Kathryn Elizabeth Smith (May 1, 1907 – June 17, 1986), known professionally as Kate Smith and The First Lady of Radio, was an American singer, a contralto, well known for her rendition of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America". She had a radio, television, and recording career spanning five decades, which reached its pinnacle in the 1940s. Smith became known as The Songbird of the South after her enduring popularity during World War II.
Smith in 1948
|Birth name||Kathryn Elizabeth Smith|
|Born||May 1, 1907|
Greenville, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||June 17, 1986 79) (aged|
Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.
Kathryn Elizabeth Smith was born May 1, 1907, in Greenville, Virginia, to Charlotte 'Lottie' Yarnell (née Hanby) and William Herman Smith, growing up in Washington, D.C. Her father owned the Capitol News Company, distributing newspapers and magazines in the greater D.C. area. She was the youngest of three daughters, the middle child dying in infancy. As a baby, she failed to talk until she was four years old, but a year later she was singing in church socials. By the time she was eight, she was singing for the troops at Army camps in the Washington area during World War I. Smith never had a singing lesson in her life and possessed a 'rich range' of two and a half octaves. Her earliest performances were during amateur nights at vaudeville theaters in D.C.
Her earliest musical influences were her parents: her father sang in the choir at the Catholic church; her mother played piano at the Presbyterian church. She attended Business High School in D.C. (now Theodore Roosevelt High School), likely graduating in 1924. Alarmed by his daughter's evident penchant for the stage, her father sent her to the George Washington University School for Nursing where she attended classes for nine months between 1924 and 25—withdrawing to pursue a career in show business.
She got herself on the bill at Keith's Theater in Boston as a singer. Heading the bill was the actor and producer Eddie Dowling, who signed up the young singer for a revue he was preparing. It was called Honeymoon Lane, and it opened in Atlantic City, New Jersey on August 29, 1926. A month later, it moved to Broadway.
An indelicate review in The New York Times on October 31, 1926, under the heading "A Sophie Tucker Rival", said: "A 19-year-old girl, weighing in the immediate neighborhood of 200 pounds, is one of the discoveries of the season for those whose interests run to syncopators and singers of what in the varieties and nightclubs are known as 'hot' songs. Kate Smith is the newcomer's not uncommon name."
When Honeymoon Lane closed Smith had difficulty finding work in New York, so returned to Washington D.C. where she appeared sporadically in vaudeville. Smith went into the road company of Vincent Youmans' Hit the Deck, where she won acclaim singing "Hallelujah!" as a mammy in blackface. Back in New York City, she took the company lead in George White's Flying High, which opened at the whites only Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater (which later became the Apollo Theater) on March 3, 1930, and ran for 122 performances. As Pansy Sparks, Smith's role was to be the butt of Bert Lahr's often cruel jibes about her girth. She said later that she often wept with humiliation in her dressing room after the show.
During Honeymoon Lane's run in New York, Smith made her first phonograph recordings, consisting of songs from that show. The first sessions were for Victor but none were issued. Her first issued recordings, from an October 28, 1926 session, appeared on the Columbia label. She made a few more records for Columbia through May 1927. In 1929 through 1931 she again returned to Columbia's studios, this time appearing for the budget labels Harmony, Diva and Velvet Tone under a pseudonym. These commercially successful records were often sung in the style of Ethel Waters and Ruth Etting, although other were more akin to the early crooning style of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo.
Her musical career took a huge leap in 1930 when Columbia Records A&R executive Ted Collins took an interest as a result of her Hit the Deck performances. Collins would became her longtime manager in 50–50 partnership. Smith had become self-conscious regarding her weight, in no small part because of the on- and off-stage mocking she received from co-star Bert Lahr. She later credited Collins with helping her overcome her self-consciousness, writing, "Ted Collins was the first man who regarded me as a singer, and didn't even seem to notice that I was a big girl." She noted, "I'm big, and I sing, and boy, when I sing, I sing all over!"
Collins put Smith on radio in 1931. That year, she performed "Dream a Little Dream of Me". Her biggest hits were "River, Stay 'Way from My Door" (1931), "The Woodpecker Song" (1940), "The White Cliffs of Dover" (1941), "Rose O'Day" (1941), "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1942), "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" (1942), "There Goes That Song Again" (1944), "Seems Like Old Times" (1946), and "Now Is the Hour" (1947). "Rose O'Day" sold over one million copies, her first to achieve this feat, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Her theme song was "When the Moon Comes over the Mountain"; she had helped write the lyrics. Smith greeted her audience with "Hello, everybody!" and signed off with "Thanks for listenin'."
