45 years and the beat goes on
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
Music is in Steve Smith’s DNA and Steve’s DNA is in the music of The Nakeds, the well-known band he has been a part of for 45 years.
Yes, Steve Smith and the Nakeds are observing their 45th anniversary, and the iconic group shows no signs of slowing down. Four and a half decades is a rather remarkable run for any enterprise, but it is a special accomplishment for a music-making ensemble.
“First of all, I have been blessed with good health,” says the energetic Smith, 66, who holds a black belt in karate and still instructs classes in the martial arts. He also plays hockey weekly with amateur groups. “Sports has helped keep me straight and in shape,” he chuckles. “I’d rather play hockey than go to a bar.”
Despite the fact that he holds a degree from PC in graphic design and has worked in the field, he would rather play music and sing than have any other job. The band he leads has been his life’s work.
At the outset the group was called Naked Truth and Steve wasn’t yet a member. He was a student at Providence College, playing goalie on the hockey team and working 35 hours a week at an iron foundry to pay his way through school.
He had begun singing in public back in the eighth grade in a garage band first called The Blokes and then The Nightcrawlers. His early promise was recognized the next year when the group won a battle of the bands in Smithfield, where he grew up.
The other competing bands’ members were all of college age, but they were bested by Steve and his determined clutch of adolescents. It could be considered prophetic that one of the members of The Nightcrawlers was John Cafferty. He is Steve’s cousin, and would go on to much renown with The Beaver Brown Band. In fact, he began his rise to fame earlier than Steve, who was starting his athletic career and became an All-State goal keeper for Smithfield High School’s hockey squad.
By the time he was in college he found his way back to singing and was appearing regularly with a hard-rock group call Bloody Mary. It was a good time to be in a band, and he discovered that he could make more money playing Friday and Saturday nights than he made working at the foundry all week. Something had to give and Steve left the hockey team and the foundry and focused his extra-curricular energy on music.
One night, destiny put Bloody Mary and Naked Truth on the same bill at Stanley Green’s, a popular Rhode Island venue for live music back in the 1970s. Unusual because it was a rock band with its own horn section, the Naked Truth’s sound appealed to Steve, and apparently his talent appealed to the group’s founder Frank Rapone. He invited Steve to become one of the singers and double on baritone sax for Naked Truth.
There began the 45 year odyssey that Steve and the group is celebrating this year. Like true love, a band’s career doesn’t always flow smoothly. After a couple of years of sharing the lead singing role, Steve expressed the artistic differences he was feeling and declared his desire to become the leader of Naked Truth.
According to an extensive history of the group by Rick Bellaire that appears on the band’s website, Smith told the other members, “What I’d like to do is take this in a direction that suits me – I’m in front of the band. I’m not taking over the band – I don’t want to be a dictator, but if I’m gonna front the band, I need to do what I do best.” The opposing viewpoints that emerged in the discussions that followed were different enough that a falling out occurred. When the dust cleared Smith was the leader. To this day, though, he downplays the idea that he dictates to the other members.
“I’m only as good as the guys behind me. Someone has to be in charge, but we’re in it for the music. The Nakeds focus for 45 years has always been the music. My biggest thing is not to burn any bridges. We’ve had people leave and come back. I always try to leave the door open.”
The most dramatic example was probably when, after many years and several invitations, Frank Rapone came back.
“He played an integral part back then and is an even more integral part now. That’s why I wanted him back,” Smith says, noting that some 63 people have performed with the group since its inception, a number of them for more than one stint.
“Only two were ever fired. There was an understanding for the rest that I would always be receptive if they wanted to return or if I asked them to.”
One of the long time members, baritone sax player T.J. Schwartz died three years ago, and Smith says he still feels his presence when they are on stage. Two members, brothers Bobby and Steve DeCurtis, have been with the Nakeds “since day one,” says the leader.
By 1981, the band, developing their sound, a fusion of rock and rhythm and blues, had a growing following and wider geographic appeal. It was then that it became apparent to Naked Truth that their name was a very popular one for music groups. There were numerous others performing under the same title. In fact, there were too many to defend against encroachment. So, they had little choice. They had to change their moniker, and they rechristened the band with its now legendary name. Steve points out that the logo for the group still contains the word truth in small letters if you look closely enough.
