Earl Smith thinks big. Straining to hit the highest notes of a Judas Priest anthem, tossing cheerleaders in the air or standing up to the mayor, Smith lives to the tune of a rock and roll chorus. Too loud for you? Too bad.
“I thought he was the most obnoxious man I ever met,” says Ellen Smith, Earl’s wife, recalling her first encounter with this year’s winner of C-VILLE’s “Put Me on the Cover” contest.
“I was obnoxious,” says Earl, laughing and slapping me with the back of his hand, his trademarked signal that he’s about to say something hilarious. “Hey, I was a rock god.” Har har har.
And Smith has the pictures to prove it. On the wall of the Firehouse Bar and Grill, the Grady Avenue pub he runs with Ellen, he keeps a black-and-white photo of one of his first rock god moments—Albemarle High School’s 12th grade talent show. Wearing an Izod shirt with the sleeves ripped out, Smith’s band, Danger Zone, ripped through 20 minutes of tunes by Judas Priest, the Scorpions and Loverboy before teachers shut off the power.
There’s a little secret that every rock god understands, a theorem that’s made Smith, a 40-year-old native Charlottesvillian, successful in a wide range of activities, from Spandex-clad hair metal to comic books to hardball politics, and here it is: People want to believe. As a singer or a salesman—whether he’s belting out “Hot Blooded” or telling you his line of “Big Cock” t-shirts (featuring a muscular cartoon rooster) could be the next big thing—Earl Smith displays not a hint of pretension or dishonesty. He makes you believe.
“People do seem to listen to me,” he says. “My philosophy is that whatever I do creates something in you, and whatever you do creates something in somebody else. I carry that around with me, and maybe people see that.”
Smith’s career as rock god and rabble rouser had an unlikely origin—cheerleading. He was one of seven men in Albemarle High School’s national champion cheerleading squad in 1980.
“Hey, you can make fun all you want, but it was hard work,” says Smith. “The football team sucked at the time. Who would you rather ride home on the bus with?”
After Smith and Danger Zone said goodbye to AHS in classic heavy metal fashion, he fronted a band called Revenge that played TRAX during the Spandex and lipstick-laden ’80s metal scene.
“The scene in Charlottesville hasn’t changed,” says Smith. “You’ve got so much talent, but nobody wants to play with each other. Come on! How many nights can you sit on the couch with your girlfriend?”
He found greater success with his first touring band, Empire. Then he moved to glam-soaked Virginia Beach in 1986 to play with Hooker. They broke up in 1988 when their drummer moved to Los Angeles to play with Racer X and, eventually, Judas Priest.
In those days of coke-fueled rock ‘n’ roll, Smith says he never touched drugs and only rarely had a drink. But he had one vice—David Lee Roth-style stretch pants that earned him the name “Spandex Earl.”
“I couldn’t afford those clothes, so my Mom made me some great pants,” says Smith. “Different color legs, stripes, fringes. That’s what you call unconditional love.”
Besides a fearless fashion sense and a strong voice, Smith’s great talent is an energetic charm that makes anyone he talks to feel like they’re in on the joke. It worked well on the stage, but after the demise of Hooker, Smith moved to Pennsylvania, and put his personality to a more socially conscious use.
As he tried unsuccessfully to form an original band, Smith worked as a counselor at a children’s home that took troubled kids off the street and socialized them before placing them in foster homes.
“It was tough,” says Smith. “You had to teach them to get up in the morning and brush their teeth, and not to poke that other kid in the eye with a cigarette.”
The work lost its luster for Smith after he helped a particularly troubled boy succeed in school by promising to take him to a Van Halen concert. The boy finished the year with Bs and Cs, but after Smith bought the tickets the home’s headmaster said the boy couldn’t go to the concert.
“It was sad,” says Smith. “The kid’s probably in jail right now.”
Smith spent the next eight months painting cars before Raleigh rock band Lizzy Star promised him $200 a week to sing for them. “They paid me, but the band only lasted three months,” says Smith.
Lizzy Star turned into Jinx, and eventually brought Smith more than just a temporary paycheck. In 1989 they played weekly gigs at a Newport News club called the Crystal Inn, where owner Ellen Petrin took offense to Smith’s cocky personality.
“I didn’t like him,” says Ellen. “But I’ve been in the bar business all my life and I’ve heard a million singers, and he’s the best.”
But as Smith hung around, he became Ellen’s buddy, and helped her run the club. Soon they were dating, and they’ve been married for eight years.
“She taught me something,” says Smith. “If you’re in a band and everybody’s yelling for you to play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ if it makes people like you, then you play it. People might say it’s stupid, but who cares? Drink more beer. Have more fun. We wanted to be everybody’s buddy.”
By 1992, Ellen and Earl were tired of the club scene, but Smith’s apartment was piled thigh deep with Earl’s other vice (besides Spandex)—comic books. “Ellen asked me why I didn’t start my own store. I was scared, but we got a 900-square-foot space in Gloucester and opened Hero’s Comics,” says Smith.
The store flourished, eventually expanding to three branches, thanks to Earl’s rock ’n’ roll approach. “You just make people feel good about being there,” he says. But in the mid-’90s, the market for comic books fell out as companies tried to capitalize on renewed interest in the genre by flooding the market with what Smith calls “junk.”
Smith sold the store, and he and Ellen moved back to Charlottesville in 1994. He bounced around—working for Sprint, running 30 Central Virginia Subway sandwich shops, managing the short-lived Boudreaux’s restaurant and dance club on Rio Road (where he earned fame and a Virginia Broadcasting Award for the “Uncle Boudreaux” character he played in local commercials).
In 2002 he bought the Bomb Shelter in the Monticello Dairy Building on Grady Avenue and renamed the joint The Firehouse, after his stepson Eric, a firefighter in James City County.
A year later, Smith looked out his window and saw City workers marking underground gas lines around the vacant strip of grass outside his bar. After some investigation, Smith discovered that then-Mayor Maurice Cox and former Planning Director Satyendra Huja wanted to build a housing development there, to be called Preston Commons.
“I had two Subway stores that went through street remodeling,” he says. “They went from $5,000 a week in revenue to less than $2,000 a week.”
Smith teamed up with John Coleman, who owns Central Battery in the Monticello Dairy Building. The two made a potent political barrier to Cox and Huja’s development plans—Coleman delivered eloquent pleas to reconsider, while Smith passionately denounced City Hall arrogance. The pair rallied other nearby business owners and City councilors, who eventually defeated Preston Commons.
“It was a bad idea, and they tried to hide behind all these big words,” Smith says. “I’m the guy who will tell you that you’re stupid. I shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way I’ve always been.”
Now that the Preston Commons battle is won, don’t think Smith is out of the political game. “I’m still watching what City Council does,” he says. “If I don’t like something they’re doing, I’m going to jump on them.”
It’s 11am on a Tuesday, and Firehouse regulars are already racking up billiard balls for a lunchtime game. Eating chicken wings and a pair of pickle spears, construction worker Tommy Crawford says that if it weren’t for Earl, there’d be no home for the pool leagues that Firehouse hosts on Mondays and Tuesdays, with in-house tournaments on Sundays and Wednesdays.
“I come in here almost every day,” says Crawford. He says he looks forward to the times when Smith pulls out a guitar and belts out a few classic rock tunes.
“My favorite is ‘Highway to Hell,’ or any of the old AC/DC tunes,” says Crawford. Like almost everyone who meets Smith, Crawford’s become a true believer.
“It’s like he’s got Bon Scott’s soul,” says Crawford. “It’s dead on. It gets me all tore up.”—John Borgmeyer