Warren Smith
The Man Behind SNWMF

Each year, since 1994, The Sierra Nevada World Music Festival has hosted a weekend of music that is second to none. It took me a dozen years to finally make the trek from Missouri to California and let me tell you, the experience was well worth it.

During the weekend I met the man behind the festival, Warren Smith, and found his stories to be fascinating. He was receptive to a future interview and months later, in November, we finally hooked up. Believe me, his stories could fill a book.

We started off by my asking him when and how he got into reggae music.

“Well, I’d been involved with music and I was very active politically,” he began. “I was in school, I was the chairman of our SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) chapter. We were doing a lot of anti-war work and a lot of local community organizing at the time. And I was doing a graduate degree in Economics with an emphasis on Marxist economics.

“So anyway, I had some very close friends in Berkeley that I always used to hang with. I think it was ’71 maybe when one of them came back from the Caribbean with a lot of reggae records. I remember hearing some early Bob stuff. And Toots was great. Jimmy Cliff’s “Unlimited” I remember as being a fantastic record. Then “The Harder They Come” came out and brought a lot of attention to the music in those early days.

“I was still in school but in 1974 I booked Bob Marley in Chico for a benefit, but he actually cancelled the tour. And I ended up with Taj Mahal and Booker T and a group out of Berkeley called The Shakers. During that time I had a couple of Jamaican friends from San Francisco who owned a reggae shop and I had them come up and help with the promotion. It was a benefit for a slate of candidates that we were running for city council and we actually took over the city council at that point, so it worked out very well.

“Then the following year, in 1975, I started getting these calls from my friends in San Francisco saying that I gotta come down and help them on their show. I mean, these guys were straight outta Jamaica – via New York – and they really didn’t understand how things run. But they had a little shop on Fillmore Street called “Kingston Records” and they had met with Bill Graham and Graham had offered to give them Winterland for three nights. And they had lined up Toots and the Maytals, Dennis Brown and Inner Circle, featuring this guy Jacob Miller. This was July, the 11th, 12th and 13th. So I finally went down there and kaboom” he said laughing, “I never came back.

“Two weeks before our show with Toots, Bob came through and spent a week at a place called the Boarding House. He did four shows there. I met him the first night and I actually got to know him pretty well. A funny story is that I was with this absolutely stunning woman. She was Cuban and into Castro and was living in Berkeley. I brought her with me that first night and Bob was immediately interested in her and he told her to come to his hotel room and she said no way. She said if he wanted to see her he’d have to come up to her house. So Bob finally goes ok and was going to have such and such drive them to her house. And she goes no, she came with Warren, so if he wanted to come see her, he had to go home with her and Warren. I had this little funky Volkswagen station wagon and the next thing I know, here I had Bob Marley in the front seat telling me he didn’t know if I was CIA or not!

“We ultimately had our show and everybody was involved in that one, from the Grateful Dead and Owsley Stanley to the Rolling Stones. There was a big feature on everything - kinda based in San Francisco - in Rolling Stone magazine. They had Bob on the cover. So we did our show and at that time I got to know Chinna Smith pretty well and subsequently we brought in Big Youth then Third World. In fact, Third World hired me and I did a national tour with them.

“In 1977, I went down to Jamaica and recorded the first Soul Syndicate album, called ‘Harvest Uptown, Famine Downtown.’ I then was a booking agent for five or so years in conjunction with running the record label [Epiphany Records] and we also started a magazine called “Reggae News.”

“Back in the mid to late ‘70s, I was very active in reggae, going to Jamaica all the time. My partner in New York - Michael Epstein or “Eppy” as we called him – well, we were doing probably 80% of the reggae in the U.S. at that time. The airlines had these things like for $650 you could get these tickets on let’s say Eastern Airlines that was good for 21 days everywhere Eastern flew. And they flew to Jamaica. So we could be in Jamaica one day, then Austin Texas, then Chicago and then Raleigh.

“We did a lot of big acts that way. Big Youth, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Sugar Minott and some others. Worked with Peter Tosh a bit when he was on Rolling Stone Records. Burning Spear – I actually served in a managerial role back in the ‘80s.”

After recording some albums at Tuff Gong over the years, in 1984 Smith went into the brokerage business to try to make a real living.