In 1932, Smith appeared in Hello, Everybody!, with co-stars Randolph Scott and Sally Blane, and in the 1943 wartime film This Is the Army, she sang "God Bless America", which became her signature song.
Smith was a major star of radio, usually backed by Jack Miller's Orchestra. She began with her twice-a-week NBC series, Kate Smith Sings (quickly expanded to six shows a week), followed by a series of shows for CBS: Kate Smith and Her Swanee Music (1931–33), sponsored by La Palina Cigars; The Kate Smith Matinee (1934–35); The Kate Smith New Star Revue (1934–35); Kate Smith's Coffee Time (1935–36), sponsored by A&P; and The Kate Smith A&P Bandwagon (1936–37).
The Kate Smith Hour was a leading radio variety show, offering comedy, music, and drama with appearances by top personalities of films and theater for eight years (1937–1945). The show's resident comics, Abbott and Costello and Henny Youngman, introduced their comedy to a nationwide radio audience aboard her show, while a series of sketches based on the Broadway production of the same name led to The Aldrich Family as a separate hit series in 1940.
Smith also made a dramatic appearance, starring in "Little Johnny Appleseed" on Silver Theater on May 14, 1944.
Smith continued on the Mutual Broadcasting System, CBS, ABC, and NBC, doing both music and talk shows on radio until 1960.
Smith starred in two concurrent television programs in the early 1950s The Kate Smith Hour on NBC Television from 1950 through 1954, hosting until 1953 in the late afternoon hour of 4:00 pm ET. James Dean and Audrey Hepburn made early acting appearances on the show. Smith also starred in the weekly The Kate Smith Evening Hour which included a rare American TV appearance by Josephine Baker as well as the only major filmed footage of Hank Williams. Smith continued on the Mutual Broadcasting System, CBS, ABC, and NBC, doing both music and talk shows on radio until 1960.
From January 25 to July 18, 1960, Smith hosted The Kate Smith Show, a variety program on the CBS Television Monday evening schedule. On October 2, 1966, Smith performed on the British television show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Because of her popularity, her face was a common sight in print advertisements of the day. Over the years, she acted as a commercial spokeswoman for numerous companies such as Studebaker, Pullman, Diamond Crystal Salt, and Jell-O.
Smith's figure was not the only satire target. Her cheery radio sign-on was parodied by comedian Henry Morgan when he launched his own show in 1942: "Good evening, anybody, here's Morgan," which became his sign-on. Morgan recalled in his memoir Here's Morgan, that Smith's sign-on struck him as condescending: "I, on the other hand, was grateful if anybody was listening."
World War II
Smith "stirred patriotic fervor" during World War II and contributed to selling over $600 million (equivalent to $10.2 billion in 2018) of war bonds during a series of marathon broadcasts. No other show-business star came near her as revenue producer of War Bonds to finance the United States' war effort.
Smith released dozens of successful recordings during the 1930s and 1940s. She recorded sporadically during the 1950s but in 1963 signed a contract with RCA Victor releasing a number of successful albums including several that charted on the Billboard Hot 200 chart alongside the major rock stars of the era, usually with Smith, then well into her 50s, the oldest performer on the charts. In 1967 she had her first new hit record in many years when "Anyone Can Move A Mountain" peaked at #30 on Billboard's Easy Listening Hits chart in July 1967. This record was her only 1960s single release to be successful. In 1974, Smith returned to Billboard's Easy Listening chart when "Smile, Smile, Smile", a one-shot single release (and her last recording) for Atlantic Records, peaked at #42 in June 1974.
|"One Sweet Letter From You"||
|"When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain"||
|"I Don't Know Why"||
|"That's Why Darkies Were Born"||
|"River Stay Away from My Door"||
|"Snuggled on Your Shoulder"||
|Medley from Face the Music||
|Kate Smith Presents a Memory Program||
|"Shine on Harvest Moon"||
|"Bei Mir Bist Du Schien (Means That You're Grand)"||
|"God Bless America"||
|"The Last Time I Saw Paris"||
|"The Woodpecker Song"||
|"I'm Stepping Out with a Memory Tonight"||
|"God Bless America" (second charting)||
|"God Bless America" (third charting)||
|"(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover"||
|"How Do I Know It's Real?"||
|"I Threw a Kiss in the Ocean"||
|"Don't Fence Me In"||
|"There Goes That Song Again"||
|"And There You Are"||
|"Seems Like Old Times"||
|"Now Is the Time"||
|"—" denotes releases that did not chart|
(US chart positions courtesy Billboard magazine).
