OSWEGO, NY – The Small Kings have been playing together for 16 years, in one form or another. Now, they have kicked it up a notch, according to a member of Oswego’s Frostbit Blue.
“Hey, I’ve got me a boy in a rock band!” proud father Tom McCaffrey told Oswego County Today.
Guitarists Frank Raponi and Jeff McCaffrey and bassist Mike Levy played their first gig together as Cosby, Nils and Stash at Ithaca’s Moosewood Café in 2001. Then, they performed for several years as the Marty Withers Band, featuring a wide variety of cover songs as well as some original music.
Joel Blizzard, inspired by their musical interactions, took up drumming and was pulled into the group as soon as he was ready.
They soon changed their name to The Small Kings and shifted their focus toward original music.
Above all, the four are friends first and band members second.
Jeff McCaffrey is an Oswego native, now living in Ithaca.
The Small Kings will release its second album, “Into Gravity,” today (July 22) with a debut performance at the Grassroots Festival. The CD will be available for sale at this performance (in the Cabaret Hall at 4:15 p.m.) and at the Grassroots Merchandise Tent.
Into Gravity features special guests of note. Making keyboard contributions on two songs each are Colin Smith of Gunpoets and solo artist Benjamin Costello. Costello is a former member of The Small Kings, who also appeared on their first album. And, Tom McCaffrey of Frostbit Blue, father of lead singer/guitarist Jeff McCaffrey, makes “a stunningly tasteful appearance” on the song Tailgating.
“They have really upped their game the last two years or so,” Tom McCaffrey said. “They have become more serious, professional. There is so much musicianship in the group.”
As a result, they have developed an all-inclusive style of music that relies heavily on rich harmonies and musical interaction.
“Our songs can change style or tempo from show to show and they are prone toward improvisation, extending their composed pieces as they create new grooves on the spot,” Levy said. “Over the years, the Small Kings have been a staple at the Ithaca Festival, Porchfest, Maxie’s Supper Club and other regional venues such as Two Goats and Grist Iron Brewing in nearby Hector.”
“We all share songwriting responsibilities and it’s often a collaborative process,” Jeff McCaffrey explained. “Sometimes we start with a riff or a jam and then pair it with lyrics. Sometimes, the lyrics inspire a certain chord pattern.”
Their first record, Eating Oranges After Dark, is available on CDBaby, iTunes, and Spotify.
“I think you can also get it at A&J Music (in Oswego)!” McCaffrey added.
His father is his biggest influence, he said.
“He is the reason why I am a guitarist and songwriter,” McCaffrey said. “I remember going to his band’s rehearsals and shows when I was a kid and thinking, ‘someday I want to do THAT!’ My dad always played guitar around the house and encouraged me to play. In fact, he let me hold his prized Gibson SG when I was very young. I dropped it on the floor and the neck snapped off. The guitar was repaired and is still playable, but I refuse to touch it to this day. That last part isn’t true, but I did break his guitar.”
It wasn’t completely broken, his father pointed out.
He remembers the incident this way:
“He was about three or four at the time. We used to hold the guitar on his lap and strum the strings. One day, his uncle Barry was watching him, and if you have kids you know stuff can happen in a second, and the guitar just slipped off his lap onto the floor.
“The neck broke where it connects with the body. But it didn’t come off. But it was bad enough. I took it all over the place trying to see if someone could repair it. I went from Syracuse to Rochester and back – no one could fix it. Then I found this older gentleman, a fiddler out on a farm in Granby, who said he could do it. All he needed was a metal plate from another guitar. I gave him one from a cheap old guitar I had – said ‘Made in Japan’ on it.”
It was fixed, good as new, and he has played it in various shows for 20 years.
“It’s my favorite. But it’s probably the only Gibson around that says ‘Made in Japan’ on the back,” he quipped adding, “I’d love to have Jeff come up and play it sometime.”
Jeff said his father gave him his first guitar when he 15 and taught him some chords.
“Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here got me hooked. But, when he helped me learn the opening riff to Guns ‘N Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine, I was sold,” he said.
Looking back, he said he didn’t realize it at the time, but in his late teens, he received much education as an audience member at Frostbit Blue gigs.
“The band paid attention to the details of putting on a good show and always delivered! I learned the importance of mastering your instrument, engaging an audience, having fun on stage, and committing to regular band rehearsals in order to create tight vocal and guitar harmonies and compelling song arrangements,” he said.
“My father gave me countless opportunities to sit in with the band on ‘Lake Ontario Twilight’ and ‘Elevator,’ two songs written by my late uncle Barry McCaffrey. In doing so, he helped me build my confidence to perform, while also allowing us to celebrate and preserve Barry’s legacy,” he added. “There is nothing like performing on stage with great musicians. Playing with Frostbit inspired me to seek out others who had the same goals in making music.”
Tom said there were always some guitars and other instruments around the house while Jeff was growing up.
“I was kind of pushed into music when I was young; took piano lessons as a kid. It gave me a good foundation,” he said. “I didn’t want to force Jeff into anything. He developed a love of music all his own.”
One day, while in middle school, Jeff brought a friend home who wanted to learn to play ‘Satisfaction.’
Tom showed him a few times and then let the teen try it on his own.
“He couldn’t quite get it. He tried again and again,” Tom said. “I could see Jeff out of the corner of my eye. He was studying every move we made.”
When the other boy was finished, Jeff came over, picked up the guitar and played ‘Satisfaction’ perfectly, his father said.
“The first time; man he was a quick learner! That was great to see,” Tom said.
Jeff said that spending time with his father’s bands also showed him the kinds of deep bonds and friendships that can be formed through music.
“This is true for the band members themselves but also for the fans who become close with the group,” he noted. “My Small Kings bandmates are my very good friends and I am so grateful for the community that music has provided.”
There are two other key influences in his life.
One is his mother, Pati Wells, “who fiercely supported my musical development in many ways, including allowing her living room to be transformed into a practice space for weeks on end.”
The other is his former guitar teacher and member of Jolly Roger, Jim Eckert, “who taught me, among other things, how to rock.”
And Jeff admits there is a big “to do” on his musical bucket list.
“Yes, I hope The Small Kings can open for Frostbit sometime soon!” he said.
Information about the band can be found at www.thesmallkings.com and at