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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Angel Di Maria is shown the red card
Roger Federer after his win over Tomas Berdych
Life and Style
News in briefs: big pants in 'Bridget Jones's Diary'
fashionBig knickers are back
James Milner is set to sign for Liverpool this week despite rival interest from Arsenal
sportReds baulk at Benteke £32.5m release clause
The controversial Motor Neurone Disease Association poster, featuring sufferer Michael Smith, has drawn a series of angry complaints
newsThis one has been criticised for its 'threatening tone'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: European Sales Director - Aerospace Cable & Wire

£100000 - £125000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£17100 - £22900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

Recruitment Genius: CNC Turner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established manufactu...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral