Fred-Freak Smith, who was fatally stabbed in Las Palmas Park in San Fernando on Aug. 8, was not just an aimless transient, possibly homeless, who unfortunately became just another crime statistic.
Smith, 55, was a talented guitarist and singer-songwriter who played in several punk, heavy metal and goth rock bands starting in the 1980s like Beefeater and Strange Boutique, and later in the 2000s with American Corpse Flower and Blaxsmyth. He never made it big, but his skills were acknowledged and respected from his native Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, where he had relocated to keep pursuing his musical dreams.
“He was like a big teddy bear with a loud voice,” said fellow musician and bassist Skeeter Enoch Thompson, who knew Smith for more than 30 years. “A great guitar player, songwriter, arranger, entertainer. A black pearl. And a black pearl is rare, I guess. He was one-of-a-kind; he’d get in to fit in. He could do anything — funk, soul, jazz — but he preferred edgier, loud, distorted. He liked Marshall (amps) and Stratocaster (guitars)….he liked the extremely industrial sound.
“Fred just wasn’t a straight up musician. He had his own persona. Thus the name ‘Freak.’ He [legally] changed his name about 5-8 years ago. ‘Fred Smith’ is such a common, mundane name. And he was such a bigger-than-life character.”
No one is more broken-hearted by Smith’s death than his mother Deloris Smith, a retired former diplomat with the US Information Agency. “A sweet child, and I know all mothers say that,” she said by phone from her home in White Plains, MD.
“Some thought he was weird but he was just different from other black kids. His music he loved, which made him different. He was enthusiastic about music from the beginning, starting at age 6. I have pictures of him with a guitar, trying to play. And to 12-14, he was playing with friends in the area.”
Other family and friends describe Smith as a prideful, peaceful man overflowing with charm and eager to embrace the world and people around him.
“He was a deep thinker,” recalled good friend Michele Lanci. She and her then boyfriend lived with Smith for a time in Burbank.
“He was extremely intelligent, and [also] really streetwise. He’d give you the shirt off his back. A legend, but not with bravado. He was very humble, he did not grab onto fame and run with it.”
“He was embraceable in a good way,” said Jose Jaime, who worked with Smith at a telecommunications company, one of Smith’s non-musical jobs. “He stood out in a crowd. It didn’t matter whether he’d met you for the first time or the millionth time, he made you feel you and him had been friends for years . He was loud sometimes. But he was also calm and serious. And very serious about his music.”
But they also admit that in the later years of his life something changed — be it depression or perhaps a mental illness. No one knows exactly what occurred, because Smith was recalcitrant about seeking help or even admitting something wrong. He was becoming — or had become — someone they were no longer recognizing.
“He just had some health issues,” Thompson said. “He had certain symptoms and was a very knowledgeable person. He figured he was having stomach pains, probably from drinking, depression, and/or not eating right. He was a big dude, but he’d lost a lot of weight over the years….you could definitely tell something was going on. [But] he was a very prideful person. He didn’t want to put his burdens on anyone else.”
Deloris said Smith inherited his musical talent from his father, Fred Sr., a former U.S. Deputy Marshal who sang in a do-wop band that scored a regional hit with “The Birdland” in 1956. (That band, known as the Starlighters, was led by Van McCoy, better known for his massive 70s disco hit “The Hustle.”)
But Smith — who went to Catholic school up to 12th grade, was an altar boy and considered the priesthood — wasn’t attracted to R&B. Instead he gravitated rock-and-roll, and heavier, harder-edged rock instead of the lighter, more pop sound.
As a teen Smith “loved Kiss, and some other [groups],” Deloris said. “That was his thing.”
Smith began playing guitar with punk rock and heavy metal bands in the D.C. area. He won a 1989 Washington Area Music Association award as an instrumentalist. He also developed his signature look of dreadlocks, black shirts and pants (sometimes all leather) and calf-high or knee-high black motorcycle boots.
“He was always on the fringe,” said Thompson, who played in the D.C. hardcore punk band Scream. “He’s a black dude, 200-something pounds, and into heavy metal. He dressed more like a biker-metal dude — always dressed in leather. It be summertime and he’d be dressed like that. And summertime in DC is pretty brutal. But he would hold the fashion down.”
In 1991 Smith met Dee O’Keefe in Washington, D.C., a lead guitarist drenched in the blues whose influences included Jimi Hendrix. They started dating in 1992 and married in 1994.
“He was so unusual for the scene,” O’Keefe said. “He was always dressed in black, had a sense of style. He’d enter a room with such confidence. I was very attracted to him. But when you were talking to him, he was so kind and warm. Everything was fascinating to him. He loved people.”
They moved to Los Angeles, seeking better opportunities to play and/or record. But Smith’s drive for success in music was stronger than hers, O’Keefe said. They would amicably divorce in 1999.
“I made a decision it wasn’t a feasible career choice,” said O’Keefe, now a self-employed knitting pattern designer who remarried and went back to Washington, D.C. “I was five years older than him, and he wanted to pursue his dream of making it in music. But LA wasn’t a good fit for me…we wanted two different things in life.”
She struggles with the notion that Smith was unable to make a bigger splash in the Los Angeles music scene, in part she said because he had little problem engaging and enchanting people.
“He made everyone feel fabulous. And I think because his mom was such a wonderful woman, he held women in such high regard and treated them with such respect. You’d see them stand a little higher because he made them feel that way.”
Jaime, who now lives in Houston and works for a private ambulance company, didn’t know much about Smith’s musical talent until one day when Smith brought him a CD.
“This was in 2001,” Jaime said. “He said he was going to record a couple of demo songs. I’m not really impressed because I didn’t know how good would it be. He went in on a Friday to record. The following Monday he handed me a CD with nothing written on it. He said listen to it.
“The first song was “Godless,” then “Chemicals.” I turned to Freak immediately and said “Holy (expletive), this has to be some of the heaviest new music I’ve heard in a long time.’ I had totally expected this to suck because I’d never heard him play before. But instead it blew my mind. He responded, ‘I told you Hosie, people are gonna get a wakeup call.’”
But Smith was unable to become a big star although fellow musicians he played with said he certainly had the ability and personality to be one That failure may have deeply affected him, friends and family believe, although it was hard to get Smith to ever admit he was troubled.
“The last 5-6 years I was worried about him,” Deloris said, who paid for a cell phone for Smith to use to stay in contact with her. “He wouldn’t talk. One time he got sick and the doctor called. I asked what’s wrong but the doctor said he doesn’t want you to know. He wouldn’t let him tell me.
“I never knew what kind of problems he might be having but I knew it was something. He’d always say he was okay, he didn’t need nothing. You can’t do anything for people who don’t want any help. He was that way with everybody.”
Lanci, a painter, graphic artist and photographer who now lives in Minneapolis, said the last time she saw Smith was about two years ago in LA. “We texted in May, and I mentioned I had moved. I asked how he was doing and he said he was living in same place. He did not want people to know he was not on top of his game, never asked for a thing.”
O’Keefe was convinced something was definitely wrong.
“I do believe [there might have been] mental illness and depression,” she said. “He was not ‘some homeless guy.’ It’s important that people know he was loved, he was wonderful, he was special — and mental illness is a horrible thing. So people become mentally ill, and can’t figure a way out of the station. I think that happened to Fred.”
No one knows yet who killed Smith or all the circumstances surrounding his death. All that’s known is a talented musician and performer is gone.