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 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 Thailand deaths: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
- 3 Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
- 4 Julian Assange and Edward Snowden join piracy mogul Kim Dotcom’s political campaign in New Zealand
- 5 Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Thailand deaths: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
Jihadi John': MI5 may have identified Isis militant who killed David Haines but options limited
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Scottish independence: Police will be on high alert on Friday whatever the result
David Haines beheading: David Cameron says Britain will hunt down Isis 'monsters' shown in video murdering aid worker
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'
Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: A Redbridge based Primary School is see...
£19200 - £26880 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: In NVQ Ass...
£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary supply teac...
£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...