- 1949 Songs of Erin (10", Album), Columbia Records
- 1954 Kate Smith, Capitol Records
- 1958 The Fabulous Kate, Kapp Records
- 1958 Rip Van Winkle / Johnny Appleseed (with Lionel Barrymore), Full Fidelity Lion Records
- 1959 Christmas with The Great Kate, Mayfair Records
- 1960 Kate Smith Sings God Bless America, Tops Records
- 1963 Kate Smith at Carnegie Hall, RCA Victor Records #83 US
- 1964 The Sweetest Sounds of Kate Smith, RCA Victor Records #145 US
- 1965 A Touch of Magic, RCA Victor Records
- 1965 How Great Thou Art, RCA Victor Records #36 US
- 1966 Today, RCA Victor Records #148 US
- 1966 The Glorious Voice of Kate Smith, Pickwick Records
- 1966 The Kate Smith Anniversary Album, RCA Victor Records #130 US
- 1966 The Kate Smith Christmas Album, RCA Victor Records
- 1967 Just a Closer Walk with Thee, RCA Victor Records
- 1967 Here & Now, RCA Victor Records
- 1967 Something Special, RCA Victor Records
- 1968 May God Be with You, RCA Victor Records
- 1968 America's Favorites (with Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops, RCA Victor Red Seal
- 1968 The Best of Kate Smith, RCA Victor Records
- 1968 The One and Only, Kapp Records
- 1969 Songs of the Now Generation, RCA Victor Records
- 1970 The Best of Kate Smith Sacred, RCA Victor Records
- 1970 God Bless America & Other Great American Songs, Happy Time Records
- 1970 The Fabulous Kate Smith, RCA Camden
- 1974 God Bless America, Sunbeam Records
- 1976 Kate Smith Sings America's Favorites, RCA Special Products
- 1978 A Legendary Performer, RCA Records
Significance in professional sports
When the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team played Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" before their game on December 11, 1969, an unusual part of her career began. The team began to play the song before home games every once in a while; the perception was that the team was more successful on these occasions, so the tradition grew.
At the Flyers' home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on October 11, 1973, she made a surprise appearance to perform the song in person and received a tremendous reception. The Flyers won that game by a 2–0 score. She again performed the song at the Spectrum in front of a capacity crowd of 17,007 fans before game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 19, 1974, against the Boston Bruins. Before this game, Smith had a "Flyer Record" of 36–3–1 (win-loss-tie). Boston's defenseman Bobby Orr and center Phil Esposito, infamously tried to jinx the Flyers' "good luck charm" by shaking her hand after her performance. The Flyers won their first of two back-to-back Stanley Cups, winning that playoff series against the Boston Bruins four games to two, with Bernie Parent shutting the Bruins out 1–0 in the game.
Smith also performed live at the Flyers' home game on May 13, 1975, before game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Islanders. After her performance Islanders' captain Ed Westfall presented Smith with a bouquet of flowers as each member of the Islanders lined up to shake her hand. Nonetheless, the Flyers won 4-1. On May 16, 1976, Smith had one of her final public performances before game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Flyers lost to the Montreal Canadiens 5–3 and were swept in that series. She made her final public performance on May 23, 1985, before game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals when the Flyers lost to the Edmonton Oilers 3–1, and lost the series in five games.
