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Smokey Smith

Iowa's "Mr. Country Music"

Smokey's biography  Copyright Snowflake Enterprises, LLC 2014

Donald Charles Smith was born on February 12, 1922, in Kansas City, Missouri, but spent the majority of his youth growing up in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there a family member renowned as a championship fiddle player ignited a passion for music in the young boy, who later went about winning his own talent contests singing and playing guitar around the area. By the age of 16, he was a regular member of Ted West’s Range Riders on WREN Radio in Lawrence.

Immediately after graduating from Liberty Memorial High School in 1939, he returned to Kansas City, enrolling in a government-approved program to obtain an aircraft and engines license at the Missouri Aviation Institute. Upon completing the course in 1940, he found a job working days at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in San Diego, California.

Smith didn’t arrive by happenstance; he knew the story of his entire life was heavily dependent on the San Diego chapter. While sagas of the Great Depression and a growing war overseas were being chronicled daily, his tale simply began with a job that provided financial security while he really tried to make it as an entertainer, a storyline as old as the profession itself. Uncertain times, uncertain profession, yet soon after arriving his dream began turning into a reality painted in neon as he traversed between gigs at two local nightclubs a block or so apart.

That would change only a year later, when local entertainer Curly Boyd found himself needing another singer to fill a vacancy in his band. Having already heard a little about the new wannabe through the local grapevine, he shuffled his way through the nightspots until finally discovering Smith, lighting up the place with an energetic personality that seemingly glowed in the dark.

Boyd had seen enough by the time the band took a break, went up to introduce himself, then offered Smith the chance to join his group headlining nightly at Carl’s Dine and Dance, a trendy nightclub known for its large dance floor. The decision was a no-brainer, dancing had become a popular yet temporary escape from the worrisome times of World War II, making Carl’s a favorite hangout for many local patrons, including the military personnel constantly rotating in and out of nearby naval facilities.

Smith accepted the new job knowing Carl’s had a reputation for filling the place, but he certainly wasn’t prepared for what happened his first week, when a fella named F. Bostick Wester stepped out of the crowd to introduce himself just as Boyd had recently done. And like Boyd, Wester was another headhunter with a different agenda that had him prowling the area looking for someone to fill a position at KYOR Radio in town. Before the night was over, Smith’s enthusiasm was running higher than the usual high after accepting the additional gig of his own radio show every Saturday morning.

Everyone was celebrating when 1945 brought an end to the war, although Smith and a considerable number of other employees unfortunately lost positions with the aircraft company as it scaled back the workforce considerably. At first, he thought perhaps this was an omen forcing him to spread those musical wings and commit to a full-time entertainment career. But while his personal situation had changed, the real world hadn’t; he still needed money for food, rent, telephone, dry cleaning and other incidentals that kept him grounded in menial part-time jobs offering piddly paychecks.

Then Curly Boyd surprised the club by giving notice he was leaving to join MGM Records, prompting the owner to ask Smith if he was interested in forming his own band to headline the nightclub. The timing was perfect, but this was more than an opportunity to prove himself; it was the final motivator to fulfill his nagging desire for a different stage name, something he felt was a little less ordinary than “Don Smith.”

A couple of days later he was trying to recount the number of other entertainers that had changed their stage names, while he unconsciously kept puff, puff, puffing away on his cigar. Newly selected band members arriving at the house for the first practice session opened the door to a heavy blanket of choking fog, so nasty in fact, someone joked it was too smoky for a plane to land in the area. That moment became the show business christening of Smokey Smith . . . and the Gold Coast Boys!

Things got even better by 1946, when he began recording for Crystal Records in Los Angeles. His very first release of “I’m a Fool to Care,” became a regional hit selling 50,000 copies, a pretty impressive feat for the period. The follow-up, “I Love You So Much It Hurts” garnered attention as well – right about the same time record company owner Henry Schelb phoned saying he wanted to create a new duo for the label.

Smokey was asked if he knew of another singer to team with, but that’s not all, Schelb said, this duo would be noticeably different; Smokey would have to play lead guitar – the only music to back them up!

