Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tommy Smothers - Comedian Guitars Part Four

The final installment of Comedian Guitars is about Tommy Smothers, the guitar playing brother of The Smothers Brothers. He was the one his mother did not like best.

Tom was born in New York City. Tom’s father was Major Thomas Smother, a West Point graduate and military officer during WWII. The Major died when he was being transported from a POW camp in Japan. Tom’s mother moved the family to the Los Angles area and raised her children in Califonia’s Redondo Beach area.

Tom and Dick Smothers both attended San José State University. The brothers joined a folk group called the Casual Quintet. By 1959 they were playing at the popular Purple Onion, a San Francisco folk club. A few years later they developed the Smothers Brothers act and recorded a successful comedy album at the same club. In 1961 they made their first national appearance on The Jack Paar Show, and later on The Steve Allen Show, which was the forerunner of the Tonight Show.

The brothers set out ot be serious folk singers. Tom would introduce a song by making things up. Dick would chime in by disagreeing with Tom. Then a brotherly argument would ensue with a comic ending.

By 1965, CBS television offered them an hour long variety show. The brothers agreed to the show and it was a huge success. By 1967 their contract came up for renewal. In the contract language, they insisted on total creative control.

Now this was at a time when the United States was in the midst of the very unpopular Viet Nam War, social unrest was rampant due to the war and civil injustice to Black citizens. The drug culture was emerging, as was free love and an interest arose in alternative forms of religion. The Smothers Brothers, led by Tom, felt a calling to speak up on these topics by use of their humor. This did not sit well with the CBS censors. Each show became a battle. This led to the show’s demise.

Tom became very politically active. At one point he joined his friend John Lennon on the recording of Give Peace A Chance.

Tom Smothers found other work in the entertainment industry and won acolades for his talent and determination to take a stand. He owns a vineyard in Sonoma County and creates wines under the Remick Ridge Vineyards label.

Tom Smothers has used only two brands of guitar during his career. He played a Martin or a Guild.

The guitar that he is primarly seen with is the Guild D-55TV. This is Guild’s top-of-the-line dreadnaught. Although it is not as fancy as a Martin D-45, the Guild is a fine instrument.

It has been used by Folk, Country and Bluegrass artists and hearlded for its big voice. The D-55 is a true workhorse of a guitar. Unlike the Les Paul TV model, which had a yellow hue to show up better on black and white television, the Guild designation of TV is due to the use of the best woods and craftsmanship, that Guild Guitars would be proud to display on television.

I have heard it said that in Guild’s nomiclature, the designation T, noted an instrument with a natural top. I cannot find evidence to support this claim. The D-55TV is an updated  and fancy version of their model D-50.

Tom Smothers is generally seen playing a sunburst D-55TV.

For those unfamiliar with Guild’s history, the company was founded by Alfred Dronge and George Mann in 1952. The Epiphone guitar company had been sold to Gibson by the Stathopoly family. This left employees of the Manhattan firm out of work. Dronge and Mann put together a Guild of the finest luthiers in New York to start up their company. Their venture was a big success and the headquarters moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, since the company outgrew its original plant.

The advent of folk and blues music was a big assist to Guild and they concentrated less on archtop jazz guitars and more on flattop guitars in the Martin style.

Alfred Dronge was killed in an airplane accident. In 1966 the company was acquired by the Avnet Corporation and moved to Westerly, Rhode Island. Guitars from Westerly are considered to be the best that Guild made. Guild expanded into the electric guitar market in the mid 1960’s, due to the increased interest in the electric guitar.

The Fender Musical Instrument Corporation never seemed capable of producing a really great acoustic guitar.

The company was in an acquisition mode in the late 1990’s. They had purchased the small, Washington State based Tacoma guitar company and next set their sites on Guild.

The Rhode Island plant was old and the machinery was not modern. In Fender’s eyes, it was inefficient. Fender had just built a brand new factory in Corona, California. The employees in Westerly were offered jobs, if they wanted to relocate to California. I don’t believe anyone took up the offer.

Production of Guilds in Corona did not last very long, before Fender moved Guild to the Tacoma facility in Tacoma, Washington. It was during this time that Fender started importing Asian made Guilds, using the Guild name.

Kaman Incorporateds main business was building precision industrial parts and building heliocopters. They had devoted almost 40 years to their founders dream of building a guitar by using synthetic materials. This was the company that made and sold Ovation Guitars.

The company decided in 2004 to unload the guitar division. Fender was right there and bought the company and their facility in New Hartford, Connecticut. Fender not only went on the manufacture Ovation guitars in the Connecticut facility, but moved production of Guild there as well.

American made Guilds are a bargain when compared with similar Martin and Gibson instruments. Their D-55 model sells new for around $2800 USD, with a hardshell case included.

This last video features The Who on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. They are singing My Generation. Stay tuned for the end of the clip. Keith Moon put explosives in his bass drum, however without Moon's knowledge a stage hand put in extra explosives. Moon is stunned at the end of the clip. Townsend blames this for hearing loss.


Anonymous said...

Interesting series on Comedian Guitars. I would point out though, that the explosion at the end of the clip of "My Generation" was the result of Moon bribing a Smothers Brothers stagehand to pack the drum with additional explosives, not a rogue stagehand loading it up himself.

Maybe as part of this series you could write about Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, two fine musicians who also happen to be very very funny. They both play a wide range of instruments, including Maton (Australian) guitars.

Love the blog!

Marc said...

I had forgotten about those guys. They had an HBO Special a few years ago. They were awesome. As I recall they did one song with a plastic Casio synth-guitar thing, that had the cheesy drum machine.

The were a hoot.

Thanks for stopping by and don't be a stranger.

Gary Peterson said...

I recall Mason Williams appearing on The Smothers Brothers show, sitting on a stool while performing a solo rendition of his hit instrumental tune Classical Gas on an acoustic guitar made entirely of clear acrylic, the lower bout filled with water up to the soundhole, and a goldfish swimming around inside.

Marc said...

Mason Williams was one of the writers on the Smothers Brothers Show. He happened to be a gifted guitarist. I think he went on to work on The Glen Campbell Show. The last I heard was Williams was still playing guitar and living in the Northwest.

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Michael said...
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Michael said...

I played for the Smothers Brothers show when I was with Eddy Arnold in the 80s.Tom asked me to take his Guild to New York when we were at Harrah's Tahoe. He swore it needed fret work. I played it. There was nothing wrong with it. My buddy and fellow guitarist Jim Lance, Eddy's other guitarist took it to Nashville to have it looked over. Supposedly, they changed the strings, tweaked the truss rod, cleaned off the gunk on the fingerboard and sent it back to Tommy in Santa Rosa. I think Jim got a case wine from their winery in return.True story.

Chuck Corbisiero