Punk rock's poet laureate Patti Smith ranks among the most influential female rock & rollers of all time. Ambitious, unconventional, and challenging, Smith's music was hailed as the most exciting fusion of rock and poetry since Bob Dylan's heyday. If that hybrid remained distinctly uncommercial for much of her career, it wasn't a statement against accessibility so much as the simple fact that Smith followed her own muse wherever it took her -- from structured rock songs to free-form experimentalism, or even completely out of music at times. Her most avant-garde outings drew a sense of improvisation and interplay from free jazz, though they remained firmly rooted in noisy, primitive, three-chord rock & roll.
Born in Chicago and raised in Philadelphia and nearby New Jersey, Smith eventually made her way to New York City, where she spent the early part of the 1970s immersed in the New York art scene, living with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel and developing herself in a variety of creative mediums from poetry to painting to playwriting. By 1974, she'd begun to establish herself as a rock musician, playing shows with guitarist/bassist Lenny Kaye, then assembling what would soon become the Patti Smith Group. After Kaye, pianist Richard Sohl was the first to come on board, followed shortly after by Czechoslovakian-born guitarist/bassist Ivan Král and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty.
After independently releasing the "Hey Joe" b/w "Piss Factory" single, Patti Smith Group became the first of the CBGB-associated punk acts to score a major record deal when famed A&R man Clive Davis signed them to Arista in 1975. Released in December of that year, Horses fused Smith's unconventional post-beat poet lyrical style with a primitive rock minimalism that was striking and wholly unique. Though the album was credited to solely to Smith, the collective force of Smith, Kaye, Sohl, Král, and Daugherty together signified the stark power of the burgeoning punk movement, and by the time 1976's Radio Ethiopia arrived, it was attributed to Patti Smith Group. During a January 1977 tour date in Florida, Smith suffered a serious neck injury after falling from the stage into the concrete orchestra pit. Following a lengthy period of recovery and physical therapy, she and the group returned to produce what would be their commercial breakout in 1978's Easter. Produced by Jimmy Iovine and featuring the Bruce Springsteen co-written hit "Because the Night," Easter was widely hailed as one of the year's best albums and an artistic return to form after the somewhat difficult Radio Ethiopia. It was also notable for the absence of keyboardist Sohl, who was temporarily replaced in the studio by Bruce Brody.
As the '70s came to a close, so would the tenure of the original Patti Smith Group. Following the 1979 release of their fourth album, Wave, Smith and her newlywed husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith (MC5), relocated to Detroit, where she would spend most of the decade in semi-retirement while raising a family. Král would go on to work with Iggy Pop, compose music for a number of independent films, and record a number of solo works in his native Czech Republic. Sohl returned to record with Smith on her 1988 solo album, Dream of Life, before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1990. Since the mid-'90s, Smith's longtime creative foils Kaye and Daugherty, along with late-period bassist Tony Shanahan, have served as her primary band, and even though the Patti Smith Group name would no longer appear on album covers, they have remained her closest collaborators on-stage and in the studio. ~ Timothy Monger & Steve Huey