Paul Smith: Accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald


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.