Smith, who is also a tenured professor at the University of Southern California, says that GuitarMasters is one of his real passions and focuses right now. He says, "basically about a year ago, a teaching assistant of mine who have done outreach at his previous college told me about how they did an outreach program to interface with the local community. USC is in South Central Los Angeles, which is a tough area, and we started a program called GuitarMasters where I would get my teaching assistants to go down and do a beginning guitar class. We hooked up free guitars from a number of sources and we took our curriculum, which teaches guitar fundamentals in popular and jazz music. So it's not classical classes, these guys are learning the blues and they're learning R&B and pop beginning on the guitar."
Richard Smith says the way he got the program going was to go to the local Boy’s and Girl’s Club, which was already providing after-school programs, and set up the GuitarMasters program as an after-school program for at-risk kids. He says, "The same week after a Christmas concert, there were 25 homicides in that community. What that told me is that the program helps keep these kids off the streets.- let alone all the incredible positive effects of having college students as mentors. They come from all over the world to study the guitar at USC. What better mentor is that? Teaching all the positive things of music education that it stimulates certain parts of the brain to learn more and gives a feeling of involvement."
After starting the GuitarMasters program, Smith found out that when he was younger, he was an at-risk kid. "My folks were divorced," says Smith, "My father went overseas and my mom had to raise us by herself. She had to learn a profession and so forth and we were very poor. However, I had no idea I was poor. I had no idea I was at-risk," he says. "I loved the guitar. All I would do is play the guitar and think about how I could play it. Now I'm realizing on a much deeper level how important these programs are," he says.
Richard Smith realizes that the GuitarMasters program could mean a child could not only have a career, but also obtain a college degree. Some of the people who have received scholarships through the program are now working with such diverse artists as Marc Anthony, The Backstreet Boys, Snoop Dogg and Run-D.M.C. The program has done so well in South Central Los Angeles that Smith wants the program to go national. He says, "We're partnering with the International House of Blues Foundation. To me, this has been a very rewarding thing. I get up in the morning thinking about the programs we have going like this way more than how many CD's I can sell."
Smith's latest CD called Soulidified is his first for the A440 Music Group label and his first CD of new material in three years. Smith says he took some time off from teaching and went to Europe. During that time he says, "I hung out and played, and did some concerts and master classes over there - got to hear what was going on over there. That was very inspiring. I just sat in a lot of hotel rooms in Europe with my guitar and a pad of paper and came up with what I thought were some good songs."
Richard Smith believes the hardest part of his job is to write new material. He says, "Sometimes five chord changes will come out. I think 'OK, I'm really onto something' and I'll go back to write on that tune the next day and all of a sudden, BAM, I hit this wall and it will take me three weeks to get the next three bars out. So for me, I'm not a natural writer. I really have to work hard at my writing and actually that's where I get the most musical rewards.
Soulidified was a project that Smith was really proud of because of the amount of work he had to do to make the CD sound great. He says, "We were mixing it toward the end of the project and I got to hear all of the components put together. The horn arrangements that I worked hard on, some of these arrangements have five saxophones, five trumpets and four trombones, have a lot of density. Then when you mix it all together, you can hear it really start to take shape in its perfection. You get beautiful players like Jeff Lorber, Alex Acuna, Snoop Dogg's drummer, who was a total surprise and a wonderful experience, and Brian Bromberg. All of a sudden all that's coming together and that's when the hair starts standing up."
Bassist Brian Bromberg was more than just a producer to Richard Smith on Soulidified, he was a "soul mate," says Smith. "He's such a great guy plus he's probably one of the great instrumental artists on Earth. He plays the bass as no one I ever heard play it. For me, it really affected me in that I didn't come to a session unprepared. I would get up early in the morning and get my act together a lot more because I have such a great amount of respect for him," continues Smith. "He didn't get in the way of the music. He was really respectful of the hard work that I put into the writing and the arranging. He was so conscientious about the beat and I think this record was a real learning experience and a growing experience for me, because I've written a lot of records and harmonies and there's some good guitar playing, but it's like I left the beat later. When Brian got a hold of the songs and listened to the rhythm, he did what he needed to do to get it up to where I think it's the stickiness, groovin'-ist rhythm section you could ever possibly get," says Smith.
Even though the first single released from Soulidified is the remake of the Earth, Wind and Fire song Sing A Song, Richard Smith has come with a winner that shows just how strong he has become as both a musician and a writer. Not only that, Smith is a strong human being in helping people who have gone through what he did as a child. Richard Smith is one special artist.