Paul Smith: Accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald
Tuesday 22 October 2013
In terms of technique and creative ability, Paul Smith ranks with the great jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner, but he never pushed himself forward and was content accompanying jazz singers. He described Ella Fitzgerald as "an accompanist's dream. She never did anything that wasn't musical. She wasn't always the same but the general continuity was always very easy to follow." Fitzgerald, who employed Smith as a touring musician from 1960 to 1978, reciprocated the feeling.
Paul Smith was born in San Diego in April 1922; his parents, Lon Smith and Constance Farmer, were vaudeville performers, singing musical novelties with Lon also playing the trumpet. During the Depression his father became a reporter and then city editor of the San Diego Union. Encouraged by his parents, the young boy learnt the piano and then formed a jazz band at high school. In 1941, he turned professional with the Johnny Richards band. Paul Smith was 6ft 5in, and each of his large hands could span 12 notes. He often joked that he looked more like the roadie who moved the piano than the pianist who would play it.
In 1943 he enlisted in the army and was fortunate to play in a jazz band run by the trumpeter Ziggy Elman. In 1946 he played with the guitarist Les Paul and then joined Elman in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. In 1949 he became a session musician in Los Angeles, working on TV and radio shows as well as records and film soundtracks.
He enjoyed the variety of session work and didn't mind what genre he was playing, although he preferred jazz. His lucky break was playing piano for Frank Comstock's orchestra when they accompanied Doris Day on "Just One Of Those Things": towards the end of the record, Smith was given a piano solo and the head of Columbia, Paul Weston, was so impressed that he made Smith his pianist of choice.
In 1956 he was part of Buddy Bregman's Orchestra which accompanied Ella Fitzgerald on the first song book album, this one dedicated to Cole Porter. His witty playing enhanced "Always True To You In My Fashion" and he and the guitarist Barney Kessel had as much as fun as Fitzgerald on "Let's Do It". In 1960 he was the only musician on her album of standards, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, later reissued as The Intimate Ella. He played on the Grammy-winning live album Ella In Berlin (1960), which included her brilliant scat singing on "Mack The Knife".
Although they were never big sellers, Smith made several solo albums including a tribute to the Nat "King" Cole Trio, Fine, Sweet And Tasty (1953) as well as several releases for the Outstanding label. He formed a trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Louis Bellson for Heavy Jazz (1977). In 1983, he recorded At Home (1983) on his piano at home. For several years he worked on The Steve Allen Comedy Hour. Allen was also a fine songwriter and he paid tribute to him with Paul Smith Plays Steve Allen (1984).
Smith taught music and wrote a book on how to accompany artists. In his view, the art was to play only 10 per cent of what you're capable of behind a singer and save the rest for when you open the show or have your own jobs. Right up to his death, Smith was performing with his wife, Annette Warren, in a show called "A Marriage Of Music And Mirth", and they recorded several albums together.
Paul Thatcher Smith, pianist: born San Diego 17 April 1922; married Annette Warren (two sons, one daughter): died Torrance, California 29 June 2013.
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...