Putter Smith found out about the sinister overarching effects of Hollywood just after his film debut in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.
“I was floating in this little rubber raft just 50 yards off of Huntington Beach, and this little kid who looks to be about 8 or 9 years old comes by on a rubber tire,” says the 66-year-old jazz bassist who peppers his speech with “motherfucker” and “you dig” and who cuts the figure of a hep, bookish Burl Ives. “He comes by on a rubber tire and yells, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from Diamonds Are Forever!’ And I said, ‘No, it wasn’t me,’ and he said, ‘So who the hell are ya then?!’”
Smith was a local legend for years before his oddball bit part in the seventh Bond film as the vaguely homosexual Mr. Kidd to Bruce Glover’s perfume-spritzing Mr. Wint — campy but lethal hit men who dispatch their victims with scorpions and overtly polite asides and who nearly incinerate Sean Connery in a crematorium.
By the time he did Bond, Smith looked more like a hesitant CPA — balding with a mane of shaggy reddish hair and sideburns, drooping mustache and tiny wire-framed eyeglasses — than an Irish white boy who rose from the L.A. ’burb of Bell (“back when it was still desert”) to debut at age 13 at the Compton Community Center (pay: $7), and who went on to grace the stage behind some giants of jazz’s last golden age, most notably Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Thelonius Monk.
In fact, Smith was playing at a 1969 gig at Shelley’s Manhole in Hollywood with Monk on piano, Paul Jeffries on tenor sax and Ndugu Chancellor on drums when in walked 47-year-old director Guy Hamilton, who was casting the next Bond film. “He was sort of looking at me from the audience in a way I would come to recognize,” Smith recalls. “He came up and asked me where the bathroom was, but he never introduced himself.”
Of course, the fame that followed quickly turned into a four-letter word. “The great thing is, ‘Wow, I’m a star in a movie!’ The bad thing is that everybody recognizes you. It was horrendous, absolutely horrendous. I used to be extremely shy, but I’m not anymore because of that experience.” Smith says that whenever someone is honored for something miniscule or inadvertent in their lives, he tells his wife: “It’s just like Diamonds Are Forever.”
But Putter got his revenge, so to speak. In 2004, when the UCLA Oral History Project was searching out L.A.’s great jazz musicians for its “Beyond Central Avenue” project, interviewer Alex Cline knew Smith was the man to see because, in Cline’s words, “Putter was one of those musicians who had played not just with the big names but with people no one will ever mention or talk about.”
For example, great regional players who never got their due like Walter Benton, Jack Coan, Herman Riley and Kent Glenn. (A meticulous record keeper, Smith had kept all of his datebooks going back to 1958.) Two of those musicians in particular had enormous influence on his life and work: his older brother Carson and Eric Von Essen, both tormented bassists with powerhouse reps among musicians in their day, both who flamed out on various demons and abuses before dying some 30 years apart, unheralded outside of Los Angeles.
“These were guys who played their asses off all the time, just burning, man, burning, and having more fun than you and I will ever have in our whole lives, every day.” Smith flashes a devilish, gap-toothed grin, before offering a lesson he learned the cockeyed way: “It seems to me as fate has as great a deal to play in fame as anything.”
Smith is still one of the most active jazz bassists in the city. Besides practicing religiously for 40 hours a week and both giving and taking bass lessons (currently with David Moore from the L.A. Philharmonic), he estimates he plays “a minimum of five times a week for $350 a week” as a sideman, with his quartet Left Coast or accompanying vocalist VR, his wife of 42 years. He likens being a working jazz player in Southern California to a recent TV documentary on the North American wolverine.
“A working musician in L.A. goes from Laguna Beach to Palmdale to Palm Springs. They say the wolverine has a 50-mile radius as its territory. When I heard that, I thought, ‘That’s what my territory is!’”