For those who have been curious, this is the band and the man responsible for the “Long Red” drum break. He is Norman “N.D.” Smart, and the above photo is a screenshot of Mountain’s performance of “Beside The Sea”. After my post last night about Mountain playing at Woodstock 43 years ago to the minute, and talking about how their performance of “Long Red” became one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop, it was RT’d by a few people on Twitter, including Roots drummer ?uestlove, and that got the rollercoaster rolling. I wanted to create an addendum to that entry so people can know the man behind the drums.
By the time Smart joined Mountain, it was just one of many groups he had performed and recorded with in the 1960’s, “just another job”, but musicians have a sense of camaraderie. Leslie West had been with The Vagrants (not to be confused with the punk band of the same name), who combined pop and soul, not unlike one of his biggest influences, The Young Rascals. By being a New York band, their music lead to the ears of one Felix Pappalardi. This union would lead to The Vagrants releasing a single on Atco that was co-produced by Dave Brigati, brother of Rascals’ Eddie Brigati. These core of musicians showed a love of pop, soul, and R&B, along with the doo-wop music that was a major part of their childhoods in NYC and New Jersey. Again, musicians knew musicians, there was support, and that leads us back to drummer Norman Smart.
Before he became a part of Mountain, Smart had played drums with Hello People and Bo Grumpus. It was with the latter band where it seems Smart made his first connection with West, as Bo Grumpus were signed to Atco, just like The Vagrants. When countless bands came and went, you were always out scoping for new gigs and bands to be with. While not starting out as Mountain, Smart ended up playing drums on what would become West’s first solo album, titled Mountain, the title of which was a nickname for the size of West. He was a big man, “big as a mountain”. The album received a bit of underground success, and that lead to West deciding to call the band Mountain, yet at the same time their name always represented him. While Mountain were very much along the lines of The Yardbirds, Cream, and The Rascals, they were known for rocking live performances at loud volumes, to where people would complain that it was too painful. Big man, big sound, big band.
When West was asked to perform at Woodstock, it was decided that he should promote himself as being the frontman for a band, and thus Mountain was born. Smart was the drummer in the band, and simply played the kind of soul, R&B, and loud blues they had become known for. It wasn’t just a heavy rock band with an intention to make people deaf, there was always a sense of groove in their music. If you listen to those records by Happy People and Bo Grumpus, the man could play the drums incredibly well, and his time with West/Mountain was just something to add to his resume. The band would record their first official album with the Mountain name in the new year (1970), but at that point, Smart had left and moved on to look for new people and places to play.
The Woodstock festival was originally named after the town the festival had been planned in being, but with various people throwing a fit about potential crowds and damage to land, new places were sought after until a farmer named Max Yasgur opened his fields in Bethel, New York to young music entrepreneurs. As for drummer N.D. Smart, he found himself in the actual Woodstock town, specifically Bearsville and the then-new Bearsville Recording Studio, owned by Albert Grossman. It was there where Smart met Todd Rundgren, who was putting together new music after the demise of his band in Philadelphia, Nazz. Rundgren would release his first music under his own name on Bearsville Records, then distributed by AMPEX, the audio tape company. In time, Bearsville would become known as “Rundgren’s label” even though he didn’t create it. Smart would end up playing with Rundgren for a number of years while also getting involved on albums by Great Speckled Bird and Hungry Chuck, who released albums within the Bearsville/AMPEX camp. Smart was a free agent, a session musician, and he loved it. With Mountain he could cater to West’s loud electric ways, and with other bands he could show respect for country rock and folk.
Most may not recognize him or his work for he was not someone who commanded attention, he was simply the guy who came to work with others and have fun doing it. For avid fans of “deep cut” rock, hard rock, country rock, and folk, you definitely have heard his work.
If there is only one downside to this story, it’s that Smart had left Mountain before West came up with “Mississippi Queen”, recorded and released in 1970 on their first album as a band with new drummer, Canadian Corky Laing. Laing’s now-classic cowbell intro and abrasive drums will immediately lead people to hold up their “devil horn” hand gesture in the name of hard rock/acid rock/classic rock heaven. Due to West’s generosity, Laing also shares co-songwriting credit with West, along with Pappalardi and David Rea, an associate of Grossman and Pappalardi, and a celebrated artist in his own right. By leaving the band before they would eventually record the song that defines them, Smart could have been known as “that cowbell man”, but it was not meant to be. Smart’s session work is definitely worth exploring for those who fell in love with the “Long Red” break, for the fan who would like to hear how he identified himself as a musician.