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Faces of COVID: Cleveland music legend David Smeltz dies of disease after months-long battle

Smeltz was the founder and guitarist of pioneering reggae group I-Tal. He passed away on June 24.

CLEVELAND — Coronavirus numbers continue to rise throughout the country, and a Cleveland music legend is now another "Face of COVID."

David Smeltz was the founder and guitarist of pioneering reggae group I-Tal. He passed away on June 24 after a long battle with COVID-19.

According to his band members, the coronavirus led to many health issues like pneumonia and a stroke before Smeltz ultimately lost his breath. 3News met with his fellow musicians to hear about Smetlz’s impact on others, and the impact was immense.

The musicians said they were able to visit Smeltz in the hospital to say goodbye before he passed away.

"I sang to him," bandmember Carlos Jones said. "I saw him try to open his eyes, and I could tell that he was getting it. He was getting the vibe, and that's what I wanted to share and send him off with."

"It was hard for me to look at him like that," fellow bandmate George Gordon added. "It was very hard, very hard, and all I could do was say a prayer and walk away."

"I hugged him [and] kissed his head, and I said, 'I'll be back, man, I'll be back,'" Michael Wasson remembered, 'but I knew I wasn't coming back.

Smeltz brought people together through harmony one note at a time. He was a Cleveland native and co-founded the band I-Tal in 1978, becoming a pioneer of reggae music in the region. He touched the lives of hundreds of musicians and community members.

However, the life of a musician on the road is one full of temptations, and Smeltz began to struggle with substance abuse.

"I used certain substances to help me stay awake and keep me flowing," he told me last year. "I had been a party animal since high school, so playing in a band just kind of fit right in. There's no better place for an alcoholic to be than in bars every night of the week."

Smeltz got sober in 2001 and had since dedicated much of his life to recovery. He even founded and ran his own transitional center called Clean House in Cleveland's Buckeye neighborhood. 

"He saved other people's lives," friend Charlie Weiner said. "It's not just about the music; it's about the purity of his spirit and the purity of his heart. If you ever met him, you would be taken [by] that smile alone. Two seconds of meeting David Smeltz and you were in love with him. It's hard to think he's gone. He's not gone; he's in all of us."