushing that rock up the hill’ muses Bell.

The collection chronicles an in depth look at where we stand as an American democracy without prejudice or presumption. LeRoy delves into the pulse of the American culture with his wise tone and delivers the eleven co-written songs with conviction. “I’ve been looking for a great singer for thirty years, at least – not just a good singer, but a great singer,” Smith recalled of first hearing Bell in 2018. “I said: ‘that’s the voice – that’s the one I’ve been looking for!’”

Perhaps best known for his decade as the distinctively ponytailed musical director for Saturday Night Live (for which he won an Emmy), Smith’s career has also included six years with Hall & Oates at the height of their multi-platinum powers; NET (never ending tour) with Bob Dylan and Rogers Waters. Smith also was sideman to David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Tina Turner; He was the band leader for everything from the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame Museum concert to Dylan’s 30th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, Bell was carving out a career as a hit songwriter for the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Teddy Pendergrass, and The Three Degrees, while also releasing records with duo Bell and James (including successful single “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night)”), and a string of solo albums. Today the leader of his own band, LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends, Bell earned legions of new fans as a finalist in the inaugural season of TV’s smash reality music competition The X Factor in 2011.

“It really intrigued me to do something that’s a little bit different and to bring my talent with his talent,” said Bell of his coming together with Smith. “[To] try to make something new; make something happen. And I think we accomplished that.”

Initially introduced by Smith’s wife, the duo discovered such instant chemistry that they began recording together almost immediately. Combining compositions from both artists, co-written tracks, and a couple of cover versions (the traditional ballad “Black Is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair)” and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine”), the resulting Stony Hill – also named for the street where Smith resides – is a robust ride through soulful, R&B-tinted blues rock characterized by emotive vocals, tastefully virtuosic play-for-the-song guitar, and a throughline emphasis on melody.

“What I love, for American music, is the combination of rock ‘n’ roll and R&B,” said Smith. “LeRoy writes really good songs with good hooks … [and] hey, you can dance to it!”

Lead single from the album, “America”, personifies the catchy yet clever tone throughout Stony Hill, sweetening its weightily nostalgic message with an irresistible hook. “When we played ‘America’ live … by the middle of the song – first time they’ve ever heard it – people are singing it with us,” marveled Smith. “And that’s always a good sign!”

Elsewhere, “Change is Coming”, “Take Cover”, (if you want to survive) eerily sets the tone of the divided, while projecting an ominous warning of the invisible war we are waging. “Under These Skies” continue a theme of strong insight into our hopes and fears while using swingable songs that also have something to say. “You don’t want to slap people in the face with stuff,” said Smith. “But I think it’s important – especially right now, this year – that something gets said.” (When you get to a certain point, I can’t just write regular ‘love me do’ songs anymore!” Bell laughed.)

Smith’s cover of “Codine” speaks to the opioid epidemic and Art’s Sick is a smart, observant song on contemporary artists. Bell’s distinctive vocals and Smith’s stellar guitar work bring a fresh urgency to “Black is the Color”, a song with roots reaching back over 100 years which Smith has long included in his repertoire; while the organ-flecked “Let the Sunshine In” lends a throwback air of airy optimism.

Stony Hill was recorded in 2019 at Applewild Farm in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and mixed at Grand Street Recording in Brooklyn, with Smith handling both production and mixing duties. Former Free/Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke (a neighbor of Smith’s) contributed his famed feel to the album, which will be released this summer through BMG.

While the Smith-Bell collaboration is bi-coastal (Smith lives in Amagansett, N.Y.; Bell in Seattle), the duo has bonded over the writing and recording of Stony Hill, staying at each others’ homes while writing, recording, and playing their first couple of live shows last year.

The Smith-Bell collaboration is bi-coastal (Smith lives in Amagansett, N.Y., Bell in Seattle.) “We both really enjoy playing music and having a good time,” Bell enthused. “And I think that’s what propelled this project.” Most importantly, they have sustainable synergy and will endure the toughest of times. Smith muses, “we plan to keep at it for a long time.”

01. Black is the Color
02. You and Me
03. America
04. Take Cover
05. Art’s Sick
06. How Does it Feel
07. Let the Sunshine In
08. Codine
09. Under These Skies
10. Change is Coming Now
11. When I Close My Eyes

Website: G.E. Smith & LeRoy Bell