If there were a Mount Rushmore of popular song, Kate Smith’s formidable profile would undoubtedly be featured there. Possessed of a big, rich, booming voice and a physique to match, she must be considered one of the most popular singers of the twentieth century. She knew exactly how to control the power of her voice and made sure never to rely on big sound alone; she was an excellent interpreter of lyrics, always delivered with perfect diction.
Smith concentrated on songs with mass appeal, the kind that spoke to the regular guy on the street or the farm. She was never a great interpreter of Broadway’s more sophisticated output, concentrating instead on wholesome songs with straightforward lyrics. And although she was never a particularly nuanced singer, Smith excelled at putting over a song cleanly and succinctly without vocal mannerisms. When she’s described as a craftsman it’s a compliment.
Kate Smith was born on May 1, 1907, in Washington, D.C. She broke into show business entertaining troops during World War I, and made her first splash on Broadway in Honeymoon Lane, Hit the Deck, and Flying High. In 1926 she began recording, and her successes included “River, Stay ‘Way from My Door” (1931), “The Woodpecker Song” (1940), “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1941), “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (1942), “There Goes That Song Again” (1944), “Seems Like Old Times”(1946), and “Now Is the Hour” (1947). Nineteen of her recordings sold over a millon copies. Her later LPs on the RCA label were also immense bestsellers.
Early on, Columbia Records vice president Ted Collins saw her potential and signed on as her manager. He got her a radio contract in 1930 and quickly capitalized on her success, booking her into the Palace Theatre where she broke the record for longest engagement. In 1933, she was voted the most popular woman on radio.
In 1931 Smith got her own radio show, Kate Smith Sings, and adopted “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain” as her theme song. The show ran until 1947, and simultaneously she had a daytime talk and news show, Kate Smith Speaks, making her the most ubiquitous and successful woman in radio.
Hollywood was also on Collins’ agenda for Smith and she made her debut in The Big Broadcast in a cameo spot (on a new invention called “television”—in 1932!). She starred in 1933’s Hello, Everybody!, the title of which was how she began her radio broadcasts (she ended them with “Thanks for listening”). She sang “God Bless America” in the 1943 film This Is the Army.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced Smith to the King George VI of England after a command performance at the White House, by saying, “Your majesties, this is Kate Smith. This is America.” Three years later, in 1942, Kate was voted one of the three most popular women in America alongside Mrs. Roosevelt and Helen Hayes.
In 1950, like many of her contemporaries, Smith made the transition to television with an afternoon variety show, also titled The Kate Smith Hour. As she had on radio, she soon added an additional show, The Kate Smith Evening Hour. The afternoon show left the air in 1954. Her final radio show was broadcast on the Mutual network in 1958. She switched to CBS in 1960 in a half-hour format called The Kate Smith Show. (Clearly, the network executives responsible for naming her programs were as plain-spoken as she.) She also made many appearances on television variety and talk shows, and made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1963.
In the 1970s Smith concentrated on nightclub and concert appearances, throwing in only a very occasional television guest spot. Her fame continued throughout the decade and in 1976 she was named Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade. The Bicentennial year was her last in show business. Kate Smith died in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 17, 1986—but she lives on as the only voice that is likely ever to be associated with “God Bless America.” (KB)
“God Bless America” was written in 1918 as part of the score for Irving Berlin’s army show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, but he decided that it was a little too patriotic and put it in the proverbial trunk. In the fall of 1938, with the demise of the Munich Pact, Berlin returned from Europe knowing there would be a war. He wanted to come up with a patriotic song and remembered “God Bless America.” Among the changes he made was the addition of a verse that went, “When the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”
Kate Smith’s manager seized on it as the perfect patriotic song for her Armistice Day broadcast. Smith wanted to sing it with a marshal beat but Berlin prevailed upon her to sing it more lyrically. Smith sang the song per Berlin’s instructions and it went over fantastically. Berlin was so excited he went down to the network to hear Smith sing it again for the West Coast feed. Originally, Smith sang “From the green fields of Virginia to the gold fields out in Nome. Make her victorious on land and foam.” Berlin subsequently changed the lyric.
Hearing Kate Smith sing the song, Congress was urged by thousands of citizens to make the song the new National Anthem. Berlin and Smith said no.
Smith sang the song on December 11, 1969, before a Philadelphia Flyers hockey games which they won. She was made an unofficial mascot of the team and sang the song prior to many games including two Stanley Cup finals (which the Flyers won). Her career record for the flyers: 64-15-3.
“God Bless America” was the last song she sang, on a Bicentennial special.God Bless America
Mary Ellin Barrett, daughter of Irving Berlin recalls, “I was eleven years old when I first heard “God Bless America.” Now, to me, this was a very strange Irving Berlin song because I knew my father as this jazzy, sophisticated or earthy vernacular writer of songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Cheek to Cheek.” And then it began creeping up on me. I came to understand that it wasn’t “God bless America, land that we love.” It was “God bless America, land that I love.” It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his thank-you to the country that had take him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”God Bless America
The lyric was based on a poem that Kate Smith wrote. It became her theme song for her entire career.When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain