Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women? Let me hear from you. To read previous posts in this segment, there is a menu at the top of my site.
Today an outstanding woman from the world of music and entertainment. Meet the incomparable, Kate Smith.
No biography about Kate Smith would be complete without her signature song. Since I am from Southern NJ which is Philadelphia Flyers Country, I grew up knowing who Kate Smith was. She is famous for singing God Bless America for the Flyers but she is so much more.
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.
Kate smith was born May 1, 1907 in Washington D.C. or Greenville, Virginia (different sources). From an early age, she loved to sing and dance. I couldn’t find any sources that provided anything about her childhood or parentage.
Smith began recording in 1926. Her professional musical career began in 1930, when she was discovered by Columbia Records vice president Ted Collins, who became her longtime manager. 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 the radio in 1931. That year, she performed the controversial top-twenty 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). 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’.”
In 1932, Smith appeared in Hello, Everybody!, with co-stars Randolph Scott and Sally Blane, and in the 1943 wartime film This is the Army she sang “God Bless America”.
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 also made a dramatic appearance, starring in “Little Johnny Appleseed” on Silver Theater May 14, 1944. 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 p.m. 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. Because of her popularity, her face was a common sight in print advertisements of the day. Over the years, she acted as a commercial spokesman for numerous companies such as Studebaker, Pullman, Diamond Crystal Salt, and Jell-O.
As I mention at the beginning of my post, Kate Smith became associated with Flyers Hockey because of her signature song, God Bless America. It was December 11, 1969 when the team played her God Bless America before their game, that a long history and an unusual direction for her career began. They continued to play the song from time to time and it seemed as if, she brought them good luck. Fans received a big surprise when Kate Smith showed up to sing the song at the home opener on October 11, 1973. She was there again in front of a record crowd of 17,007 fans for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 19, 1974. The Boston Bruins forward, Phil Esposito tried to jinx the Flyers by presenting Kate Smith with a bouquet of flowers after her performance. It didn’t work. The Flyers one the first of their back to back Stanley Cups that year.
As of April 26, 2011, if Kate Smith in person or recorded is played before a Flyers game, the record is 94 wins, 26 losses and 4 ties. The flyers erected a statue in 1987.
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!”
In her personal life, Kate 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. After attending services at a Roman Catholic church for twenty-five years, Smith converted to Roman Catholicism in 1965.
In her later years, Smith was impaired by diabetes. In 1976, she suffered brain damage after slipping into a diabetic coma. In January 1986, both of her legs were 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 and Queen Elizabeth at the White House on June 8, 1939.
- She was 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.
- Only radio artist to be listed among the ten leading American women by the publication “American Women”.
- Only private citizen ever awarded the Legion of Valor medal.
- Only private citizen privileged to use the President’s entrance to Union Station, Washington.
- Won at least four Scripps-Howard and Hearst newspaper popularity polls, and has never been lower than second.
- Awarded Patriotic Service Cross by United Flag Association. Only three other women have ever been so honored.
- Received Drake University medallion for “outstanding contributions to radio and the people.”
- Smith was inducted posthumously into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1999.
- She was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
- 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.
- On October 26, 1982, Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom America’s highest civilian honor, by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In bestowing the honor, Reagan said:
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.