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Fred “Sonic” Smith 11/1994

fredsonicsmithNovember 4, 1994 – Fred “Sonic” Smith was born on September 13, 1949 in West Virginia, but raised in Detroit.

As a teenager, he lived for music with speed, energy with a rebellious attitude and formed a rock group Smith’s Vibratones, before joining up with his old school pal, Wayne Kramer to form MC5, short for Motor City Five. This influential band released 3 albums before their break up in 1972, Kick Out the Jams in 1969, Back in the USA in 1970, and High Time in 1971. After the band broke up Fred went on to form Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, which released one single, “City Slang”.

With MC5, his thick, muscular riffs provided the ballistic brawn behind the band’s sweaty mix of fist-pumping revolutionary rhetoric and head-banging incendiary protoo-metal. On the band’s second album, Back in the USA, Smith penned and sang the melodic teen anthem, “Shakin’ Street.” He also wrote half the songs on the Five’s final and best album, 1971’s High Time, including the band’s finest officially released moment, the heavy-metal meltdown “Skunk (Sonically Speaking),” which prophetically heralded a marriage between high-energy riff rock and high-intensity free jazz. After the Five’s dissolution Smith formed the supergroup Sonic’s Rendezvous Band with fellow Detroits from the Stooges, the Up, and the Rationals.

Splitting from the rock scene for married life, Smith settled in 1980 in the Detroit suburb of St. Clair Shores, maintaining an almost invisible existence as Mr. Patti Smith. Smith raised two children (son Jackson, 12, and daughter Jessie, 7) with his high-profile wife. In 1988, breaking a decade-long silence, Sonic co-wrote and co-produced all the songs on Patti’s comeback LP Dream of Life, and the couple collaborated on a song for the soundtrack to Dutch cinematographer Wim Wenders’s 1991 film Until The End of the World.

At the time of his death Smith was working on a compilation of Sonic’s Rendezvous live material and writing songs for an upcoming album with Patti. “He was teaching her guitar,” said former Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye from the Smith home on Monday, “That was always one of her dreams, to learn how to play guitar. She showed me all her chords, and she plays them pretty well.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine included him in their list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and the band Sonic Youth took its name from Fred’s nickname “Sonic”.  He and his wife, singer Patti Smith collaborated on her 1988 album “Dream of Life”, and Patti’s 1996 album “Gone Again” features a tribute to Fred. He died from heart failure on November 4, 1994 at age 45.

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