The singer had a perfect duet partner in mind, namely Jean Davidson, a performer occasionally hired for personal appearances. However, he insisted, playing lead guitar was out of the question, rhythm guitar was his specialty. Schelb accepted Davison as the duet partner after hearing the two perform in the studio, but still insisted Smokey must learn to play lead guitar.

After considerable practice, he confessed his proficiency was just enough to get by, insisting again that his Gold Coast Boys should provide the accompaniment instead, but Schelb refused, saying all he wanted was the duo and a single guitar. Less than a month after the release of “Fading Away,” backed with “The Promise You Didn’t Keep,” local fans were phoning in radio requests to hear them again, regardless of the funky guitar work that embarrassed Smokey.

Professional musicians who also didn’t think much of it were calling him or showing up at personal appearances with disparaging remarks that boiled down to: “Brother, you can’t play lead guitar!” They never got an argument, “I know it,” he’d reply, yet the positive reaction to the recordings was so swift Schelb called them back into the studio where they recorded “The Hobo Boogie,” backed with “There’s a Price to Pay.” Once again, the reaction around the area was very positive, except for the professionals, of course.

Schelb was so delighted he told them to start putting together enough material for an entire album. The focus at that moment was now on the success of the duet partnership, instead of Smokey’s individual career, yet what disturbed him even more was hearing Schelb declare he was going to line up national distribution for the new album.

It certainly wasn’t music to Smokey’s ears, as he again wasted breath pleading with the record executive to at least hire a lead guitarist to back them up. Schelb wouldn’t budge, “just practice more,” he snapped, further stating the concept was working fine no matter how embarrassed the singer felt. A risky stalemate ensued as Smokey absolutely refused to practice upon returning to San Diego, hoping Schelb would finally relent after growing tired of hearing  “just a little longer” each time he called for a progress update until the real underlying message finally came through loud and clear. Smokey never recorded for Schelb again.

But the dream didn’t die. By 1947 Smokey had relocated to become the headliner at the “Hollywood on the Pike Corral,” a very popular club in Long Beach, California, where more than a few stars served a share of their apprenticeship. Another year passed when he married Lucille Tucker, the Texas sweetheart he’d dated for a number of years while in San Diego.

No sooner had the couple settled into their rented home overlooking the ocean when a booking agent telephoned from Akron, Ohio, coaxing Smokey into moving east where the agent said his records were receiving airplay. With the unfortunate duet debacle still fresh in mind, Smokey felt a career move might be worth the gamble, so he and Lucille packed their 1939 Packard limo and headed for Akron, where a headlining gig awaited at the Brown Derby.

Hopeful his decision would be the key to opening other opportunities only proved hopeless. While more than a year went by he learned there were no real recording opportunities, no openings in radio and no sense moving to another nightclub less popular than where he was appearing. In short, he was little more than a popular favorite at the Brown Derby.

Finally deciding the outcome wasn’t acceptable, he slipped out of town for a quick trip to Chicago, meeting with officials of WLS Radio and the popular National Barn Dance. That gamble didn’t pay off either; no radio jobs; no openings for the popular program, he was told. Then he talked with some of the station’s cast members, offering to sell songs he’d written, but everyone was doing so well they passed on the opportunity, making him realize his own career was pretty much in parked position.

With nothing else on his agenda, he returned to Akron and the booking agent who talked him into relocating there, giving notice he was quitting the Brown Derby – and him – unless there was a different career opportunity, right now! It just so happened that a two-week engagement was available at the swanky Hollywood Show Bar in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although Smokey’s appearance proved to be popular, the club owner’s wife abhorred country music, convincing her husband that cowboy music and cummerbunds weren’t a proper mix at the very upscale establishment. The real problem, however, was due to their membership at a country club, where she was constantly teased about her husband’s decision to hire “hillbillies.”  While the owner readily admitted the engagement had been very successful, it was a much different atmosphere for him at home, so with his apologies, the contract wasn’t renewed.

