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|Birth name||Kathryn Elizabeth Smith|
May 1, 1907|
Greenville, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||June 17, 1986
Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.
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, best 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 and contribution to American culture and patriotism.
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 choir at the Roman Catholic church; her mother played piano at the Presbyterian church. She attended Business High School in D.C.—which would later become Roosevelt Senior 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 1924-25—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 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."
From Honeymoon Lane, Smith went into the road company of Vincent Youmans' Hit the Deck, where she won acclaim singing "Hallelujah!" Back in New York, she took the company lead in George White's Flying High, which opened at the Apollo Theater on March 3, 1930, and ran for 122 performances. As Pansy Sparks, Miss 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.
Smith began recording in 1926. Her professional musical career began in 1930, when she was discovered by Columbia Records artists-and-repertoire executive Ted Collins, who became her longtime manager in 50–50 partnership. 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 the controversial top-20 song of 1931, "That's Why Darkies Were Born" and "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'."
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 (1937–45). 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 separate hit series in its own right in 1940.
Smith starred in The Kate Smith Hour on NBC Television from 1950 through 1954, hosting until 1953 in the late afternoon hour of 4:00 pm ET.
She 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 would recall 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."
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 that game, Smith had a "Flyer Record" of 36–3–1. Boston's defenceman, 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 that 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 Kate 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 Kate 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.
The Flyers' record when "God Bless America" is 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. The Flyers still show a video of her singing "God Bless America" in lieu of "The Star Spangled Banner" for good luck before important games. The video of her performance is now 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" is 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 (if the visiting team is from Canada, "O Canada" (or Canadian national anthem) followed by) "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' 10" tall and weighed 235 pounds 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 Rose Bowl game. She sang "God Bless America" before the Ohio State–UCLA game at the Rose Bowl, which UCLA won 23–10.
Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" is also played during the seventh-inning stretch of New York Yankees home games. Proceeds or money from her performances of "God Bless America" are donated to the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
Smith, who never married, rented various apartments in New York City during her long career. She had a home in Arlington, Virginia, and kept a summer home on a small island in Lake Placid, New York.
In 1969, in light of Jim Morrison's arrest in Miami for indecent exposure, Smith performed with The Lettermen, Anita Bryant, and Jackie Gleason in a concert demonstration against indecency, for which President Richard Nixon commended the stars' performances.
In her later years, Smith was impaired by diabetes. In 1976, she suffered brain damage after slipping into a diabetic coma. In January 1986, Kate's 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 Roman Catholic 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.
- Chairman of screen, stage, and radio activities under the National Recovery Administration, a part of FDR's New Deal.
- Honorary member of the Red Cross for which she raised more than $4 million.
(as of 1942)
- The only radio artist to be listed among the 10 leading American women by the publication American Women.
- The only private citizen ever awarded the Legion of Valor medal.
- The only private citizen privileged to use the President's entrance to Union Station, Washington.
She won at least four Scripps-Howard and Hearst newspaper popularity polls, and has never been lower than second, and was awarded a Patriotic Service Cross by the United Flag Association. Only three other women have ever been so honored. She received a Drake University medallion for "outstanding contributions to radio and the people."
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 July 21, 2011, Smith's version of "God Bless America" was played as NASA's final wake-up call for the space shuttle Atlantis, ending the 30-year shuttle program.
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.
- "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, dies at 79". On this Day. New York Times. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
- Ware/Braukman, Susan/Stacy (2005). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, Volume 5. Belknap Press. p. 596. ISBN 978-0674014886.
- 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.
- "Flyers History – Kate Smith". FlyersHistory.net. Retrieved May 29, 2010.
- on YouTube
- Current Biography 1940, pp 745–747.
- "Kate Smith, All-American Singer, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2011.
- Rock Almanac Copyright 1983.
- 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. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
- Billboard, May 2, 1942.
- Campbell, Ken (May 7, 2014). "Is Ginette Reno the Canadiens version of the Flyers' Kate Smith?". The Hockey News.
- "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
- World Stamp News WorldStampNews.com.
- "Tiger by the Tail". sfflierculp.com. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Kate Smith.|
- Kate Smith Commemorative Society
- Kate Smith on Internet Movie Database
- 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)
- on YouTube