Kate Smith

Kate Smith

She was dubbed “The Songbird of the South” and would be forever etched in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans as a true American symbol of World War II, especially after giving voice to Irving Berlin’s classic song “God Bless America.” Her inspiring rendition went on to sell millions of war bonds and even helped a hockey team in the 1970s win the Stanley Cup. Singing patriot Kate Smith was born Kathryn Elizabeth Smith on May 1, 1907. As a child she showed a devoted interest toward singing and dancing, initially appearing in jazz nightclubs before opting for a standard music career. Discovered by the famed singer/dancer Eddie Dowling, Kate made her Broadway debut in his musical comedy “Honeymoon Lane” in 1926. Double-chinned and exceedingly heavyset, she served as the plump, singing slapstick foil to the star, and continued in that same predictable vein with the subsequent tour of “Hit the Deck” and in “Flying High” the 1930 Broadway show headlining Bert Lahr. Unhappy at being made fun of in burlesque comedy and preferring to focus on her natural singing ability, Kate quickly joined forces with Columbia Records vice president Ted Collins who subsequently became her partner, protector and manager. Pointing her in the direction of radio, Kate made her debut in 1931 and her stardom was secured by year’s end. She went on to break the record for longevity at the renown Palace Theatre. Her radio celebrity prompted a guest cameo role in the Paramount musical film The Big Broadcast (1932) singing what would become her signature piece “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” (she had co-written the lyrics). This, in turn, led to her first and only film vehicle. In Hello, Everybody! (1933), Kate Smith literally played Kate Smith, a meek, plus-sized radio singer who unabashedly tends to her farm in between jobs while losing the man of her dreams (‘Randolph Scott’) to her svelte-looking sister, played by Sally Blane. As expected, Kate’s character finds true happiness not in the arms of a man but in the helping and caring of others. True to form, Kate never married. Realizing she was not at all film material, Kate wisely stuck with radio and recordings, appearing in a film only one other time–as a guest singing “God Bless America” in the Warner Bros. star-studded variety show This Is the Army (1943). She began making records in 1926 and over the years her best-selling hits would include “River, Stay ‘Way From My Door” (1931), “The Woodpecker Song” (1940), “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1941), “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (1942), “There Goes That Song Again” (1944), “Seems Like Old Times” (1946), “Now Is the Hour” (1947) and “How Great Thou Art (1965). Kate had one of the most popular radio variety shows with “The Kate Smith Hour”, which aired weekly from 1937-1945. At the same time she fronted the top daytime radio show with the midday “Kate Smith Speaks,” a news and commentary program. She made a grand and memorable entrance at Carnegie Hall in 1963 and performed for Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops in 1967. Television was also a successful medium for the singing star with a Monday-Friday afternoon variety show “The Kate Smith Hour,” which ran four years from 1950. The show proved so popular that NBC handed her the prime time “Kate Smith Evening Hour” as well. A variety show favorite, she appeared for Ed Sullivan, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jack Paar, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Tony Orlando, and Carol Burnett. During her last productive decade, she gave live concerts and performed in clubs all over the country. Illness would intervene in the 1970s and diabetes forced her to retire, eventually crippling her and confining her to a wheelchair. She died of major complications in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 17, 1986.

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