WOOD, JOHN BRICE [SMOKEY]

Tony Wilson

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WOOD, JOHN BRICE [SMOKEY] (1918–1975). Smokey Wood, pianist, vocalist, and bandleader, was born John Bryce Wood on September 16, 1918, in Harrison, Arkansas, to Zack, a railroad engineer, and Maude (Hudgins) Wood, a piano player. He spent his childhood in Oklahoma before moving to Houston in 1935 at the age of seventeen.

Wood brought his band, the Oklahoma Playboys, with him to Houston. The band included mandolin player Leo Raley, Leo's guitarist brother Randall, and fiddler Buddy Ray. They found it hard at first to break into Houston's musical scene because their music reflected jazz influences such as Fats Waller, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday, as well as country and blues styles, and even Stephen Foster tunes. The band started playing in beer joints and lived off of their dollar-a-night pay and tips. Eventually, the band got some airtime at radio station KXYZ. Soon, however, Wood left KXYZ. With Leon “Pappy” Selph, Hezzie Bryant, Charles Keeshan, and Floyd Tillman, he formed the Blue Ridge Playboys. After about a year, Wood went out on his own with a new band, the Georgia Flyers.

They began playing on radio station KTRH, where, at the suggestion of station manager Harry Greer, the band changed its name to the Modern Mountaineers. By this time, Wood had developed a fondness for marijuana. He was apparently high most of the time and even smoked on the bandstand, hence his nickname, Smokey. This predilection also led to him being known as the Houston Hipster. Fiddler J. R. Chatwell also joined the Modern Mountaineers, bringing with him bassist Rip Ramsey. Hal Herbert added his tenor sax, which was an unusual sound coming from a “hillbilly” band. Steel guitar player J. C. Way and guitarist Lefty Groves were also added.

While playing in the Houston area, the Dallas producer Bill Boyd heard Wood and the Mountaineers and asked them to record some sides. In order to avoid copyright fees, the band had to record original material at the March 1, 1937, session in San Antonio. This would be Wood's only recording session with the Modern Mountaineers. The band’s business manager Roy Thames disliked Wood's voice and, with the ever-increasing presence of pianist and vocalist Sock Underwood, Wood decided to leave the group to pursue a day job at a Houston filling station.

Wood got another chance from the Dallas record company that recorded the Modern Mountaineer sessions, and he cut ten tracks on September 12, 1937, in Dallas, with J. C. Way on steel guitar. Various other local musicians joined Wood, and they recorded under the name of the Wood Chips.

Smokey could always get jobs, but he rarely kept them for long, He went back to Oklahoma, accompanied by J. R. Chatwell, where they met Bob Wills, who asked Chatwell and Smokey to build a new band around his fiddle-playing father, Uncle John. After several months, Uncle John took the stage but was so drunk that he thought he was broadcasting. When Bob Wills tried to remonstrate with him, Uncle John said, “Quiet, Bob, we’re on the air.” The next day Smokey and Chatwell were on their way back to Texas.

Smokey continued to lead a peripatetic lifestyle. He got married and fathered a child. He roamed around the Southwest, California, and the Northeast. In 1945 he enjoyed a brief stint with Spade Cooley in Los Angeles at a time when the self-styled “King of Western Swing” gained nationwide popularity with “Shame, Shame on You.” But Smokey, overwhelmed by Cooley’s complex arrangements, soon departed.

Wood worked as a radio announcer in Oklahoma and California and as a promoter in various regions of the country. He eventually returned to Texas, where he raised fighting cocks, tried his hand at painting, and continued to play music. He also found time to operate a flea market in Waco.

Wood continued to play solo gigs and found occasional work with Cliff Bruner in Beaumont, Bill Mounce in Houston, and Adolph Hofner in San Antonio. During the 1940s to 1960 he also worked the carnival circuit from time to time with fiddler Buddy Ray and played band and solo gigs.

Toward the end of his life, Wood was living in Meridian, Texas, on property he had inherited. He did have a lengthy gig with Houston saxophonist Joe Sanchez. In fact, his last recordings, a cover of “Lucille” and “Spirit of ’76,” were made with Sanchez.

Woods, a heavy drinker, gained weight and was over 250 pounds. Having drunk himself into poor health and showing no interest in seeing a doctor, Wood died on January 6, 1975, of probable heart failure.

His recorded legacy can be found on compilations such as Hot Mama Stomp: Stompin' Singers and Western Swingers—More From the Golden Years of Western Swing (Proper Records, 2004) and Kings of Western Swing (Pazzazz, 2004). A vinyl album, Smokey Wood: The Houston Hipster—Western Swing 1937, was released in 1982 by Rambler Records.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), accessed August 30, 2011. Marty Pahls and Jeff Richardson, Liner notes, Smokey Wood: The Houston Hipster—Western Swing 1937 (Rambler 107, 1982) (http://myweb.uiowa.edu/jwolcott/Smokey/smokey.htm), accessed August 30, 2011.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Tony Wilson, "WOOD, JOHN BRICE [SMOKEY]," accessed July 24, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwo53.

Uploaded on March 18, 2015. Modified on November 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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