Tate Street, Sam Frazier recalls, was a fine place to acquire a musical education back when he was first coming up as a performer.
“It was just wide open, there were good players, you could see them up close and personal,” he said. “You could go to Aliza’s Cafe (underneath what is today Boba House vegetarian restaurant), which turned into the Nightshade Cafe, and it wasn’t necessarily a big deal to book a gig. And a lot of times, we played there without any kind of preparation.”
Frazier has long been a mainstay on the Greensboro music scene, playing guitar for storied local band Tornado, and currently leading a group called Sam Frazier & the Side Effects, which includes Chris Micca and Cliff Greeson.
In a recent interview, he spoke about his Tate Street days, about how a songwriting group has helped him creatively, and about playing alongside some frogs near a riverbank.
How did you get your start in music?
I’ve been playing something for as long as I can remember. I took piano lessons when I was a little boy, and then I played drums, and then I got a guitar when I was 15, and I’ve been playing since. I went to school and studied it, been teaching, pretty much from the get-go. Played in bands in high school and college, and just kept going.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I’ve gone through phases like everybody else. When I was a kid I was into Derek and the Dominos, and Cream, and all that stuff. Then, I found out about Joe Pass and George Benson and jazz music. And that blew my mind.
Later on, I got into Randy Newman and Jackson Browne and Van Morrison, and these songwriters, along with the Stax folks, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
How would you describe your music?
It’s singer/songwriter stuff. My primary focus these days is writing songs. I play them solo, and have a band, Sam Frazier & the Side Effects, and we play them. I guess you could say it’s Americana, but that’s a big umbrella, I realize.
How does your creative process work?
Lately, I’ve been involved in this Facebook songwriting group (called The Tunesmiths). There are 13 or so people in the group. At the beginning of the month, somebody offers up a prompt. It can be a word. It can be a short phrase. And you have a month to write a song, using that word. It can be about anything, it just has to have that word in it. You have one month that you can skip, but if you skip two months, you’re out of the group.
But for me, it’s been really good. For instance, this year so far, I’ve written a song for every month, and they’re all songs I like, and I look forward to playing them for people.
How do you feel taking part in a songwriting group like that helps you exercise your creative muscles?
When you’re writing songs, you have to have a place to start. And a word and a little pressure seems to work well for me. I don’t necessarily want a subject matter, having to write a song about this or that.
But, if you take a word and just start playing with it, and come up with a line or two that kind of flows off your tongue. You can go from there and come up with something. You don’t know what you’re doing when you’re starting, you focus in on it, it develops into something, and at the end of it, you have a little song. It’s quite lovely.
Why do you feel Tate Street was such a fruitful place for up-and-coming artists when you were getting your start?
We just had some simpatico between musicians and we would just play. It was a great place to learn and to stretch out and develop.
There was a place called the Guitar Shop, where you could take guitar lessons from Keith Roscoe, who’s now making guitars here in town. There were clubs to play in. It had an awesome record store called Discount Records. It had the (restaurant) Hong Kong House. It was great.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be, and why?
I’ve opened for a bunch of people that I would put on that list. I’ve opened for Joan Armatrading and the Neville Brothers.
Right now, I would like to open for a songwriter that I like a lot, and have them hear me play, and maybe give some kind of critique, which is very, very scary.
I’d also like to open up for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Their trip is so amazing. I’ve seen them a couple of times. And when you see people live, sometimes it’s not the best way to hear music for the first time because you can’t always really hear. But I saw them play at the Cat’s Cradle (in Carrboro), and they were playing songs I’d never heard before, and it just knocked my socks off. It was a great concert experience.
And her songs, you can listen to them over and over again, and they get deeper and deeper, and his guitar playing is always interesting and out of left field. He’s spontaneous without being indulgent.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
Years and years ago, the band I was with, Tornado, was playing in the Wilmington-Wrightsville Beach area. We were playing the blues, and the bar was right near a small river, and you could hear the frogs go completely bonkers, and I used that in the song. We would go, “Da, da, da, da, da” and then let the frogs take it. They were so noisy, and it was really cool.
What’s next for you?
My band Sam Frazier & the Side Effects are going to be at the Doodad Farm (4701 Land Road in Greensboro) with special guest Jeffrey Dean Foster on July 24.
We’re also working on a CD, and we’re working with Snüzz — his name is Britt Uzzell, but everyone calls him Snüzz. He’s helping us mix it, and it sounds like a million bucks when he gets his hands on it.
And I’m writing songs. I wasn’t doing it for a while, but this songwriting group gave me the impetus. And I’m really happy to be doing that.
— As told to Robert C. Lopez, firstname.lastname@example.org