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About Jack Smith

Not to be confused with vaudeville's Whispering Jack Smith nor with '60s English pop entity Whistling Jack Smith, popular singer, actor, MC, and radio and television personality Jack Smith was also known as Smilin' Jack Smith. On November 16, 1916, Jack Ward Smith was born on Bainbridge Island, Seattle, Washington, the son of U.S. Navy Captain Walter Smith and his wife Mabel. Jack's little brother Walter Jr. would grow up to become Hollywood character actor Walter Reed. In 1931, 15-year-old Jack Smith was aiming to enroll at Dartmouth College as a student of architecture when word went around that Cocoanut Grove nightclub owner Ben Frank had fired his vocal group, the Rhythm Boys (Harry Barris, Al Rinker, and Bing Crosby), and was looking to hire a trio to sing with Gus Arnheim's Cocoanut Grove Orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel. After auditioning with high-school pals Al Teeter and Marty Sperzel, Smith suddenly found himself in show business.

Billed as the Three Ambassadors, the teenaged trio earned $100 apiece per week. When Arnheim pulled out of the Cocoanut Grove, they continued performing there with pianist Jimmie Grier, then moved their act to the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco where they sang with Anson Weeks & His Orchestra. The Three Ambassadors also dove headfirst into the motion picture industry, singing choral backgrounds for movies. Although the volume of work was enormous, they received little pay and no screen credit for their services. The trio returned to the Cocoanut Grove in 1933 to perform with Phil Harris & His Orchestra, and began singing on radio with various large vocal groups. They sang in the chorus on The Kate Smith Hour, with the Hit Paraders on Your Hit Parade, and in the ranks of the Swing 14 on The Philip Morris Show.

Radio soon became Smith's chosen medium, and he was even elected president of the Pacific Pioneers Broadcasters. He married former schoolmate Vicki Stuart in 1936, a busy year for the Three Ambassadors. On one occasion they each earned a paltry five dollars for working from nine to five at Republic Studios, recording an ungodly quantity of cowboy songs for use in countless Western movies. The trio appeared onscreen singing "My Heart Wants to Dance" in RKO's Walking on Air, starring Ann Sothern and Gene Raymond.

By the time the Ambassadors dissolved their partnership in 1939, Jack Smith was beginning to establish himself as a solo vocalist on radio. His high-end baritone voice worked particularly well over the air. While appearing regularly during the early '40s with Cliff Arquette on Glamour Manor, Smith served the war effort by providing aircraft instrumentation instruction to pilots in training. This job prevented him from getting cast in the 1943 Broadway comedy One Touch of Venus, robbing him of the opportunity to premiere Kurt Weill's romantic magnum opus "Speak Low." After singing on The Raymond Scott Show in 1943, Smith began appearing on The Prudential Hour with operatic soprano Gladys Swarthout and opera critic Deems Taylor. It was Taylor who persuaded Smith to perform "Babalu."

Observing that Smith always sounded as though he was smiling while singing, Taylor dubbed him "The Man with the Smile in His Voice." This soon led to the nickname Smilin' Jack Smith. Given the singer's wartime aviation labors, it is very likely that the moniker also echoed Zack Mosley's popular daredevil air ace comic strip, Smilin' Jack Martin, adapted to the silver screen in 1943. By 1945 Smith was hosting his own 15-minute radio show five nights a week on CBS with Procter & Gamble as sponsors. He made records for the Capitol and Hit labels (a perfect example of his wholesome approach being Hit 7101, "Let's Sing a Song About Susie" b/w "Up Up Up"), but always insisted that the songs he sang on the radio constituted better material because he performed there without any pressure from record company executives.

Jack Smith's movie career almost took off in 1946 when he received an offer from David O. Selznick. Smith politely declined, preferring to stick with radio. He did appear, however, in Columbia's Make Believe Ballroom (1949) and much more memorably in Warner Bros.' On Moonlight Bay (1951) with Doris Day and Gordon McRae. Here Smith sang "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," "Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own," "Love Ya" (a duet with Doris Day), and the title song "On Moonlight Bay." Jack Smith switched from radio to television in 1952, beginning with what have since been described as the "confessional quiz shows": Welcome Travelers and Love Story. His television triumph occurred when in 1958 Smith replaced Art Baker as the host of ABC's You Asked for It. His involvement with this show lasted until 1977. He also hosted The American West from 1966 to 1971 and made more phonograph recordings during the 1950s for the Coral, Columbia, and Bell-Aire labels. By the time he eased into a well-deserved retirement, Jack Smith had been professionally active for more than six decades. ~ arwulf arwulf

Columbus, OH
14 Nov 1932