Smiley Bates

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Smiley Bates
Birth name Harvey Edgar Bates
Born October 16, 1937
Kirkland Lake, Ontario
Died January 8, 1997(1997-01-08) (aged 59)
Bent River, Ontario, Canada
Genres Country
Occupation(s) Singer
Years active 1951–1997

Smiley Bates (October 16, 1937 - January 8, 1997) was a Canadian country singer, songwriter, and musician. He recorded over forty albums in his career and sold over three million records worldwide.[1] Bates also performed on radio stations, CJKL-FM and CKJB. He died of cancer on January 8, 1997, at Bent River in the Muskoka municipality of Canada.

Early life[edit]

Born on October 16, 1937, in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada,[2] Harvey Edgar Bates (known as Smiley) had ten siblings - seven brothers and three sisters. Country music was a prominent feature in the Bates family life; Bates senior played the fiddle and performed at square dances, where his backing band often included his wife.[3]

As a child Smiley practiced playing his father's fiddle. At age six Smiley began playing on an Eaton's mail-order guitar.[3] He also developed proficiency with banjo, mandolin, and dobro. At eleven years of age Smiley joined Curly Carter and the Mountaineers, playing the fiddle. Smiley formed his own band, the North Star Ramblers, in 1951.

Musical career[edit]

Smiley's band, the North Star Ramblers, consisted of himself on lead guitar, Mike LaPorte on fiddle, and Shep LaPorte on rhythm guitar. The band performed together for about five years entertaining listeners on radio stations CJKL in Kirkland Lake and CKGB in Timmins.

After the LaPorte brothers moved to the Ottawa Valley, Smiley formed a new band featuring Jerry Goselin on rhythm guitar and bass, and Mike Zuppan on accordion. The played straight country and polkas in clubs where they worked the Quebec circuit.

The band stayed together for three years before breaking up at which point Smiley visited two of his brothers in British Columbia. Smiley ended up in Oshawa, a local centre for country music. While there, he connected with Slim Gordon and undertook an Ontario tour with a combination of club dates and one-night stands at arenas and halls. By this time, country music had grown in popularity, and before television became established in Northern Ontario, there was a lucrative circuit for performers willing to endure the rough touring from town to town.

Slim Gordon decided not to do road jobs. Electric guitar player Leroy Glazier, and Rosemary St. John on electric bass, left Slim's band and joined Smiley. Leroy was offered a job in the United States, leading to the dissolution of the band. Smiley performed as in clubs as a single, or as a duo with Hank Beaman.

Recording and record deals[edit]

Around 1966, Smiley recorded for the first time. A single record, The Gal Who Invented Kissing and My Nova Scotia Home was issued as a custom pressing. A part-time D.J. who was off his shift at 6 A.M. and was doing the recording at 7 A.M., taped the songs in Smiley’s motel room.

Some time after this record was released, Smiley met a singer who had recorded for Paragon Records in Toronto and he mentioned the name of Jack Boswell as the man to see. Their meeting would prove to be quite an astounding event.

Thus, Smiley was signed to record for Paragon Records in 1968 and the day before the session was to take place, he cautioned the backup musicians on the need for an early night. However, a friend called Smiley to invite him to a corn roast that night, and after staying up till 5:30 A.M., Smiley, fortified with aspirins and coffee, made it to a 9 A.M. recording session.

In 5 1/2 short hours, 3 albums were recorded. "Golden Guitar", "5-String Banjo Bluegrass", and "Fiddler's Dream", engineered by the late Bill Bessey, who was known to his fans as "Cousin Bill" on CBC radio, and later the announcer on the Tommy Hunter TV Show.

In 1969, two additional albums were recorded. “Songs from the Heart” and “Flat Top Guitar Instrumentals” showcased Smiley’s talent and advanced his career.

Revised approach to touring[edit]

By 1971, when album sales were increasing, Smiley ceased performing at clubs, opting instead to undertake an annual tour of the Maritimes, in addition to attending annual events like the Shelburne Old Time Fiddle Festival.

In 1973 Doug Taylor (Smiley's record producer at the time) asked him to headline an all-Canadian country show in Wheeling, West Virginia, featuring Joe Firth, Bobby Munro, Joanne Post, Steve Smith, and Eastwind.

Smiley's guitar style was attracting considerable attention, and at the 1974 Carlisle Bluegrass Festival, Smiley worked on an energetic jam session. Someone handed him a guitar, and said "Put some guitar stuff in this number". Smiley started playing "the only way I know how" and Josh Graves, the famous dobro player who was part of the Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys for years, sat and listened till the song was over and said to Smiley, "Ain't but two people that can play flat-top like that, and the other one's dead - only you left now!"

Working with American country artists[edit]

Later, as they talked about music, Josh invited Smiley to go to Nashville and record with him. At that time, being under contract, he was not authorized to say yes or no, but more important he said "I have been a Canadian recording artist always, and what I have done with record sales has been totally in Canada, with Canadian musicians. If American artists want me to record with them, they are welcome to come to Canada and I'll be happy to work with them!" ... and later they did. In 1974 the record company brought Shot Jackson, his wife Donna Darlene, and Benny Martin from Nashville to do some sessions. Shot recorded an album with Bob Lucier titled "Sail Along". Donna Darlene had minor hits with "The Other Side of Me" and "Make An Honest Woman Out Of Me", and Benny Martin recorded an album titled "Nashville Southern Fiddle". Benny had heard of Smiley and asked if he would play flat top guitar. Smiley agreed. That album has become a classic, as has the Shot Jackson/Bob Lucier album.

