I’m back from the funeral service and celebratory repast for Philip Smart, engineer and producer extraordinaire. What an incredible day (and evening) this was. There was no room inside the funeral home for all the people who wanted to be there. Bitter enemies and lifelong friends came together in harmony to celebrate the life of the late, indisputably great Philip Smart. Some came from Yard, some came from abroad. People drove, took the bus, took the train, walked, and did whatever they had to do, in order to pay their respects to Philip and his amazing family. It seemed as though everybody who’d ever booked time at HC&F, Philip’s studio, or played or sung on a session there, was in attendance. I saw people I haven’t seen in decades.
For those of you not familiar with reggae, as an engineer Philip Smart was a force in our field on a par with Bruce Swedien or Rudy Van Gelder. But Philip’s talent as an engineer and producer, great as it was, was dwarfed by the size of his heart. I cannot think of any figure in the music industry that was more beloved and respected by his peers. Philip treated every person he worked with exactly the same way; with dignity, respect, and humor, whether it was their first time in a recording studio or whether they were a platinum-selling artist. He had a deep and abiding love for all people, as well as great insight into character.
I worked with Philip on hundreds of sessions. I never saw him have a bad day, I never saw him give less than his best, and I never got the feeling that he wanted to be anywhere else, even though, like most engineers, he worked incredibly long hours for days at a time. He exemplified the maxim “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Philip was very plainspoken, but he had a gift for telling people exactly what they needed to hear while saying it in a way that made them listen. He could communicate with everybody, from the rawest street rapper or DJ to the haughtiest record company suit. They all listened, and the smart ones learned.
Not surprisingly for such a great engineer, Philip was a great listener in conversation as well. Whenever you spoke to Philip, you had his attention, even if he was doing two or three other things at once, as he often was. I remember complaining to him one day about how unpleasant it was to record with the guitar plugged into a direct box. He asked me why, and I explained that the instrument responded differently to your touch when the first thing the signal encountered was a tube. Philip looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and said, “Yes, that makes sense. No one ever told me that before. I don’t play guitar myself so it isn’t something I would notice as a listener.”
The next time I walked into the studio, Philip proudly pointed to a tube preamp in his rack I hadn’t seen before. “Plug into this and tell me what you think.” I plugged the guitar into the preamp, Philip got levels in less time than it takes to write this, and he brought the guitar up in the monitors. We both grinned. It sounded wonderful. Philip said, “You really showed me something the other day. I thought about what you said about tubes and I remembered how we used them at Tubby’s. So I went out and bought this. It really makes a difference. Thanks.” That was Philip: as much as he had done, and as great as he was, he was always eager to learn and expand his palette. We used that preamp to record my guitar from then on.
Philip helped countless people finish their projects, cope with demands for last-minute remixes, and deal with emergencies of every description. If there was any way he could help you, he would, whether it meant staying a bit later to burn another CD, getting another client to move a session back an hour so you could squeeze a quick mix out of him, or even advising you about a problem you were having at another studio.
Philip’s love and understanding of people helped him get the most out of them in the studio. He had a real knack for coaching the inexperienced, or less than great, into giving a performance that was well beyond what you thought their limits were on hearing them for the first time. Philip always knew what to say to a struggling performer, and when. And, of course, once he’d gotten the best out of them, he would use his masterful engineering skills to make it sound even better. He had an eye for spotting potential in people and was great at bringing that potential to fulfillment.
If you worked in his studio as a musician or a singer, Philip looked out for you. He’d call you and say, “I have a new guy here who needs a guitar part. Can you come in tonight? I’ll make sure I talk with him about the business first so you don’t waste your time.” Then he’d call back later and say, “It’s OK, I talked to him. You can come in any time after 8 tonight, just tell me when you can get here.” If you got a call from someone you didn’t know, you could call Philip and find out who they were and how legitimate they were.
Philip was a great guy to call if you needed a musician or a singer. You’d explain to him what you were looking for and he’d know who was available and how well they were likely to do in any given situation. Philip hooked people up with gigs that ended up lasting for years. Of course he never took a dime for any of this. If you worked with Philip, permanent access to his knowledge and wisdom came as a package deal. If he couldn’t talk to you at any given moment, you’d get a call back within a few hours with an answer.
If you were a female, you were safe at HC&F, no matter what hour of the day or night you were there, or who was in the studio with you. Philip had tremendous respect for women and didn’t allow any foolishness on his premises.
Philip didn’t have any patience with artists or producers who didn’t want to pay either. Once I got stiffed by an artist for whom I’d done a whole album at HC&F. When he found out, Philip got as angry as I’ve ever seen him get. Anger in this case meant that his face flushed and he raised his voice somewhat, but he was emphatically not pleased.
“Naah mon! What him a deal wid? That’s not happening. Not in my studio. There’s a label and a budget here. I’m calling his record company right now. How much him owe you?” I told him. Philip got the A&R man for the project on the phone almost immediately, and explained what had happened. He told the A&R man the price the artist had agreed to pay me per song and vouched for how many songs he had recorded with me playing guitar on them. Philip had the track sheets and read them right off to him over the phone. Of course, Philip’s word was all the documentation required. I had a check for the full amount by FedEx the next day. I won’t have to explain to many of you how rare it is for an engineer to intervene on behalf of a musician with the record company. But that was Philip. He lived what he believed.
So many people called Philip uncle, because if you knew him, that’s how he treated you: like a family member. Doing a session at HC&F was like visiting your favorite relative, no matter how tough or clueless the client, Philip made it fun and we always laughed. On the way to the service, I kept remembering sessions I had done; they played through my mind like a sports highlight reel, without one bad memory. No one who worked with Philip Smart will ever forget him. RIP Philip. It was an honor to have known you.