The Flyers' record when "God Bless America" was played or sung in person stood at a remarkable 100 wins, 29 losses, and five ties as of April 20, 2016. Smith and her song remain a special part of Flyers' history. In 1987, the team erected a statue of Smith outside their arena at the time, the Spectrum, in her memory, although it was covered and then removed in April 2019, due to racist lyrics of some of her earlier songs. Until that time, the Flyers still showed a video of her singing "God Bless America" in lieu of "The Star Spangled Banner" for good luck before important games. The video of Smith's performance was later accompanied by Lauren Hart, daughter of the late Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster, Gene Hart, longtime voice of the Flyers, and anthem singer for the Flyers. Before games whenever "God Bless America" was performed, Lou Nolan, the public address announcer for the Flyers at Wells Fargo Center would say "Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, we ask that you please rise and remove your hats and salute to our flags and welcome the number-one ranked anthemist in the NHL, Lauren Hart, as she sings 'God Bless America', accompanied by the great Kate Smith."
Smith's plump figure made her an occasional object of derision; however, late in her career, Philadelphia Flyers hockey fans said about her appearance before games "It ain't BEGUN 'til the fat lady sings!" Smith was 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) tall and weighed 235 pounds (107 kg) at the age of 30. She titled her 1938 autobiography Living in a Great Big Way.
She was the grand marshal for the 1976 Rose Parade and sang "God Bless America" before the Rose Bowl game, a UCLA victory over Ohio State.
Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" was played during the seventh-inning stretch of New York Yankees home games from 2009 until April 2019, when the practice was discontinued amid controversy surrounding her 1931 recordings of "That's Why Darkies Were Born" and "Pickaninny Heaven." The following day, the Philadelphia Flyers followed suit. The statue was removed on April 21, 2019. Her family responded by denying the racism allegations. Those against the discontinuation of using Kate Smith's works have cited the satirical nature of the song "That's Why Darkies Were Born", and the fact that it was also popularized by Paul Robeson.
Smith called for racial tolerance in 1945 in an address on CBS Radio, saying, "Race hatreds, social prejudices, religious bigotry, they are the diseases that eat away the fibers of peace." She went on to say that it is up to us to tolerate one another in order to achieve peace.
In her later years, Smith was impaired by diabetes. In 1976, she suffered brain damage after slipping into a diabetic coma. In January 1986, her right leg was amputated due to poor circulation caused by diabetes. Five months later, she underwent a mastectomy. On June 17, 1986, Smith died of respiratory arrest at Raleigh Community Hospital in Raleigh at the age of 79.
For over a year following her death, Smith's remains were stored in a vault at St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, while officials of St. Agnes Church and the singer's executors engaged in a dispute over Smith's request to be buried in a mausoleum on the cemetery's grounds. Her private burial service took place on November 14, 1987.
She did a command performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the White House on June 8, 1939. She received a Drake University medallion for "outstanding contributions to radio and the people." Smith was inducted posthumously into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1999. She was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2010, a U.S. commemorative stamp was issued featuring stamp art duplicating artwork created for the cover of a CD titled Kate Smith: The Songbird of the South. The artwork was based on a photograph of Smith taken in the 1960s.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Kate Smith among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
The voice of Kate Smith is known and loved by millions of Americans, young and old. In war and peace, it has been an inspiration. Those simple but deeply moving words, 'God bless America,' have taken on added meaning for all of us because of the way Kate Smith sang them. Thanks to her they have become a cherished part of all our lives, an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours. In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith, God has truly blessed America.
It was not the first time Smith had been saluted by a president. In 1969, in light of Jim Morrison's arrest in Miami for indecent exposure, Smith had performed with The Lettermen, Anita Bryant, and Jackie Gleason in a concert demonstration against indecency, for which President Richard Nixon commended the stars' performances.
- "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, dies at 79". On this Day. New York Times. Retrieved February 6, 2016.
- Pitts, Michael R. (1988). Kate Smith: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press. pp. 1–19. ISBN 0-313-25541-5.
- Ware/Braukman, Susan/Stacy (2005). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, Volume 5. Belknap Press. p. 596. ISBN 978-0674014886.
- Hayes, Richard (2013). Kate Smith Speaks: 50 Selected Original Radio Scripts, 1938-1951. Albany, GA: BearManor Media. p. 1.
- Pitts, Michael R. (1988). Kate Smith: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 0-313-25541-5.
- Pitts, Michael R. (1988). Kate Smith: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press. pp. 25–29. ISBN 0-313-25541-5.
- Hayes, Richard K. (1995). Kate Smith: A Biography, with a Discography, Filmography and List of Stage Appearances. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0-7864-0053-6.