Smokey and Lucille spent the next long months trying to restart his career, so strapped for cash they had to spend nights sleeping in the back of their Packard limo. They used service station bathrooms to freshen up and on one occasion, Smokey staked out a downtown street corner in Peoria, Illinois, where he sang and played guitar for the gratuities thrown into his hat placed upside down on the sidewalk. It was the only time in his career when money was worth more than applause.

The next day Lucille was hired at a Katz Drug Store, while her husband found a job selling encyclopedias after responding to an ad in the local newspaper. They continued living in the car until Smokey remembered a friend from the aircraft plant in California who remarked upon losing his job that he was returning to Peoria. After finding his name in the phone book, Smokey called for information on possible singing opportunities in the area, knowing his friend had done part-time work as a guitarist in the past. Nothing was available, he replied, but there was an extra room in his home he offered to let the couple use instead of surviving in the limo.

Within weeks they had enough travel cash to hit the road again, looking for Anytown, U.S.A., capable of providing Smokey a radio job coupled with personal appearances. But with no plan, much less prospects, it simply became a scouting trip looking for a future described as “I’ll know it when I see it,” which eventually had them on reconnaissance while slowly passing through the Champaign-Urbana area.

Smokey finally noticed the big “WKID” radio call letters on a building in the distance, pointing the vehicle in its direction until he pulled up out front where a “help wanted” sign all but danced for him in the window. Inquiring within, he accepted a job opening while Lucille also found employment that day at a laundry sporting the same sign.

The radio station’s rest rooms were used to freshen up daily, while at night the limo was parked out front where the couple continued to sleep the next ten nights, until acquiring enough money to move into an apartment. It didn’t really matter where they slept anyway, by now they’d discovered the same reality faced elsewhere; settling down there wasn’t an option.

Eventually, he swallowed his pride and called the booking agent back in Akron looking for a lead. The timing was ironic he was told, considering The Hub Tavern, a big club in Burlington, Iowa, had also contacted him looking for a headliner. after the deal was sealed within an hour, the couple once again began packing their belongings along with “The Dream.”

Before leaving, Smokey called Norval Ulrich, a former member of the Gold Coast Boys, who currently lived and worked in Des Moines where he had been promised an upcoming spot on WHO Radio’s popular Iowa Barn Dance Frolic. Until then, he was selling shoes for a living, but accepted Smokey’s invitation to join him on the Burlington stage provided he could drive to Des Moines and pick him up.

During the scheduled four weeks at the nightclub, Ulrich constantly badgered Smokey to also audition for WHO Radio when they returned to Des Moines. He just wouldn’t relent: “Clear channel, 50,000 watts,” he kept saying, “they’ll hear you all the way to California!” Smokey finally agreed to the request once the engagement was over, when everyone returned happily to Des Moines. The two men met with the station manager who informed Ulrich he still didn’t have a job, while his friend was told there was no reason to audition someone else.

That was the final rejection for Smokey, who felt the entire trip east, including all the loop-de-loops through the Midwest while looking for luck had produced little more than a trail of broken dreams, all of it caused by the debacle at Crystal Records. Opting out of recording duets with Jean Davidson was still the right decision, he realized, but leaving the state afterwards was his real mistake.

It now became crystal clear the only possible way he was ever going to be heard in California again was by returning there. He’d never forgotten his departure from Hollywood on the Pike in Long Beach, when the owner told him the job was still his if things didn’t work. One phone call was all it took to learn the offer was not only still good, he could start the instant he returned.

Some six months later, Ulrich telephoned Smokey with news he was now appearing regularly on the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic, telling him he’d convinced the station manager to give his California pal an audition whenever he was available. You’d have thought Ulrich owned the station, with his standard WHO sales pitch: “Clear channel, 50,00 watts!” Not quite so willing to leave California as easily as before, Smokey booked a flight to Des Moines where he was told after auditioning that he’d earned himself a regular spot on WHO Radio and the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic.

Returning to Long Beach, he informed the Hollywood on the Pike Corral owner he was quitting again, only this time he wasn’t offered another chance to return if things didn’t work out – that California bridge had just burned. What money he had in the bank pretty much went up in smoke just to get out of the rental agreement on their home, leaving barely enough for the road expenses to Des Moines in 1950.

