Going on appearances, Frankie Smith could not have been more unlike Larry Lavin, the flashy young student from Massachusetts who moved into his neighborhood in 1973.
Plainly dressed in a well-worn collared shirt and dark trousers, Smith-a small-shouldered man with a slight limp-walks in a quick, stooped stride that makes it easy to miss him as he rushes by on the West Philadelphia streets where he’s spent the entirety of his 65 years.
Then, as now, Frankie Smith was concerned with little but the music in his head.
When Larry Lavin entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of ’73, he was impossible to miss as he traveled these same streets. He was exceptionally tall, his stature highlighted by the bright plaid pants and candy-colored polo shirts he liked to wear. For someone with as much to hide as Lavin, he cared surprisingly little about maintaining a low profile.
Smith wonders sometimes how different his life would have been had Lavin never come to Philadelphia. Today he might be known on the streets they once shared as a musical pioneer, a hip-hop original, one of the oldest rappers around, the guy who created the best-selling 12-inch dance single of all time.
Instead his name has become a footnote in the many newspaper stories, true crime books and TV documentaries that have focused on Lavin over the last two decades, ever since Smith unwittingly exposed the younger man as the mastermind behind a $60 million cocaine operation, the largest in Philadelphia’s history.
Smith tries not to dwell on it, preferring to focus on his new album and his long-planned comeback. Still, he believes his name merits more than a passing mention in the oft-repeated story of a man he’s never even met.
The $600 Wurlitzer Piano That Changed Everything
Frankie Smith lives in the same narrow two-bedroom row home at 51st and Dearborn he’s always lived in, discounting the handful of years he spent as a student at Tennessee State University in the mid-’60s. He never did return from Nashville with the degree in elementary education he’d gone down there to earn, but he did bring back something that proved more useful.
Passing through the music building at TSU late one night he was arrested by the sound coming from a nearby room. Seated inside was a music student practicing on a keyboard for his senior recital.
Smith knocked softly and asked if he could watch the student play. The student noticed his onlooker’s intense concentration and began to play slowly so Smith could watch the placement of his fingers.
Smith stared down at the keyboard until he’d committed the position of each of the student’s fingers to memory.
He then excused himself and went off in search of an empty practice room where he spent the rest of the night trying to produce the sounds he’d just heard. He was soon offering the student a dollar for every chord he taught him, and by the end of the year Smith knew them all.
One day his right hand started doing things on its own, and then both his hands started working together. Soon he was making melodies he’d previously heard only in his head.
When Smith moved back to West Philadelphia in 1973, he knew it was to make music for the rest of his life. His mother let him live at home without a job. She saved $600 working in the commissary of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital and bought a Wurlitzer upright piano from Jacob’s Music on Chestnut Street. They put the piano in the corner of the small living room, and Smith spent his days and nights there writing songs.
From Songwriting for Stars to Unemployment
It was a good time to be making music in the city. Philadelphia International Records had recently set up headquarters at 309 S. Broad St., and in 1973, the year Smith returned to Philadelphia, the label’s enigmatic co-founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff produced 17 chart-topping albums.