Snippet of History's Women: The Arts: Kate Smith – Beloved Singer

History's Women: The Arts: Kate Smith – Beloved SingerKate Smith
Beloved Singer
1907–1986 A.D.

Today when fans of many popular female singers attend their concerts they will no doubt see their favorite, but she’ll probably be accompanied by bright shooting lights, glittery costumes and maybe even gyrating dancers. Yet while this is often the standard today, back in the 1930s fans of a portly pink cheeked contralto named Kate Smith gathered around their radios. Then either in person over the air, perhaps they heard her sing her trademark song God Bless America,  a number that for a time as decreed by songwriter Irving Berlin she was the only one authorized to sing.

Sometimes referred to as “The First Lady of Radio” and the “Songbird of the South,” Kate Smith had a successful career that lasted from the 1930s beyond until the 1950s, as she appeared on the radio, in person and later on television.

Born in 1907 in Virginia, Kathryn Elizabeth Smith was the daughter of the owner of a company distributing newspapers and magazines and she grew up in Washington, D.C. She began singing at church social events by age five and at age eight was singing for Army troops during World War I. With no musical training, but with a vocal range of more than two octaves, she also appeared in amateur nights at vaudeville theaters.

Her early vocal experiences encouraged Kate to think of a career on the stage, a likelihood that concerned her father because of its potential insecurity and instability. So he had her become a student in the nursing school at George Washington University Hospital. However, while she stayed with it a few months, eventually her love for a professional vocal career won out and she left.

By 1926 Kate was in a Broadway show titled Honeymoon Lane, which brought a critic to compare her with well known singer Sophie Tucker, who like Kate had a portly frame. A few years later in 1930 she was in another New York show, yet in this role Kate found herself the object of co-star Bert Lahr’s jibes about her size. She remembered later that she found his jokes extremely hurtful and even humiliating—an attention that often left her in tears in her dressing room.

Then Ted Collins, an executive with a major recording company, saw her in the show and was so impressed that he signed her to a contract as well as his management, beginning a professional association that lasted until Collins’ death in 1964. He wisely suggested that Kate forget about the comedy but instead focus on her vocal talents and his first booking for her was at a prominent theater where she appeared for nearly three months, thus setting a record for a single artist.

In 1931 radio was becoming a major entertainment venue and so Collins arranged for Kate to begin a 15 minute nightly program. It was here that Kate’s opening number was When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain, she began with “Hello, everybody! “and ended the program with “Thanks for listenin’!” Within six months her sponsor, a cigar manufacturer, signed her to a long term contract at a four figure salary—good money for the time.

Over the next years, Kate’s radio programming was broadcast under a variety of titles on different networks, often with different sponsors, and sometimes six days a week. One of these, The Kate Smith Hour, proved to be a very popular variety program offering music, comedy and even drama performed by major movie and theater stars. Regular comedy performers at one time were Abbott and Costello as well as Henny Youngman. One series of sketches on the program was titled The Aldrich Family based on a Broadway production of that title and it later was “spun-off” into its own radio series in 1940.

In 1938 Kate began her association with God Bless America which Irving Berlin had originally written for his 1918 musical Yip Yip Yaphank. And though for a while time she had exclusive rights to the song she soon relinquished this when it became popular as a patriotic number. Also, Berlin and Kate waived any personal royalties for the number, and those earnings continued to be directed to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America.

Interestingly, the use of God Bless America by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in 1969 brought her a new popularity as Kate sang it several times in person. In fact, the first several times she did so, the Flyers opponents’ went scoreless.

Kate continued on several networks on radio until 1960.

In 1950 Kate brought her music to television programs broadcast both in late afternoon and also in the evening. The weekly Kate Smith Evening Hour that ran until about 1954 featured some early acting appearances of some later great stars like James Dean and Audrey Hepburn. There was also a rare broadcast film appearance of country singer Hank Williams as well as entertainer Josephine Baker. She also hosted a variety program for a few months in 1960 and then continued appearances on other programs. In addition, she became a favorite personality appearing in commercials for various automobiles and food products.

During World War II, Kate’s performances and appearances to sell War Bonds contributed to the sale of some $600 million worth of bonds, which would be about $12.4 billion today. As one source put it, “No other show-business star came near her as revenue producer of War Bonds to finance the United States’ war effort.”

During her career along with her vocal talents, Kate also was known for her large size, but eventually she approached the sensitive subject with humor. In her 1986 New York Times obituary, Frank J. Prial related that she would say her weight actually varied. However, he added, she would say that “…usually with a wink or a booming laugh because it obviously was higher.” Mr. Collins had helped her see it as something to laugh at and not for humiliation.

In fact, because of her close business and personal association with her manager, Collins often caused the mistaken idea that they were husband and wife. Actually, Collins was married and was a father and grandfather. But since the question came so often, her management team had a form letter ready to send out, to inform the writer of the truth.

Kate passed away in June, 1986.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

New York Times

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