Smokey and Lucille moved in with the Ulrich family upon their arrival, a prearranged bargaining chip Norval offered as assurance this gamble would pay off. A few days later Smokey reported for duty at WHO Radio, only to learn the promised jobs weren’t available just yet – come back in a week, the boss said. Not only was he pretty much broke on arrival, that process was repeated for eight long weeks forcing him to look for other options.

Making his way down the street and into the offices of KRNT Radio, he patiently waited for a meeting with the manager of the 5,000-watt station, who later seemed more pleased with his jolly personality than a letter of recommendation from one of his California connections. Deciding on a hunch to skip the usual audition, the manager declared that on the following Monday, July 31, 1950, “The Smokey Smith Show” would begin its daily afternoon ritual of recorded music augmented with singing from their “cowboy” host.

Still hoping to get on at the larger 50,000-watt station, Smokey returned to WHO Radio, asking the manager exactly how long it would be before he was hired. There still wasn’t a definite answer, so he spun around towards the door to leave saying emphatically: “Well, I’ll not be back!”  The startled manager hollered at his backside, asking just what it was he intended to do. Smokey didn’t even break stride as WHO’s newest competition replied, “tune in to KRNT Radio Monday afternoon and you’ll know what I’m doing!”

Not only did the manager learn it was true, his competition became the talk of the town that seemingly spread at the speed of radio waves, while KRNT officials were surprised at being ambushed with constant requests for a longer program. Six months later the station responded by signing on thirty minutes earlier than its normal time to allow Smokey a second show in the morning, allowing listeners to hear him on the drive to and from work.

Their decision to totally support a Country and Western format was touted in a nearly full-page article about Smokey in Country Song Roundup Magazine. The headline simply read: “One Man Show,” while the story published in 1952 offered detailed information, part of which surmised that  “any folks listening to KRNT located in Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines would say off-hand that the station has the best staff of folk artists in the area. Well, they’d be mighty right,” the story continued, “but they’d also be mighty surprised to learn that there’s only one man on that staff. Smokey Smith is behind it all, and he really does a bang-up job of making KRNT one of Iowa’s leading hillbilly stations.”

His reputation even extended all the way to Nashville, Tennessee, where in 1953, he and a few of his peers including “Cracker” Jim Brooker and Tom Perryman campaigned against the odds for successful creation of the Country Music Disc Jockeys Association (CMDJA). Although the organization continued to grow, it was always vastly outnumbered by the total number of others affiliated within the industry, yet history would record the CMDJA as being the first organization with an agenda that included providing direction for the growing country music industry.

Meanwhile, Smokey’s increasing popularity at home had proved beneficial with the addition of two other taped radio programs; the “Hillbilly Hit Parade” broadcast at 10:00 every Saturday night and “Smokey’s Country Church” heard every Sunday morning. When KRNT-TV premiered in 1955, Smokey Smith had the area’s first live country music variety program broadcast in prime time. By then he’d also been promoting country music shows during the previous four years at KRNT Theater, located right next door to the radio and TV facilities.

Smokey’s passion for country music was undeniable, yet he always had a healthy appetite for various styles from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. He was responsible for bringing Elvis Presley to Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines during the 21-year-old entertainer’s first tour northward on May 22, 1956. Even though Presley’s appearance was a financial disaster for various reasons, the promoter still had enough faith in the emerging sound to occasionally book other such acts on shows that were always heavily dominated by country music artists.

By 1958, however, rock and roll’s meteoric rise had proved phenomenal beyond anyone’s expectations, creating an entirely new category in music history. Its popularity was attributed in part to the multitudes of once-faithful country music fans deserting in favor of the new sound, causing so much distress within Music City its musical demise seemed all but certain. Country stalwarts such as Hank Snow openly predicted, “country music is gone.” Likewise, Jean Shepard recalled some country music projects were put on hold and when it came to personal appearances, she remarked, “you couldn’t buy a date.”

