We sat in the old Harmon Theater, anxiously awaiting to see and hear our musical hero play a concert here on the stage. Our little town did not For once, the old theater was packed tight, with people from 8 to 80, all excited. Talk in the town was that he was going to promote his new album, one compiled completely of picking tunes. The show was supposed to start at 8, but 8 O’clock came and went, and still no sign of the star attraction. A few locals sat and played a few tunes, but nobody seemed interested in even giving them a chance. Heck, we could hear those guys at any of the local bars in town on any given night. We came to see one man, and one man only.
After about 45 minutes of waiting, the crowd grew anxious and impatient. Suddenly, The room darkened, only to show one small spotlight following a figure of small stature to the stage. As he walked down the aisles, and toward the steps of the stage, he stumbled and almost fell over. I remember as the crowd let out an ‘Aww!”, as he staggered and stumbled to the stage. When it looked like he was going to fall over, a stage hand ran over and helped him to the stage. The neck of his guitar slammed hard into the corner of the stage door, and the crowd became worried that their hero may not last the entire show.
The crowd clapped with anticipation as he finally reached the bandstand. With a backup band made up of locals, he began to play his guitar. The once loud crowd quieted down to listen to him play their favorite songs. He started out with a sad song, which has always been his trademark. When he reached the middle of the song, he performed the chorus by picking it out on the guitar, and the crowd clapped loudly at this feat. He was voted the best instrumental guitar picker many times, and it was easy to see why. Before he reached the end of the song, he stumbled again, almost falling over the stage. People looked on in shock, as he picked himself up and attempted to regain his composure.
He managed to make it until the middle of the show, playing tunes that made tears appear in everyone’s eyes. He played songs like “Bringing Mary Home”, “Don’t Tell Jeannie I’m Blind”, and many other tear jerkers, and in between the sad songs, he made sure he cheered up the audience with a bluegrass number or an instrumental tune. Despite the fact that we paid for an hour show, and only got half an hour, we still respected the man, and his attempts to put on a show.
I heard that he stayed around town for a few weeks after the concert. He had some old acquaintances that had played in many of the bands he had in the many years he had been performing. We later heard that he had passed on within a few months of leaving town. On the 8th of January, 1997, the world lost a legend. Smiley Bates, who had entertained his fans despite fighting a long battle with cancer, passed away.
I remember my dad sitting on the couch, picking out Smiley tunes on the guitar. He would listen to the many records Smiley had recorded, and teach himself some of the classics that Smiley played. The melodies still ring in my head today, almost 30 years afterwards, and I am fortunate that I can say that I heard and seen the man play his tunes, right here in Newfoundland.