Best known for his tenure fronting the hugely influential New York Dolls, David Johansen has been a true chameleon throughout his illustrious career. As the lipstick-smeared glam-punk hero of his years with the Dolls, as the tuxedo-clad lounge lizard Buster Poindexter of "Hot Hot Hot" fame, and in his latest incarnation as the soulful frontman of The Harry Smiths, Johansen has always been a cultural innovator and a true believer in the transformative power of music.
Johansen joined his first band, The Vagabond Missionaries, during his teen years on Staten Island, New York. After playing in several more bands and attempting to break into acting, Johansen joined Actress, the band which metamorphosed into the New York Dolls. The Dolls broke up in 1975 after achieving both popular and critical success, and Johansen's successful 1977 solo debut fueled his fans' love affair with his gritty, soulful voice.
While his fourth solo album, 1982's concert set Live It Up, won some mainstream radio airplay, Johansen reassessed his career when 1984's dance-flavored Sweet Revenge failed to sell. At the end of 1984, he resurfaced in the pompadoured guise of Buster Poindexter, a supposed ethnomusicologist armed with an expansive knowledge of pop and R&B chestnuts.
After debuting the Buster character at a series of downtown New York loft gigs with the Uptown Horns, Johansen continued honing the identity in the piano bars of Manhattan, establishing a lounge swinger persona which predated the lounge-kitsch revival of the mid-1990's by a decade.
Johansen then formed a large band, the Banshees in Blue, and fronted it as Poindexter. The Banshees built a devoted following in New York City, and their 1987 cover of obscure soca tune "Hot Hot Hot" became a party classic. In addition to adding another dimension of success to Johansen's career as a performer, Poindexter also renewed his long-dormant acting bug, and he was tapped to co-star in the 1988 features Married to the Mob and Scrooged. The character remained Johansen's focus in subsequent years as well, as evidenced by two more albums with the Banshees in Blue.
Since Johansen's last outing as Buster Poindexter in 1994, he has been performing around New York City with The Harry Smiths, a band made up of four veteran musicians: Brian Koonin, Larry Saltzman, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron. The band is named for the famed and eccentric painter-occultist-alchemist-ethnomusicologist -filmmaker whose work in collecting and preserving American song literature and artifacts is unparalleled. Harry Smith was also active in the Beat and Bebop scenes, and his appreciation of alchemical principles was a basis for his synthesis of the visual arts, music, literature, and sciences.
David Johansen, with the Harry Smiths, takes inspiration from Harry Smith on a number of levels. In fact, some of the songs on their self-titled debut recording for Chesky Records, to be released in the US on March 28, were inspired by songs on Smith's famed Anthology of American Folk Music. Johansen combines his background in rock & roll with down and dirty Chicago blues, presenting both traditional blues tunes like "Delia" (arranged by Bob Dylan) and classic compositions by the likes of Muddy Waters ("Little Geneva"), Lightnin' Hopkins ("Katie Mae") and Mississippi John Hurt ("Richland Woman"). David's famous voice lends itself perfectly to these emotionally raw songs, and through an alchemical process that would make Smith proud, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths turn these dark tales of loss and death into aural gold.
"David Johansen brings it all back home to Harry Smith, in repertoire and name - a perfect example of the circular logic of American-folk geography. A former New York Doll, Johansen is an unlikely hobo-like blues man, and his Harry Smiths - guitarists Brian Koonin and Larry Saltzman, jazzers Kermit Driscoll on bass and Joey Baron on drums - are sly groovers who seem, at first, to be overqualified for barn-dance work. Yet Johansen is a believable avatar of Smith,s scholarship...he sings 'Poor Boy Blues' like a fragment of Latin Mass; his chipped-granite yowl hangs with modal drama over bottleneck guitar and Baron's percussion sabotage." - Rolling Stone, August 31, 2000