Something very significant was required to rescue the genre. Smokey was among the visionaries advocating the dissolution of the Country Music Disc Jockeys Association, the very group for which he had worked so tirelessly only years earlier, to support a much broader coalition of industry professionals. The CMDJA’s mission of providing direction to protect country music was laudable, until an upstart distraction called rock and roll began decimating the industry.

The time had come for everyone to stand together, regardless of their particular expertise or opinion, to support the single goal of making country music not only viable again, but more dominant than ever before. The Country Music Association was quickly formed for that purpose. Smokey’s final duty as Treasurer of the CMDJA was writing a check for the remaining bank funds made out to the new organization for use as startup funds. A group selected to fill the necessary leadership positions later chose him to serve as one of the very first board members of the CMA.

The organization wasted no time in its promotional efforts; the earliest tactic was traveling to some of the nation’s largest cities including Chicago and San Francisco putting on shows headlined by some of the leading country music artists. A Tennessee Walking Horse was awarded to a lucky person at each event, including the Waldorf Astoria, in New York City, where the music seemed out of place at the time. Today, the CMA and country music are known worldwide.

It required the commitment of many individuals such as Smokey, who was so determined to see country music survive the unrelenting encroachment of Rock and Roll he took it personally.  He expanded his promotional territory from shows in Iowa’s capital city to other cities around the state and even other states including Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. It’s possible his own musical career might well have been the greatest sacrifice as witnessed by Porter Wagoner, who described Smokey as a “very fine entertainer.” Somewhere along the way, as Wagoner viewed it, Smith became so intent on seeing the industry succeed, “he seemed to rather want to promote the business than to perform himself.”

He booked every name act of the period, but more importantly, gained notoriety for being a member of an elite group of promoters known as “package show specialists,” offering bigger shows with numerous acts on the same program instead of the usual one or two. Entertainers were always willing to appear for the straight-shooting promoter with a hair-trigger laugh who also earned a reputation money couldn’t buy among artists like Sonny James, who describes Smokey as “one of the most outgoing, honest, loveable people I’ve ever met and I never regarded him as a promoter, though he was one of the leading promoters in the whole country.

“You never questioned his honesty,” James continued, “you never had to worry about things not being taken care of when you got there, he had everything laid out; his program was well planned.” The promoter was also famous for not being stingy with his advertising budget, using both the print and electronic media in a 75-to-100 mile radius of his shows, prompting performers like James to discover: “You almost went in pre-sold before you got there.”

KRNT Theater in Des Moines was Smokey’s “home base.” It had a reputation for being the nation’s largest legitimate theater, offering everything from vaudevillians to lavish productions and other popular events. All of Smokey’s road tours either began or concluded at the world famous building with a reverent similarity to Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. That resemblance was the exact reason Smokey considered making it the second home of the Grand Ole Opry, which he succeeded in making very popular.

Entertainer George Hamilton IV simply labeled it “the Des Moines Opry,” adding,  “It seems to me that more Grand Ole Opry artists played Des Moines in those days than anywhere else. “I remember I was there a lot and it seems every time I ran into somebody at the Opry they had either just been – or were going to work for Smokey.

That fact was clear among others in Nashville’s entertainment community like Little Jimmy Dickens, who said Des Moines had a reputation for being a “great town for country music.” Dickens was a not only regular headliner on Smokey’s circuit, he often joined the promoter on stage at his own personal appearances, admitting that so much time was devoted to working for Smokey in one capacity or another, he considered buying a second home in Des Moines to make life a little easier for himself.

Life itself wasn’t all that easy for legitimate promoters, either. Their reputation was always on the line with the success or failure of each show, let alone having to put up with a bad image createdSmokey’s from  “fly-by-nighters” out to make a quick buck and even quicker exit without paying the talent. They were known to abscond with the receipts while slithering out the back door, or as Mac Wiseman recalled, “even an upstairs window” while the show was still in progress. In Smokey’s case, however, artists were offered payment upon request either in cash or by check – their choice.

Problems became so prevalent management companies began writing stiffer contracts often asking for half of the talent fee up front which still wasn’t a guaranteed deterrent. Entertainer Billy Grammer discovered that fact when he rightfully asked a promoter for the balance of his fee (as stated in the contract) prior to going on stage in Illinois. When it was refused, the singer told his band already on stage to “pull the plug” on their instruments, then they left.

