Winger fans know that Reb Beach serves double duty in Whitesnake on guitar with Doug Aldrich…oops, now Joel Hoekstra! Mr. John Roth also serves double duty. John is the guitarist for Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, replacing Mark Abrahamian, who died unexpectedly in 2012. Jeff Adams, a stellar vocalist in his own right, plays bass for Starship, and connected John with Mickey. I saw Starship this summer, it is a very high energy rock and roll show, go see them if you get the chance!
That said, both Winger and Starship had very busy tour schedules lined up for 2014, and John found himself in a quandary – only one John Roth, and two heavy tour schedules! John’s solution – calling on long time friend Donnie Wayne Smith to fill in for Winger where the schedules proved untenable. Turns out, all 3 of the guys I mentioned (John, Donnie, and Jeff) are Memphis area people, and I have the good fortune to know them all and be able to see them in their local gigs when they are not on tour. Elvis started it…these guys are carrying the torch to keep rock ‘n roll alive!
I recently caught up with Donnie after a gig at Double J’s Smokehouse and Saloon, an awesome bar and restaurant in downtown Memphis’ South Main District.
Paul: So Donnie, how did you feel about John asking you to step in for him on numerous Winger shows this year?
Donnie: Honored, overwhelmed, dizzy… Honestly, when Johnny first called me I was out on a photo shoot and didn’t get to the phone. The voicemail he left asked if I would be interested in covering some Winger dates for him. I thought he meant me filling in with Fifth Kind locally while he was out with Winger. I was excited, but knew I was going to have to turn him down due to my already overcommitted local schedule. So, I called Johnny back on the way home and told him “Thanks, but no thanks, I’d have to give up one of my house gigs and the money is just too good.” I followed up with how bummed I was since I would have enjoyed playing with Kory and Jeff locally… he laughed at me for a minute and said, “No man, I need you to play for Winger.” I had to pull over.
I don’t think a musician has ever paid me a higher compliment. To trust me that much with his gig was incredibly flattering. I promised to not let him down and went straight to work relearning the tunes (I’d played them a bunch over the years in local cover bands).
Paul: I have met Kip a few times, and I have to say, he is one of those rare rock star guys that has no attitude or ego. When he found out I am friends with John, he seemed to really light up. It truly seems like Winger is a brotherhood. What’s been your take?
Donnie: Man, I was a little nervous before meeting the guys. Reb was a huge influence (as was JR), and as bad as I hate to say it, I was really worried about Kip being some overinflated, ego-driven ass, mainly because he was still so damn pretty… He set my mind at ease immediately when he picked me up from the airport. He gave me a hug and said it was great to meet me and thanks for all the effort I had already put into the gig. Over the course of the tour this year, I’ve gotten to know them all really well. No egos, man, all of them are incredibly kind. They always ask about my wife and kids; it really is like having a bunch of big brothers.
Kip’s been very helpful during the process of me rebuilding my studio and beginning this new solo album. If you haven’t heard any of his classical compositions, you need to check them out. It’s amazing what that man hears in his head. It’s very cool to be playing with such amazing musicians every night.
Donnie: My first show wasn’t supposed to be until Milan, Italy on May 5th. I met the guys in Baltimore for a weekend in April, of hanging around and checking out the shows before we went into rehearsal. The first show was the M3 Festival in Baltimore, MD with Extreme, Lita Ford and Kix. I was just supposed to watch from side stage, but Kip surprised me and brought me out to play bass on “Headed for a Heartbreak”. The next night in New York, I sat in for the last 4 songs of the night which included a version of Helter Skelter with Mark Hudson and Fiona, and all of this prior to our first rehearsal. I guess they wanted to see how I performed under pressure. It was great!
The Frontiers show was crazy, but amazing. No sound check, just a throw-and-go. I didn’t sleep a wink for three days leading up to the show. There are a bunch of vids from that show out in YouTube land. Right after the show, and I mean right after, I was still trying to catch my breath. Joel Hoekstra and Brad Gillis from Night Ranger came in to the dressing room to introduce themselves to me and tell us how great we sounded. I think that was a nice way of saying, “Hey, the new guy didn’t do to badly!”
Paul: How has it been playing with the band, and in particular, with Reb?
Donnie: Haha! Every night is surreal, truly. I spend so much time looking over and watching them play, it’s crazy. After I started performing with them, I read an article that said, “The new guy was really good, he looked like a puppy with a brand new toy, he smiled from ear-to-ear the entire show.”
We had one afternoon of rehearsal on Long Island before heading over to Italy for the Frontiers Rock Festival (their label) and I remember standing there in the rehearsal complex with Kip, Reb and Rod all watching me play and sing with them and I was super intimidated. But, it went really well and they were all very helpful and complimentary. Since then, it’s always felt like playing with friends. I will say playing with them has pushed me to become a better player. Reb is a very inspirational player, every night during his solo before “Seventeen,” I sit side-stage and watch him. It’s different every night, sure he has some standards that get him to and from places in the solo, but it’s always a different solo, and it’s always bad ass.
Paul: How have the fans received you?
