The Smoking Section was a funk/R&B/rock outfit that played prolifically in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1988 and 1991.
Sometime in the mid-80s I started playing in a Top-40 R&B cover band called (ironically) Square One (“The Ultimate Band of the Future,” according to our “manager”). The band was adequate for what it was, a way to pay some “dues” with a weekly show at the Lucky Lion on Hegenberger Road in Oakland. The main thing the band had going for it was a particularly bad-assed bass player named Robert Smith II, or BOB (“Bob On Bass”), and later a terrific latin percussionist named Adrian Isabell (who had played for a time with Tremaine Hawkins of the Hawkins Family Singers). The three of us gravitated toward one another and proceeded to attempt to rent ourselves out as a rhythm section for hire (B.A.D.). We played in probably 4 or 5 more bands together over the next few years. The Smoking Section eventually was formed in 1988 when I met David Hawkins (formerly of The Naked Into, eventually of Engine 88, no relation to the Hawkins Family Singers), and we began to play together with Matt Bernstein (brother of trumpeter Steven Bernstein) originally on bass. Later, Matt was replaced by BOB, and soon after we were joined by Adrian; finally we found a singer named Tony Lippert, who was, strangely, a step-child of the Hawkins Family Singers. We wrote a bunch of songs, recorded a demo at Dancing Dog (whence we met Dave Bryson and Damien Rasmussen) and played our first show at the Nightbreak, out at the end of Haight Street.
The Smoking Section assumed the mantle of the Berkeley Funk Band Du Jour, following in the footsteps of the Freaky Executives, before eventually being succeeded by the Mo’Fessionals. We had a raw, high-energy stage show, and it seemed that we went from off-night opener to weekend headliner pretty quickly. Our first really big show was at the I-Beam opening up for De La Soul, who were on their initial ascent following the release of 3 Feet High and Rising. We probably peaked a little early in terms of performance accomplishments when we opened two consecutive shows for George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars at the Warfield. These were the first shows in which we included a horn section, aka the Knee-Deep Horns (all formerly of the Uptones): Kenny Brooks on sax and Scott Jensen on trumpet (later joined by Adam Beach on baritone). Adrian sat in with the headliners on the second night, on their request. It seems like we mostly played with a small group of bands who were lumped together as, irritatingly, the “Bay Area Thrash Funk” movement of the time: Psychefunkapus, the Limbomaniacs, Fungo Mungo, Mr. Bungle, and of course Primus, with whom it seemed we played a hundred shows all over California. At one point we attracted the attention of Boz Scaggs, who took us under his wing for a while and produced a demo. At the time there was a bit of an industry buzz around us, but nothing ever panned out in terms of getting the band signed, and so we began to languish.
Emptying the Ashtray
Irreconcilable differences induced us to part ways with our singer, Tony, in early 1991. We underwent a fairly major refactoring with a new singer, Anthony “Zenbox” Chunn (half of Puck & Natty, with Stephen Jenkins), Josh Jones on percussion, and no horns, which lasted about 6 months. Following that, Dave and BOB and I collaborated as a power trio with Manny Martinez of Psychefunkapus for a little while, before playing one final show with Tony (which included a spontaneous appearance by Kenny Brooks): a New Year’s Eve engagement, ironically at the Nightbreak. One month later Dave and I started another band, which we eventually called Engine 88.
- David Hawkins – drums, background vocals, keyboards
- Tony (Lippert) Hawkins – lead vocals (1988 – 1990)
- Adrian Isabell – percussion, background vocals (1988 – 1990)
- Robert “BOB” Smith – bass
- Damon Wood – guitar, background vocals
- Scott Jensen – trumpet
- Kenny Brooks – tenor sax
- Adam Beach – baritone & tenor sax
- Anthony “Zenbox” Chunn – lead vocals (1991)
- Josh Jones – percussion (1991)
- Manny Martinez – lead vocals (1991)
The Smoking Section never officially released any product. We recorded a few demos, which made some rounds in cassette tape form.
Smooth ‘n’ Nasty Engineered by Dave Bryson and Damien Rasmussen at Dancing Dog Studios, Emeryville, CA 1988
- Big Fish
Finer Than Blue Engineered by Ann-Marie Scott and Eric Knight at Alpha & Omega Studios, and Ron Rigler at Different Fur Studios, San Francisco, CA 1989
- Red Idea
- Water’s Edge
- Blue Day
Smoking Section Produced by Boz Skaggs Recorded at Different Fur, 1990
Some titles of songs recorded and unrecorded, in no particular order.
- Big Fish
- Red Idea
- Water’s Edge
- Blue Day
- My Lips
- Old Man Jackson Brown
- Sex a’Loose
- The Way I Feel
- The Song After BBQ
- You Want
- Train of Pain
- Snake In The Grass
- Cherry Blossoms
- Rich & Famous
- The Punch
Though we never officially toured, the Smoking Section played with a lot of local and touring acts, including but not limited to (list in progress, as memory serves):
Average White Band
Capture the Flag
De La Soul
George Clinton & The P-Funk Allstars
Smokin’ Rhythm Prawns
World Entertainment War
The Smoking Section produced a series of demo recordings between 1988 and 1991. Smooth & Nasty (recorded swiftly at Dancing Dog in Emeryville CA in 1988) was the first, and got us off to a decent start with local Bay Area bookings. Finer Than Blue was recorded in 1989 at Alpha and Omega in San Francisco over a series of late night spec sessions, largely fueled by inspiration and ginseng.
These are audio-in cassette-to-digital transfers.
Smooth & Nasty
Finer Than Blue
*Not included on original “release”.
Live @ Slim’s
Exact date unknown at this time, but likely late 1990. Lineup includes v.2 of the Knee Deep Horns, featuring Scott Jensen and Adam Beach. Opening for Mano Negra.
…in Low-Def Small-O-Vision, The Smoking Section, live at Slim’s, opening for Hugh Harris, 1990-ish. (Here’s a link to the YouTube playlist.)