With their new make-up, new name, and a growing fan base Steve Smith and the Nakeds expanded their geographic range, playing up and down the East Coast and beyond. With an eye to landing a record deal they introduced original songs to their repertoire and sought ways to promote them.
“Getting a record deal is like grabbing the brass ring,” Smith says.
The band’s traction toward appearing on vinyl began with a couple of cover tunes, but the greatest visibility and attention came from an offbeat risqué-sounding original called “I’m Huge (And the Babes Go Wild)”.
It became a favorite anthem on the club scene where Steve Smith and the Nakeds played regularly, and earned some notice from MTV. Eventually, they released an album called Coming to a Theater Near You on their own label, Huge Records. The Miller Brewing company included a song from the album called “She’s a Crook” on a Miller-sponsored RCA Records compilation LP of the best unsigned acts in America.
A long-term record deal continued to elude the group, however, and Smith stopped and took stock of the situation. It turned into a defining moment. It was the mid-1980s and the club scene was shrinking, the album had boosted the group’s image and increased its followers, but the top echelon of rock stardom was not quite in reach and might never be. It didn’t matter. What Steve Smith and the Nakeds was all about was making music. Where it took them was a matter of fate.
As Rick Bellaire quotes him the in the group history he compiled: “the true goal was not just reaching for the brass ring to become a “star” or make a million dollars, but to just keep on playing because in the end, it’s really all about the music. It’s about being a musician and having to play music.”
“It’s a passion,” Smith told The Smithfield Times. “I was given a gift. Each guy in the band has that passion, and they keep on giving.”
Arguably the commitment he made at that moment in 1984 goes a long way toward explaining the group’s longevity and staying power. More than for the money or the star status, they are in it for the music, and while it may not have resulted in a long-term deal with a big label, Steve and the band’s faithfulness to their passion has kept them going for nearly half a century.
It also resulted in a ten year association with the late Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who played 30 gigs a year with Steve Smith and the Nakeds before he died in 2011. Springsteen himself encouraged the Nakeds, whose reach by now extended to LasVegas where Clemons was a favorite.
There were many other high points. For example, the group played for President Bill Clinton at a Healthcare rally at Liberty State Park in New Jersey in 1994.
They also did a song called “Blue Eyes Don’t” composed by Nils Lofgren, lead guitarist for the E-Street Band, on which Clemons did a solo. It was featured in the Farrelly Brothers 2014 movie Dumb and Dumber To, a sequel to the 1994 hit Dumb and Dumber.
Then lightning struck in an unforeseen way when a bonus video of “I’m Huge (And the Babes Go Wild)” was incorporated into the Family Guy animated series sixth season DVD collection. Steve’s younger brother Danny is an executive with the production company for Family Guy and advanced the idea. Viewers indeed seemed to think it was huge, and they went wild playing it on You Tube to the tune of more than 250,000 hits.
As Bellaire’s narrative explains, “The band signed with Hit Brothers Records which secured the group a distribution deal with RED Music, a division of Sony Music, the biggest record company in the world. A ‘greatest hits’ package culling tracks from the band’s two albums entitled, of course, ‘I’m Huge’ was assembled and the initial CD pressings sold out several times and became a top-selling download on iTunes and Amazon.”
Lately, notes Smith the group did a song for a TV pilot of a sitcom with a Rhode Island angle and their collaboration with Clarence Clemons is probably going to be a featured in a documentary coming out in the near future.
All of the group’s achievements were recognized on April 28, 2013 when Naked Truth and Steve Smith and the Nakeds were inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, and they haven’t skipped a beat working since then.
“We have had a gig every New Year’s Eve for 46 years, Smith observes. “We’re booked until next New Years.”
Current members are: Steve Smith, lead vocals; Steve DeCurtis, trumpet; Bobby DeCurtis, tenor sax; Josh Kane, trombone; Jaime Rodrigues, baritone sax; Mark Legault, alto sax; Frank Rapone, keyboard; Ed Vallee, guitar, vocals; Mike Marra, bass; and Joe Groves, drums.
Smith credits his father for encouraging him as a child, even ensuring that he took voice lessons as a youth, and he says “I’ve had a partner, my wife, the former Karen Octeau, a hometown girl, who always helps me do the things I want to do. I’m very, very lucky. It’s been a great career.”
The last word belongs to Rick Bellaire, because no-one can top it. In closing the band’s historic profile he asked Steve Smith how long he plans to continue.
“Until the phone stops ringing,” Steve replied.