Donnie: Since the very first show, they’ve been very accepting and immensely kind. I answer the same questions a lot: How did you get the gig? What else do you do? How long have you known Johnny? Honestly, it never gets old because I know they’re excited for me. What really seems weird to me is that I now have fans in Japan that I’ve never met. They keep up with me through most of the social media outlets and are always asking questions and replying to things, retweeting etc. It’s pretty neat. I was really surprised the first time I heard someone scream my name when I was walking on stage before the first song, (Pinellas Park, FL Hairapalooza). I’ve never felt like “a sub” with the fans. They always want me to sign things. I get a little freaked out when they ask me to sign the albums. I always tell them before I sign, “You know I’m not on this right, I didn’t play…” and 99 percent of the time they tell me to sign it anyway. I’ve signed my name over JR’s crotch on so many black and white promo shots it’s ridiculous. I’ve become fairly close to a few of the fans that follow the band around, I’ve met some of the most incredible people ever out on the road.
Paul: Yes, I have a couple friends that saw your dates this year, when I told them before the show that John wouldn’t’t be there, they were bummed, but after they saw you in action, they said what a nice guy you are and what a great job you did.
Donnie: Aw man, that’s really cool. It makes me feel great. I was worried about the feel and vibe of the band with a new guy stepping in. It was very important to me that Kip, Reb and Rod didn’t have to worry about anything different. JR has some pretty big shoes to fill and I always give it 150 percent so that they are comfortable up there. It’s good that the crowd doesn’t notice much of a difference.
Paul: Any road stories?
Donnie: None that I can share ha-ha. No man, just kidding. After our show in Milan, I snuck around front to watch Joel and Night Ranger for a minute. I knew it’d be safe to walk past the VIP section since literally no one knew who I was. I watched most of the set and began to head back to the dressing room. Just as I was passing, the security guard, a gentleman, tapped my shoulder and asked for a picture. I obliged, obviously, and was surprised that I’d been recognized. A few more folks came over for pics and autographs etc, not many but it was fun. This Asian gentleman handed me the vinyl copy on the first album and said, “Mr. Winger, please to sign!” with a huge smile on his face. I asked him if he wanted me to get Kip to sign, and he said, “No, Mr. Winger please to sign!” I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t Kip, he very emphatically said, with much pleading… “Mr. Winger, PLEASE to sign!” So, I signed Kip’s name across the middle and walked up to the dressing room. It still makes me laugh when I think about it.
I think the most stressed out I’ve been was the travel heading to Sheridan, WY for a festival gig. We were booked to play with Lita Ford, Stryper and Cheap Trick. We’d had a show the night before in Jefferson City, Mo. and had a 5 a.m. lobby call to get to the airport. We were two hours from the airport, then our first flight was delayed, we missed our connecting flight, waited 3 1/2 hours for the next flight, then when we got to the airport our luggage didn’t come off the carousel… no clothes, no guitars, no drum hardware, nothing. We were freaking out! Come to find out, our luggage made the connection, although we didn’t. We then had a two hour drive to the venue with a driver named Chewbecca who was SUPER cool. He got us there in an hour and a half. We got dressed in the shuttle, tuned up, pulled our pedals and cables out and propped up by the side doors of the van. Chewy literally pulled up to the side of the stage, we burst out the side doors, walked on to stage, plugged in, checked for sound and played a 75 minute show, with NO MONITORS! I’m sure every band has a story like that… but man!
Donnie: As of right now, I think I’m only on shows through Nov. 8th this year. There’s some speculation about a short tour in Brazil next year, but until JR knows his Starship schedule, I’m not really counting on it. Originally, I was only supposed to be on 4 or 5 shows, that’s turned into somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30, I lost count. I hope there are a bunch of shows. Reb doesn’t go back out with Whitesnake until April, I think… so I hope they book three shows a week until then and I hope I’m on all of them.
Paul: Could you share with us what else you have going on?
Right now, I’m in the process of rebuilding my home studio in our new house while recording a new solo album. I say, new… it will be my first solo album. Kip got me really fired up about sharing my music with everyone, so here I go. I was lacking some funds, so I decided to do this Kickstarter style thing called GoFundMe.com. Instead of asking people to just give me money, I’m using it as a tool to pre-sell the album. There are a few different packages with some incentives to spend more. I was really surprised at how many people purchased the CD and how quickly they were selling. It’s been very gratifying. I can’t wait to release it. I’m shooting for early 2015. Kip’s been helping me flesh out some of the ideas. It can be pre-ordered at http://www.gofundme.com/dws-preorders
I’m also doing a lot of solo and duo acoustic shows this year, a lot of them are with Kory Myers from Fifth Kind, John’s local band. I was really looking for a change of pace after leaving Kid Ego last year… I think I found it with the Winger gig. I’ll probably put another full band together after this tour is over, I’ll miss that loud-ass Marshall Stack behind me too much not to.
My wife and I also own a photography business. Smith Artisan Photography. I haven’t really had much time to shoot over the last 6 months or so. She’s pretty much taken the ball from me this summer, though. www.SmithArtisanPhotography.com
My website and gig schedule are available at http://www.donniewaynesmith.com and I have the links to my social media accounts on the home page there for Facebook, Twitter, etc.
In closing, Winger has more dates this year posted on http://www.wingertheband.com/ . Please check them out, and whether it’s Reb with John or Reb with Donnie, you’re guaranteed to get an amazing Winger performance! And if you visit the Memphis area, look up any of the guys mentioned in this article, and you may be able to catch one of the amazing local bands we are forunate to enjoy often in the land of Elvis! –Paul Moreau
Saints (duel solo, Reb and Donnie): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP5-Za2M3mc
Can't get Enough (one of Donnie’s solo songs): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bMX4oV741I
Down Incognito (Donnie’s blues solo): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIRkTiAgHvQ
Courtesy of Hair Metal Mansion - www.hairbangersradio.ning.com