Smith sings new tune with hall induction
Gary Smith is known for the many hats he wears: school board member, cheerleader of business development, president of Rochester Area Economic Development, Inc.
Who knew that beneath his suited, business-like exterior beats the heart of a rock 'n' roller?
Or that Smith's turn as a lead singer for an Iowa garage band would be immortalized in the Iowa Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, to which Smith was recently inducted ?
But true revelation comes when you hear Smith sing. That's when surprise turns to astonishment.
"People generally, when they find out, are a little surprised because they don't expect it," Smith said.
Back in the late 60s, Smith's textured, husky vocals filled gyms and legion halls as lead singer for the Macabras, a five-member band for which Smith began singing as a junior high freshman in Burlington, Iowa.
The band's reputation spread as it traveled to gigs across southeast Iowa and western Illinois. The teen band avoided bars because of their age and were often, at least early on, in the company of their parents, the only ones old enough to drive. But wherever the band played — youth centers, proms, high school dances, and Battle of Band competitions, nearly all of which they won — it won admirers.
"We played all over," Smith said. "I don't ever recall not being asked to go back anywhere we performed."
In addition to Smith, the band consisted of Joel Kipp (guitar/vocals), Tom Lippert (keyboard/vocals), Tim Hermann (drums) and Dennis Duke (bass). It became known for its vocal harmonies and its performance of songs by The Buckinghams, The Cryin' Shames and the Beatles.
Often known for its wide open spaces and farming communities, Iowa also boasted a thriving rock scene in the late '60s and '70s. As a boy growing up, Smith was already recognized as a youth with some vocal skill. At the time, Elvis was the musical sensation, and Smith recalls how at family gatherings, he would often be encouraged to perform such Elvis favorites as "All Shook Up."
The Macabras didn't have a long tenure on the musical stage. The band disbanded once its members graduated from high school, but it left a lasting impression among many who heard them. As freshmen, the Macabras recorded a single song, an experience made possible by their junior high principal, Roger Hamilton, who fronted the band the $500 to record the song.
"He wanted us to have the experience of doing," said Smith, adding that the band not only paid the principal back but honored him by creating a record label in his name called the Hamilton label.
Smith said he continued to perform and sing through college and beyond, but the performing side of his life basically ended when he moved to Rochester.
"When I graduated from college, I asked my wife, 'maybe I should go try to do this,'" Smith laughs as he recalls her negative reaction to that suggestion.
Not that singing ended for Smith. It simply retreated to a smaller arena, a basement studio where Smith continued to compose and sing and write songs and find escape from the stresses of life.
But every so often the secret gets out. At the funeral of Rochester City Council President Dennis Hanson, a good friend of Smith's, Smith gave a rendition of "The Lord's Prayer" that many say was the most moving and spine-tingling moment of the service.
"I did get a lot of nice comments and compliments from people," Smith said. "That was a particularly hard thing to do, because Denny was a close personal friend of mine, and I just knew it had to be right."
Despite its relatively short shelf-life, the Macabras continued to resonate with people who heard them sing four decades ago.
In 1997, the band held a reunion and recorded a CD that they handed out to friends. One of those CDs was sent to the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Music Association , the beginning of a chain of events that ended with the band's induction in the organization's Hall of Fame.
When the band gathered in Arnolds Park for its induction, it put on a performance for a sold-out audience of 1,200 people, the first time the group had taken the stage together in 42 years. The band was minus one member, Tim Herman, who had died earlier in the year.
Smith said he was relieved when the performance was over.
"When you're not doing it every day, it kind of puts on a little stress," he said. "Now that I've seen the video and heard it, it's OK. That's OK. I can live with that. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't embarrassing."