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 Harvey Edgar Bates on October 16, 1937, in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Canada,[2] Smiley had seven brothers and three sisters and grew up in a family in which country music was a major part of life. His father played the fiddle and performed at square dances, where his backing band often included his wife.[3]

At an early age, and without money to buy an instrument of his own, Smiley would sneak his father's fiddle away. Determined to play his own instrument, Smiley attempted to convert a baseball bat into a fiddle by drilling holes for the strings at one end, and by using a finishing nail and four mandolin pegs. This unusual instrument was eventually amplified. When his father's old fiddle was damaged and thrown out, Smiley salvaged the instrument from behind the barn. Once it was reconditioned, but still having only two strings left, the eager young musician used thread to repair a "hairless" bow and began practicing.[3] His mother, listening to his first attempts asked Smiley, while she was baking bread, "Do you know what that tune is that you're playing?" "It's the tune that was played when the old cow died!"[3]

Smiley heard the 78 RPM records of Hank Snow that his brother brought home, and the dynamic guitar sound on the old gramophone inspired Smiley to take up that instrument. His first guitar was an Eaton's mail order model, and the drive that he possessed soon resulted in a growing proficiency on this new musical item.[3] Smiley would be given another instrument, with the understanding that if he mastered it, another would be added to the list. And so he progressed through banjo, mandolin, and dobro until his skill warranted more expensive instruments, now obtained from the local music store. No more mail order "specials". Smiley spent an enormous amount of time learning instruments. He began playing the guitar at the age of six.

By the time he was eleven he was out playing his first job with a group called Curly Carter and the Mountaineers. In the band, Smiley played fiddle, and they performed together for about three years, after which Smiley formed his own band, around 1951.

Musical career[edit]

In the group was Mike LaPorte on fiddle, his brother Shep on rhythm guitar, and Smiley on lead guitar. Called the North Star Ramblers, they performed together for about five years entertaining listeners on radio stations CJKL in Kirkland Lake and CKGB in Timmins. Doing this routine prompted Smiley to say, "I thought I was a big shot at 14 doing two radio shows!"

Eventually, the Laporte brothers moved to the Ottawa Valley and Smiley formed a new band, featuring Jerry Goselin on rhythm guitar and bass, and Mike Zuppan on accordion. This lineup enabled the band to play straight country and polkas in clubs where they worked the Quebec circuit, which at that time offered more opportunities than Ontario.

The band stayed together for three years before breaking up at which time Smiley, taking a holiday, visited two of his brothers in British Columbia. Undecided on which area to try next, Smiley ended up in Oshawa, which was a local centre for country music, and while there, he talked to Slim Gordon, and decided to undertake 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.

As it happened, Slim Gordon decided not to do road jobs, Leroy Glazier on electric guitar, and Rosemary St. John was on electric bass, he left Slim's band and joined Smiley.

Thus began seven years of Northern Ontario road shows. As Smiley related, "In every town, Leroy fell in love, and had to be dragged away!"

Rosemary was sufficiently attractive to inspire one amorous chap to demolish the door to her hotel room before help arrived. "He was either very eager to get an autograph or he felt he had to say goodnight in person" laughed Smiley.

The club circuit is an exhausting life, with little chance to develop one's own style, especially in the fields of songwriting and recording, and seven years is a long time, so when Leroy was offered a good job in the U.S. the band broke up and Smiley began working as a single, still in clubs, but adding only another rhythm guitar when the need for a duo was encountered. In this case Hank Beamen provided second guitar.

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.

To start with, Jack did not recognize Smiley, since the singer did not play the Toronto club circuit.

When Smiley announced that he would like to "cut an album", Jack asked, "Do you have a demo tape?" "No", said Smiley, "I don't and I don't do auditions either".

Intrigued by this show of confidence, Jack inquired a trifle sarcastically, "What day would you like to record the album?" "We don't need a DAY - an hour will do" was the reply.

Taken aback, Boswell exclaimed, "Well what else can you do to fill up the studio time?" (Which is usually a 3 to 5 hour stretch.) "I play fiddle and 5-string banjo", replied Smiley. Expecting to catch him up, Jack retorted, "Well, why not record a banjo AND a fiddle album?" Smiley said "Fine."

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.

"Amazing how many things can be made out of corn", commented Smiley, while Jack advised doing the banjo album first!

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.

“Songs from the Heart” which was another big-selling vocal album; and “Flat Top Guitar Instrumentals” showcasing Smiley’s amazing cross-picking style on the Guitar and played a big part in advancing his career followed these up in 1969.

Revised approach to touring[edit]

By 1971, when album sales were increasing, Smiley decided to give up club work, with all the pressures and problems. He continued to tour the Maritimes where he enjoyed great success and attended 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.

As Smiley told it, "The very first note I broke a string, but someone tossed me a Martin and I went right ahead with the show."

He received a warm welcome and had to do a 15 minute encore.

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.

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]

In his years on the road, Smiley had naturally run into many interesting characters and when the name of Stompin' Tom Connors was mentioned; Smiley had some stories to tell.

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.

Smiley recounted an incident in which someone requested a Merle Haggard song and Stompin' Tom replied, "When Merle starts singing my songs, then I'll start singing his!"

Tom was very outspoken, and an amusing incident took place in a Wawa hotel dining room. Smiley, Leroy Glazier, and Tom were eating dinner one day. It should be mentioned that the food in this establishment was not quite what you'd call the best. While they were eating, the cook appeared and sat down with his dinner, as luck would have it, at the next table. Tom, not certain that he could finish his own meal, in spite of his hearty appetite, looked over at the cook and asked, "Don't tell me you eat here too?"

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.

Said Smiley with a grin, "Even though Tom kept me awake all night, he got all the royalties from those songs!"

Tom wrote songs about towns he played in and when his success in Northern Ontario encouraged him to attempt to land a recording contract in Toronto, he asked Smiley for his advice.

"Tom", said Smiley, seriously, "I don't think it'll work!"

The two remained good friends and Smiley chuckled and commented "How Wrong I Was!"

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 perform Down Home Country Songs and Fine Flat Top Pickin' 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 e f "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