Grammer enforced his contracts to the letter, always having the copy for wherever he was appearing in his vest pocket. He did make exceptions, however, noting that “Smokey Smith could have handed me anything, he could have written it on a napkin and I would have accepted it. I’d have trusted him with just a phone call; he didn’t need to have a contract with me. There were a few people like that,” he admitted,  “but not these fly-by-nighters.”

Smokey’s rock-solid reputation negated the need for worry or scrutiny, according to entertainer Hank Thompson, who said Smokey’s word was “as good as gold, whatever he said, you put it in the bank.” Johnny Cash agreed, once describing him as “a man of total integrity, which is rare for this business.”

Like Cash, Smokey was an original among his peer group, sometimes going so far as borrowing money to front a show. While the original intent was certainly to make money, it’s doubtful another promoter could be found anywhere who went all in just for the music, and as far as he was concerned, country music always took center stage regardless of the performer.

The music itself was the same reason Smokey decided to leave the KRNT organization in the late 1950’s due to their affiliation with CBS Broadcasting, which was leading to more network programming at the expense of local shows. Despite his desire to join another station offering more airtime, an amicable separation ensured his right to continue promoting shows at the theater. During the ensuing years, he had popular programs at other radio stations including KWDM and KWKY in Des Moines and KNIA in nearby Knoxville.

Smokey lost his “home base” for entertainment when KRNT Theater suddenly closed in 1972 after structural problems were discovered. He tried moving shows to a smaller theater nearby without success, then settled for promoting events on the road, but while the quiet old building sat crumbling for a few years before being demolished, country music itself was growing with the times.

Shows became colossal events known as “concerts” held at stadiums or other huge venues where a headliner and opening act drew thousands of fans for a single performance, instead of the two or sometimes three performances Smokey was known for promoting. But after becoming acquainted with virtually everyone in the business, it wasn’t business as usual anymore, he no longer had the luxury of personally calling an artist at home to secure a booking, everything was going through “channels.”

Deciding the logistical and monetary demands were out of the question by 1974, he left the business and began operating strictly as “Smokey Smith Tours,” escorting travelers by motor coach from one coast to the other and from New Orleans into Canada. After a generation of life on the road and over 10,000 passengers, retirement finally came into view, although certainly not from life itself. Now it’s up to history to preserve his many accomplishments and while the 90 years chiseled into his less agile frame are evident, Smokey remains active with daily tasks and often traveling, whether to perform at a country music event or visiting friends.

Lucille, his wife of 58 years passed away in 2007. They had two children, Carol and Leon. Their son was killed in 1981 when his car mysteriously left a dark country road, then rolled over multiple times down a steep embankment until it finally stopped at the bottom of a rock quarry.

When news of Leon’s death reached Johnny Cash while on a road tour he and wife June Carter Cash chartered a plane to Des Moines where they spent time with the family. Lou Robin managed the careers of both entertainers for 30 years and understood perfectly why the special trip was necessary, explaining that “the Cashes loved him and Lucille, the fact that they arrived on their own jet showed tremendous respect; they were very close friends.”

Over the years, the industry itself has joined in acknowledging respect for Smokey’s quest to make country music popular, including his induction into Nashville’s prestigious Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame. He was voted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not only for being the first to book Elvis Presley in Iowa, but his decision to offer other entertainers from that field a chance to perform on his shows as well. The State Historical Society of Iowa later took an unprecedented step by choosing to highlight his many achievements with a special exhibit entitled “Smokey Smith: Iowa’s Mr. Country Music.” It’s the first time the organization paid singular tribute to an Iowa broadcast personality from the country music industry.

Ironically, Smokey is perhaps still better known throughout Music City’s entertainment community these days than the one he’s called home for 62 years. Whether backstage at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry or perhaps having breakfast at his favorite Cracker Barrel there, it’s not uncommon to hear someone belt out “Hey, Smokey!” from somewhere in the crowd.

Copyright Snowflake Enterprises,LLC 2016

 

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