- Cassidy, Marsha Francis (2005). What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s. University of Texas Press. pp. 51–53.
- Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 26. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
- Sies, Luther F. (2014). Encyclopedia of American Radio, 1920–1960, 2nd Edition, Volume 1. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-5149-4. P. 9.
- "Sunday Highlights". The Nebraska State Journal. May 14, 1944. p. 33. Retrieved March 31, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- McNeil, Alex (1996). Total Television. New York City: Penguin Books. 4th ed. pp. 446–447.
- "Kate Smith burial set 18 months after death". The Vindicator. Youngstown, Ohio. Associated Press. November 13, 1987. Retrieved April 27, 2019 – via Google News Archive.
stirred patriotic fervor and helped raise millions in war bonds
- FRANK G. PRIAL (June 18, 1986). "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, Dies At 79". The New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
No single show-business figure even approached her as a seller of War Bonds during World War II. In one 18-hour stint on the CBS radio network, Miss Smith sold $107 million worth of War Bonds, which were issued by the United States Government to finance the war effort. Her total for a series of marathon broadcasts was over $600 million.
- Schneider, Jeremy (April 22, 2019). "Who is Kate Smith? Why did the Yankees stop playing her 'God Bless America'? What happened to her Flyers statue? What racist songs did she sing, and what are the lyrics?". nj.com.
- "Flyers History – Kate Smith". FlyersHistory.net. Retrieved May 29, 2010.
- "Flyers To Stop Using Kate Smith's Recording Of 'God Bless America,' Covering Statue After Alleged History Of Racism". April 19, 2019. Retrieved April 19, 2019.
- May 24th, 2010 Anthems sung by Kate Smith & Lauren Hart Canadiens Vs. Flyers HNiC on YouTube
- Current Biography 1940, pp 745–747.
- Bondy, Stefan (April 18, 2019). "Yankees dump Kate Smith's 'God Bless America' from rotation over singer's racist songs". New York Daily News. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
- Criss, Doug; Martin, Jill (April 19, 2019). "Sports teams dump Kate Smith's 'God Bless America' because of her racist songs". CNN. Retrieved April 19, 2019.
- Rolen, Emily (April 21, 2019). "Kate Smith statue removed from Wells Fargo Center". PhillyVoice. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
- Tarlton, Amanda (April 22, 2019). "Kate Smith's Family Responds to Statue and Song Controversy". Fatherly. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
- Snider, Eric D. (February 28, 2011). "What's the Big Deal?: Duck Soup (1933)". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved April 25, 2019.
- Morris, Phillip (April 28, 2019). "Early Kate Smith songs haunt her from the grave". The Plain Dealer. Cleveland, Ohio. Retrieved May 23, 2019.
- Timpane, John (April 25, 2019). "Kate Smith called for racial tolerance in this forgotten 1945 radio address". Philly.com. Retrieved April 27, 2019.
- "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2011.
- Prial, Frank G. (June 18, 1986). "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, Dies At 79". The New York Times. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
- "Kate Smith Dead at Age 79". The Nevada Daily Mail. June 17, 1986. p. 13. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
- "Kate Smith burial Set 18 months after death". The Vindicator. November 13, 1987. p. 34. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
- Dave, Tabler. "The Coon Creek Girls play the White House". Appalachian History. Archived from the original on February 4, 2015. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- Billboard, May 2, 1942.
- Campbell, Ken (May 7, 2014). "Is Ginette Reno the Canadiens version of the Flyers' Kate Smith?". The Hockey News. Archived from the original on May 11, 2014. Retrieved June 3, 2014.
- "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
- World Stamp News WorldStampNews.com Archived March 8, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
- "Tiger by the Tail". sfflierculp.com. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
- Rock Almanac Copyright 1983.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Kate Smith.|
- Kate Smith Commemorative Society
- Kate Smith on IMDb
- Kate Smith at the Internet Broadway Database
- Collection of mid-twentieth century advertising featuring Kate Smith from The TJS Labs Gallery of Graphic Design.
- Illustrator Stan Drake recalls backstage at The Kate Smith Show
- Flyers History - Kate Smith
- Kate Smith is dead; 'America loved her' at the Wayback Machine (archived June 17, 2012)
- Kate Smith Sings God Bless America, 1930s on YouTube
- Kate Smith at Find a Grave