Fred "Sonic" Smith was one of the key architects of the Detroit High Energy rock sound as guitarist and co-founder of the legendary MC5, and while his work after the band's breakup was sporadic, what has survived is strong enough to confirm his reputation as one of the great unsung heroes of Midwest rock & roll.
Fred Sonic Smith was born in West Virginia on September 13, 1949. During his early childhood, Smith's family moved to Detroit, MI, and at the age of 12 he began learning how to play guitar. By the time Smith was in junior high, he was good enough to be playing in a local band, where he met Wayne Kramer, a classmate who, like Smith, was playing British Invasion-influenced garage rock; Kramer also shared Smith's curiosity about exploring unusual musical avenues. In 1964, Smith and Kramer joined up with another of Detroit's teenage rock enthusiasts, Rob Tyner, and they decided to form a band called MC5 — standing for "Motor City Five" and designed to make the group's name sound like a hot-rod club. While the band's early material was fairly standard-issue stuff for a local teen band of the mid-'60s, MC5's guitarists began exploring their shared passion for the blues, their budding fondness for the exploratory possibilities of jazz, and the otherworldly roar of guitar feedback. Their experiments scared away the group's first rhythm section, but with Michael Smith on bass and Dennis Thompson on drums, they soon evolved into one of the most powerful bands of their day, with the fiery wail of Smith and Kramer's guitars sounding a clarion call for a trailblazing blend of hard rock punch and free jazz wanderlust.
In 1967, MC5's musical approach attracted the attention of poet and counterculture organizer John Sinclair, who became the group's manager and put a new emphasis on the band's previously subtextural political slant. As the new house band of the radical, leftist White Panther Party, MC5 became one of the most controversial bands in America. While their music was, in many ways, as revolutionary as their political stance, their image as rabble-rousers made it all but impossible for the band to reach a sizable audience outside the Midwest, despite the strength and musical diversity of their three albums (they were frequent headliners at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, but had little luck finding gigs on the East Coast or West Coast). The group's final LP, High Time, was the first to feature individual songwriting credits for the group's originals, and Smith contributed two superb hard rockers, "Sister Anne" and "Skunk (Sonically Speaking)," that open and close the album, while his sole lead vocal with the band, "Shakin' Street" (from Back in the USA), was one of that album's finest and most distinctive moments.
In 1972, MC5 called it quits, and Smith began looking for a new vehicle for his musical vision. He soon formed a band called Ascension, reuniting with fellow MC5 vets Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis, but the band proved to be short-lived, and in 1973, Smith teamed up with another veteran of the Detroit scene, Scott Morgan, the former lead singer of the Rationals. Smith pitched in with lead guitar on Morgan's first post-Rationals single, "Take a Look"/"Soul Mover," and soon formed a band with Morgan. By 1976, the group had evolved into Sonic's Rendezvous Band, a Detroit supergroup that featured former Stooges drummer Scott Asheton and Up bassist Gary Rasmussen alongside Smith and Morgan. Sonic's Rendezvous was one of the finest and most electrifying American rock bands of their day, but given the bad reputation MC5 and the Stooges left upon the music industry, a band featuring members of both groups would prove to be a tough sell, and the group was never able to score the record deal they richly deserved. The only studio recording the band released was a self-distributed single of Smith's masterpiece "City Slang," with the same song appearing on both sides (a stereo mix on the A-side, mono on the B-side).
In 1976, firebrand rock poetess Patti Smith visited Detroit while touring behind her album Radio Ethiopia, and was introduced to Fred Sonic Smith at a party held at Lafayette Coney Island, one of the city's most celebrated hot dog stands. While Fred Smith was married at the time, he and Patti immediately hit it off, and before long a low-key romance blossomed between them. By 1978, Fred was once again single, and he and Patti were free to go public with their relationship. In 1980, Fred and Patti were married; Sonic's Rendezvous Band had recently broken up, and after a calamitous European tour following the release of her album, Wave, Patti opted to retire from touring. The couple moved to St. Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit, and quietly settled down to raise a son and a daughter away from the media spotlight and the rigors of a musician's life. Both Patti and Fred continued to write music together, and in 1986, Patti came out of retirement to record the album Dream of Life. Fred wrote much of the material in collaboration with Patti, played guitar on the album, and helped to produce the sessions. In a 1996 interview, Patti said, "Dream of Life was really more Fred's record — it was all Fred's music, Fred's philosophy." Though it featured the anthemic "People Have the Power," a song that would become a highlight of Patti's live shows, Dream of Life failed to find an audience, despite strong reviews. Sadly, it would prove to be one of Fred's last major projects. In the late '80s, his health went into decline, and on November 9, 1994, Fred Sonic Smith died of heart failure in a Detroit hospital — ironically, the same malady that took the life of MC5 vocalist Rob Tyner two years earlier.
After Fred's death, Patti Smith returned to recording and performing, often citing Fred's influence upon her work, and a steady stream of archival MC5 releases brought his music to a new generation of fans. In 1998, a local Detroit label, Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts, released the first authorized Sonic's Rendezvous Band album, Sweet Nothing, a previously bootlegged live recording of a firestorm live show the group played in Ann Arbor in 1978. In 1999, the same label released a second Sonic's Rendezvous collection, City Slang, which mixed a variety of live performances with the rare studio recording of the title cut. ~ Mark Deming