Charlie Francis Smith ‘The Love Remains’

I went to my friend’s Funeral Service yesterday. It was sunny but unseasonably cold for March 19th – even for upstate Albany, New York. Charlie Smith was one of the best. You hear this said so often and even more so during a Funeral Service/Memorial – but this is truth.

Charlie played with spirit – childlike spirit – he knew his stuff but didn’t play that way -he transcended these things when he was on stage – he played loose – fast – melodic – on fire – slow burning – one note sustain that could tear your heart out and make you laugh. It’s been said that while holding a note on this guitar – his keyboardist’s glass lens cracked. I recall playing a show with Charlie at Vivian’s Lounge in downtown Troy, New York in 2015. His song Holiday Blues was one of the highlights of the evening. I was playing rhythm – holding on best I could. You can listen to this live performance below.

Like most artists – we oscillate from a feeling of supreme confidence to a feeling of whether we are any good at all. I guess it’s just the cycle of things and keeps us humble – always working towards getting better. Charlie Francis Smith had a tough life. He grew up in homes without the loving support of his parents – he did have siblings that he was close to -but they too had their struggles and weren’t able to see each other very often. It’s a blessing and a curse to have no home – there’s a freedom to be who you are meant to be – to not feel tied down to the expectations of the one’s you love.

I recall fondly when I first met Charlie – at least I think this is the first time we met. If we did meet prior it wasn’t for very long and didn’t leave as much of an impression. The Ale House in downtown Troy, New York -is known for its excellent fried chicken wings – ice cold beer and red-hot live music. The owner Brian Gilchrist – really has a way of bringing in top local and national talent to this little rustically worn-down establishment. Anyways… they were having a Sunday- early evening Open Mic with Charlie Smith and his band hosting. I recall while seated in the music-dining room of the Ale House – Charlie walking in from his car with a cooler… I figured there would be beer in there or something… but it was milk! Yes indeed – just what the doctor ordered to manage his sugar. Charlie was a quirky kind of guy -warmhearted – sometimes scattered – but always laser focused on stage. He gave it his all – even right down to before his passing. His command of the guitar wasn’t just about virtuosity. Virtuosity is great – but Charlie took things a step further and put himself into his guitar – the guitar was his voice and it bared his soul. This isn’t something you learn – it’s something you live and he lived it right until the end.

I remember my first time going to where Charlie was living for a guitar lesson in 2017. Charlie took a liking to my songwriting per the Ale House open-mic. He particularly liked a song I wrote inspired by my Sister Rose – aptly titled ‘My Sister Rose’ When I arrived at the address of his place of residence – it was a big three-story house across from Washington Park in Albany, New York and as I walked up the stairs to the third floor – I couldn’t help but realize I was walking up to the attic. As Charlie opened the door to greet me and I walked in – I immediately noticed a very clean – very organized – simple/minimal belongings – with a military style bed to sleep in. When you have the mind of a genius – you don’t need much in the material realm -just your tools – food – water and a place to sleep. There is a lot to be said about this for all of us. So many of us chase material things as if it will make our life experience fuller – and although it’s nice to have a nice car/transportation – warm comfortable place – food to live and a few toys – that’s all anybody needs -nothing more. Of course, our health is everything and this is something I wish Charlie paid closer attention to – but we all fall prey to our habits – routines – myself included and sometimes don’t even realize the damage we are doing to ourselves as we just don’t see it. And in some way maybe the very thing we are doing that keeps us alive is what eventually kills us. Here is a clip/excerpt of my lesson with Charlie on that visit.

I couldn’t help but feel emotional – tear up while walking into the funeral parlor. As I entered – I immediately saw a few binders filled with Charlie’s songs – music notes – news articles – you name it. Some of his songs were pinned on the walls – including Holiday Blues. As I walked to the front of the parlor – what struck me were two things – the first thing was all the pictures of Charlie performing with young musicians/around grammar school age. Charlie had that childlike purity in his music – that wonder – the magic never left him. Christ too was childlike – the greatest of philosophers have said a brilliant mind has a healthy balance of seriousness and childlike playfulness/goofiness. He truly loved sharing his gift with others – whether it would be by example during a performance or teaching/telling stories. Once of our great guitarists in the area Matt Mira was very close to Charlie and also a student from a young age -he is pictured below in the middle – with Charlie to the right and I’m not sure who the gentleman to the left is.

I’m sure there are many – myself included that Charlie had such a great influence on. The second thing that struck me was his empty open guitar case – so worn-out at the seams but clean inside – maintained with love – his beat-up guitar on a stand to the right – but the fretboard immaculately clean – his guitar amp to the right of his guitar – looking like it could fall to dust at any moment – but solid as concrete when you touched it and heavy as a small car – and Charlie carried that amp to many a show – up steep stairs – down long sidewalks – down steep stairs and anywhere there was a stage to be played – a labor of love.

What I’ve written here pales in comparison to listening to all the wonderful stories that were shared during the service. There were stories that made you laugh so hard you thought you would pee your pants and stories that were so sad – you thought you would sink-in to nothing. But for me, writing this is an exercise in remembering my experience with Charlie.  I wasn’t as close to Charlie as many were – but we surely had our moments of connection when our roads met for a while. He gave me much more than I returned and I will be sure to honor that by never leaving anything on the stage during a performance.

The only thing that should remain is Charlie’s spirit – love – playfulness.

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