Entertainment

Eugene ‘Woody’ Smith, 76, Former Temptations Bassist, Dies

Eugene “Woody” Smith, a lifelong musician who in the early 1970s was the touring bassist for The Temptations, has died. He was 76.

Smith died Monday, April 13 in Beaver, Pa., from complications related to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

As a native of Pittsburgh’s Homewood section, Smith gained his musicianship skills and talents under the direction of legendary Westinghouse High School band director Carl McVicker. The band instructor was known for grooming such jazz greats as Earl Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and Ahmad Jamal.

Early in his career, Smith was known for his jazz talents as an upright bass player in the mode of Pittsburgh giants Ray Brown and Paul Lawrence Dunbar Chambers. By the early 1970s, he, like other jazzmen (a la Miles Davis), transitioned to the electric Fender bass, becoming the city’s equivalent to Detroit bassist James Jamerson, according to music historian and fellow Homewood native Darryl “Boogie” Dunn.

“When Woody auditioned for, and was hired to play the Temptations gig, we were all so proud in Pittsburgh — but we weren’t surprised,” Dunn said.

When informed of his former bandmate’s death, Temptations’ leader and surviving founding member Otis Williams offered this response from his home in Southern California: “Woody was a wonderful person and a hell of a bass player. We really enjoyed working with him while touring in the ’70s. My sincere condolences to his daughter and family.”

Dunn recalled many local Pittsburgh gigs where Smith honed his skills as a superb and funky jazz bassist. He recounted a set with Van and the Village Vanguards, a funk band led by drummer Van Harris, son of iconic Pittsburgh Courier photographer Teenie Harris. The Vanguards also featured saxman George Green, guitarist Larry “Butch” McGee and organist David “Sugar” Cane.

Smith also played with a house band called Cincinnati & The In-Crowd, at the similarly-named club on Route 51 on Pittsburgh’s South Side. The Cincinnati group featured bandleader, saxophonist and club owner Cincinnati Hall and his wife/vocalist Dora Hall.

But it was the house-band gig at The Fox in Shadyside is where Smith made his mark, Dunn said.

“They would have a line of folks on Walnut Street waiting to enter the club in Shadyside,” he said. “The band was just that hot.”

Smith played at the 755 Club (Workingmen’s Club) on Devilliers Street in the Hill District and Joe Westray’s Plaza on Lincoln Avenue in East Liberty.  He also performed with popular vocal group These Gents.

Smith recorded the “Live in Japan” LP (1973) with the Temptations during the era when the group also featured Otis Damon Harris of Baltimore, Dennis Edwards and Richard Street (all deceased) along with originals Melvin Franklin (deceased) and Otis Williams.

After the Temptations gig, Smith retreated from the professional touring scene, to a more sedate married, home-life in suburban Beaver County, Pa. with his longtime wife Emily Joyce Smith (deceased) and daughter, Robin Owens Hill. He also worked for the Pa. Railroad at Conway Yards near Ambridge.

In the mid-2000s, Smith rose from musical retirement and played his last gigs with Sounds Unlimited of Beaver County. Bandleader Ronnie Cox said Smith was a treat to perform with, but never wore his Temptations’ experience on his sleeves.

“He was a very humble person, but so talented,” Cox said. “And he could read music. That set him apart from many of his counterparts.”

SUBC lasted for nearly 10 years and is considered the final live R&B-jazz band to exist in Beaver County, Pa.

Smith is survived by his great-grandchildren and extended family members, including many in the greater Washington area.

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