The Smiley Bates guitar style took its inspiration from Hank Snow, whom Smiley considered "one of the perfectionists of the flat top", but by age 16, Smiley was already fashioning the intricate series of notes that go together to make up cross-picking. This brilliant approach to lead guitar is similar to Scruggs style banjo in its effect but to achieve the rippling lines with a flatpick takes considerable skill.

Commercial success[edit]

Smiley's albums caught on, not only in Ontario, but especially in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, and increasing sales brought more recording sessions, with carefully chosen album titles by Smiley himself, a factor that helped boost sales.

Titles such as "My Mother", "Songs Of Life", "Path of Memories", "True Stories From Life's Other Side", and "History of Sadness", point to the key to Smiley's vocal success - the "Hurting Song".

Nobody can say for sure what makes sad songs so popular, but the albums are clear evidence that a voice like Smiley's filled these numbers very effectively.

Smiley's commercial success prompted other recording ventures. When the Instrumental hit "Duelling Banjos" from the film "Deliverance" was popular, Smiley, on Flat-Top Guitar was teamed with Eddie Poirier on 5-String Banjo. Though he had not seen the film, it only took a couple of tries to arrive at an arrangement, which, while not representative of Smiley's recording output, was nevertheless a commercial success.

A further album was issued with Eddie and Smiley, and based upon its success, the two teamed up with Rose (Eddie's wife) to record another big-selling Bluegrass album, titled "The Best of Bluegrass".

The suggestion was made at one point that Smiley's country sound should be "Modernized" by the addition of strings, horns, and background singers. He actually went into the studio and spent some time "rehearsing" the new sound, but at the end of one day of rehearsal, Smiley said flatly "Enough is enough. I sing straight Country! If the people didn't like what I sing, they wouldn't buy my records, BUT they do buy them, so I must be doing something right!".

To illustrate just how successful Smiley's recordings were, TeeVee Records (a company advertising on television) put together a package of 20 songs and instrumentals from Smiley's previous albums entitled "The Best of Smiley Bates". This album sold in excess of 100,000 units of records and tapes.

As Smiley would say, "You can take the Boy out of the Country, but you can't take the Country out of the Boy!"

This proved a point. With proper advertising and promotion, a purely Canadian country record can be incredibly successful. TeeVee Records was able to take older material and promote it on television and sell an unheard-of quantity of records and tapes, particularly in the Maritimes.

Due to the success of the TV record sales Smiley was offered long term recording contracts by three major recording companies.

A major part of the appeal of the Smiley Bates sound lies with the material. Obviously the songs strike a responsive chord with Country fans. A song entitled "Will You Love Me When I'm Old and Feeble" proved to be very popular, as did "Don't Tell Jeannie I'm Blind" and "My Daddy's Eyes". Other successful songs included "I'll Go Get The Toolbox", "Daddy and the Wine", and "Let Me In" by Gene Chrysler. Probably the most requested was the song "Golden Guitar" written by Curtis Leach.

After the release of the first instrumental album in 1968, more were recorded to meet the demand. Smiley's own instrumental numbers such as "Crying Guitar", "The Last Sunrise", "Charlie's Boogie", "Flat Top Chimes", and "Newfoundland Reel" please fans of the Flat Top Guitar.

Indeed, so popular did Smiley become Down East that many people were convinced that he was a Maritimer. As a result of the warm welcome he received in person on his tours, Smiley stated, "One area is home to me as much as the other." This takes in a big area, from Ontario to Newfoundland, to call your front porch!

A sidelight, which indicates how well known Smiley's sound, really was, occurred one time when someone approached Smiley and asked him if he had ever been in a movie. Told that the never had, the fan persisted, asking "But did you ever sing in a movie?" "Yes I Did" replied Smiley. "Was the movie called Wedding in White?" "It Was". "I knew it was you singing" said the enthusiastic fan.

The song referred to was all of 30 seconds worth of background music on a jukebox, yet that brief sequence was enough for instant recognition.

Stompin' Tom Connors[edit]

Smiley knew of Stompin' Tom in Timmins, Ontario, at the beginning of Tom's career. The two singers met some time later at the Wawa Motor Motel. Smiley recalled a tall, slim fellow wearing a Cowboy Hat who introduced himself and mentioned that he was interested in finding work in Wawa. An arrangement was made to provide continuous entertainment and Stompin' Tom's famous board and original material went over well in the clubs.

During this period, Tom stayed up all night writing songs. The only unfortunate thing about this was the fact that he would do his writing and practicing in Smiley's hotel room. Tom wrote songs about towns he played in attempted to land a recording contract in Toronto. Tom and Smiley remained good friends.

Later years[edit]

Bates traveled widely playing at festivals and fairs where he met hundreds of fans. "Without the people, there wouldn't be me", stated Smiley,[3] who enjoyed prioritizing his fanbase and maintaining his knowledge of their favorite songs. He has been called the "King of Hurtin' Songs".[3]


Bates continued to record, and to perform for fans during the mid-1990s, until he was diagnosed with cancer. Bates' final live performance before his death was at the Manitoulin Folk Festival.[2]

Bates' final three years were spent battling cancer and he eventually died on January 8, 1997, in Bent River, Ontario, Canada.[1]



  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b (2012). "Smiley Bates". The Music Barn. Retrieved 2 August 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d "The Smiley Bates Story" by Adrian Bevis. Published circa 1978 by Heritage Music Sales
  • Smiley Bates: 30 Years of Country Music - Real Country Music Publishing Company
  • Smiley Bates Biography - Heritage Music Sales
  • Country Music Treasures