“Yeah, I wasn’t making much of a living in reggae so I went to work in a brokerage firm. I did that for like five or six years while still doing reggae on the side. I then came back around 1990 and put my label on cd at that time. I also got hired to be the talent buyer for a festival called “Gathering Of The Vibes.” I did talent buying and promotion for three years for them. He ultimately went belly up and that’s when I started Sierra in 1994. The thing is that I did so much booking with these artists, I knew them all and it made it very easy.

“The first seven years we were in Maryville, then went to Angel’s Camp for five years. Then Booneville for one year and we’re going back there. The thing is, the people like us – and that’s unusual, to have people like us. Normally we’ve really felt like outcasts.

“With Booneville, we’ve finally found a place – our home. It’s a little small for us, but we’re gonna work with it. It will limit us in terms of some of the bands that we can do, but we’ll be ok. And we’re working on getting more camping right now. So that’s a good thing. But it’s
getting harder and harder to get bands these days. And this past year [2006] it was an extremely
hot weekend, so it hurt our attendance. But we’ll bounce back.

“The thing is though, is that reggae’s subsiding. I hate to say that but I think this homophobic thing the dancehall guys hit us with really hurt a lot more than people suspect. It used to be really cool with the college kids but right now reggae’s not being perceived as cool because of the whole homophobic thing.”

I was curious if Smith had any favorite memories of SNWMF or if there was any artist he’d been unable to land and he answered without hesitation.

“There have been some great moments; the Gladiators reunion with Clinton Fearon comes to mind. But for me, the Junior Byles thing was huge. It was in the late ‘90s and he’d never really played before. What had happened was that I heard that he had done a couple of songs down in Jamaica on a Heineken Star Tim show and I immediately called up Chinna and said it would be great if we could get him up here and Chinna said we had a long way to go.

“So we started off by me giving him some money for some dental work. Then he got his passport because he never had one. Then we applied for a visa and he got that and then he came out. He did a remarkable 45 minute set, which was about four times longer than he thought he could do. He thought he’d be up there for 10 minutes. It was the first time he’d ever really done something like that and the crowd just embraced him. I think he got more therapeutic value from doing that show than the many years they were giving him all those drugs.

“I’ve also had an offer every year for the last six years for Manu Chao. One day I hope I can get him. He’s incredible. He’s played Lollapalooza and I heard he went over really well – he was apparently the buzz of the entire place.”

I then asked him about a story he told me about the Stones wanting Toots to play at a private party.

“Yeah, that was in 1975, right around the time of our show. Mick’s birthday was July 20th or so. The Stones were in LA that night and they were willing to cut their show short – start it early and cut it off early – and fly up to San Francisco and have a party if they could get Toots. To make a long story short, they got this club called “The Orphanage” and then I organized a Toots and the Maytals show for them. It was really a lot of fun. It was a private party and I was in charge of the door and letting people in,” laughed Smith.

Our conversation then somehow shifted to how he connected with The Clash and The Pistols back in the late ‘70s.

“I used to know The Clash real well,” said Smith. “Joe Strummer used to hang with me a lot. He’d come by my house and spend a lot of time there. And I know Johnny [Rotten] from Jamaica. We kind of hung for awhile but I kept scratching my head going ‘how’s this gonna work?’ Ya see, at that time Virgin bought up everything on the island, and I mean everything. They were down there for two weeks and spent like one million dollars. They released most of it, but not all of it.

“I knew Richard Branson, too. Richard started out selling records out of his bedroom and then he started Virgin records. He was a big reggae fan.”

Smith also told me that he and “Eppy” held a festival in Jamaica in 1978.

“It was in Trelawny and we had a 3-day festival. Burning Spear, Big Youth, Peter Tosh, Soul Syndicate, Culture and some others. It was government-funded and they flew me down and even paid for my hotel. That was a year before Reggae Sunsplash started, so in a way I feel we really started that.”

Warren Smith may have been somewhat instrumental in getting Reggae Sunsplash off the ground in Jamaica, and he’s no doubt done some great things involving reggae music. But his work with the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival will go down in history as being a major part of his legacy and will ultimately prove to be as important as anything he’s ever done. This year’s festival will be from June 22-24. Check it out.