This is the story of a truly great singer, a “crooner” from the 1920’s, whose music I would hope, after I tell you about him, you will say “I’ve got to hear his recordings, especially if he’s as great as the guy writing this article says he is.” My view, a prejudiced one, is that he is the best forgotten male singer who ever sang with a big band orchestra. It’s also the story of the invisible threads of “coincidence” that caused three lives to touch each other.

In 1964 an avid music collector from Temple, Texas, mailed a brief note hoping to contact one of his favorite band singers from the 1920’s and 1930’s. What resulted was an inter-generational friendship that would change the lives of both men. My life was changed when I contacted this man about doing a story on his Bing Crosby collection for our Central Texas Live at Five Show and, while there, he played Smith Ballew singing a song called Deep Night.

Depression era sweethearts, despite the crashing din from Wall Street, spooned by the moon to 78’s of crooners Billy Smith with Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra, Buddy Blue, Gary Dawson, Herman Heigle, Sturgis Anderson, Ford Britten, Tony Ballard, Ross Colby, or Charles Roberts. A discerning ear, however, could detect Smith Ballew’s vocal refrain on each, his name mysteriously replaced by these and other pseudonyms on the labels.

Contracts with Columbia and Okey labels prohibited Smith Ballew to use his name for any other New York recording sessions. Far from his small-town Texas home of Palestine, young, married, a new father, and wanting all the work he could get, a pragmatic Smith Ballew devised dozens of aliases. In all, Smith Ballew recorded over 2,500 arrangements from the 1923 “Jimmie Joys,” a band formed while at the University of Texas in Austin, to crooning under dozens of names known today only to his small batch of collectors, myself among them.

When the Wall Street crash of 1929 flattened Smith Ballew’s own investments to the tune of $200,000, the never-bitter Ballew brushed it off and simply worked harder. Commanding top money for recording sessions, often booking several in a day, with all the “name” orchestras plus appearing nightly at New York’s swankier dinner clubs and broadcasting his own Smith Ballew Orchestra on the NBC Radio Network, Ballew and his family rode out the Depression in grand style.

Orchestra leaders such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and composers like Ira Gershwin chased down the versatile Ballew for vocal work. Smith navigated the most complex jazz scores, dignified mediocre lyrics and mounted the high ranges of many songs with an ease other singers of the day were unable to reach. The great Glenn Miller collaborated with Ballew for about eight years and eventually took over Smith’s band and fashioned it into the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Unpublished biographical materials I’ve read tell of a professional engagement when Bing Crosby requested that his friend Smith Ballew fill in for him on a sing with a pesky high note beyond Crosby’s own register. The pair were known for hailing New York City cabs and singing impromptu duets while the cabbie drove around the streets of New York.

In 1936, summoned by Hollywood for his Gary Cooper good looks and manner, the 6’3” Smith Ballew pulled out of New York and headed West for a new start in Tinsel Town. He had previously appeared in three musical shorts and his voice can be heard in the background, if ever so faintly, of the Marx Brothers 1929 film Cocoanuts. Smith dubbed over a cowboy vocal for John Wayne in the picture Randy Rides Alone, and he eventually starred, mostly in westerns, usually as a singing cowboy, in over 20 films.

In 1936 when Al Jolson left his top-billed NBC radio variety show, Shell Chateau, of which I have the first program with guest star Judy Garland, Ballew stepped in as host and resident crooner. Celebrity telegrams poured in. Dick Kenny’s New York Daily Mirror feature said: “Smith Ballew sang “We’ll Wait at the End of the Trail” and added that Ballew did so “from Los Angeles the other night in a way that sent chills up this old sailor’s spine.”

Maybe it was Smith’s trusting nature, his country-bred way of seeing only the good in others that undid him in Hollywood. Some might placed the blame the bungled agenting of his movie career by Zeppo Marx, who rejected lucrative western film offers without consulting Ballew, on the fact that he eventually walked away from show business and because of that decision — a financial one — his name is now all but forgotten. Maybe the last straw was the disastrous 1940 New Mexico mining scheme that left Ballew penniless again. He needed work and he needed it badly to continue support of his family.

His natural patriotism and the wartime effort influenced the timing of his resolution to seek a more practical career than show business. Ballew chose the aviation industry. A path led him from Northrup to Hughes Aircraft, owned by old acquaintance Howard Hughes, to Convair, which became General Dynamics in Fort Worth. By 1952 Ballew found himself back home, at last, in Texas and out of the national spotlight.

Justine, his college sweetheart and wife of 35 years, passed away in 1960.

And yet, despite these changes in Ballew’s life, he was destined — even though now a corporate executive — to re-live his entertainment career through the generosity of a man who was determined that Smith Ballew’s legacy would not die.

Olin Carver contacted Ballew from Temple, Texas, in 1964. Carver, collector of music and music memorabilia since a disabling railroad injury in 1943, had managed to create one of the largest assemblages of records and memorabilia in the Southwestern United States. I know because, as a feature story TV reporter, I was so overwhelmed by Carver’s collection that I probably did over a dozen stories with him for our Live at Five show.

“I was looking for a way to pass the time,” Carver told me. At the time of his disabling accident “I was young and restless and disabled. Once I discovered Smith Ballew’s early records, I kept collecting him like crazy. Oh yea, he was great! And he sang with the best bands of his era. Then, when I found out he was living in Fort Worth, I had to write him. I was thrilled when he responded and wanted to get together.”

By 1964 Smith Ballew had lost track of most of his recordings and was eager to locate anything he could get his hands on. Carver, Ballew, and Mary — Smith’s second wife — met regularly in Temple or Fort Worth to play Smith’s old songs. Ballew, now 62 and visibly moved by the music, would stand and direct his orchestra again, tracing the vocal refrain in his compelling baritone. After years of silence about his celebrated past, Smith would keep Olin Carver up into the early morning hours recounting favorite New York and Hollywood stories.

Carver, who had become like a younger brother, enjoyed playing the role of volunteer public relations man to Smith, often stopping patrons in restraints and asking, “Do you realize who this man is? He replaced Al Jolson on the radio.” A few might vaguely recall this crooner whose career had embraced the best of the New York recording scene from the 1920’s to the middle 1930’s. A few would nod and smile as they glanced at the actor who they thought they remembered but couldn’t place.

Carver was there to offer encouragement to a devastated Smith Ballew when his wife Mary died in 1972. He maintained the final bedside vigil, at Smith’s request, in Longview, Texas, May 1984 as Smith passed on. An 82-year-old Smith Ballew slipped quietly from the world as his friend, Olin Carver, whispered softly into his ear, “Smith, you were a great man.”

Thanks to Olin Carver’s generosity during my TV years in Central Texas, he recorded for me and I own about 1200 of Smith Ballew’s recordings from the 1920’s until about 1936 when he basically stopped recording. Shortly after I moved on from TV to start new career, I received word that Olin Carver died. I miss Olin, I miss his friendship, and I thank him for introducing me to the recordings of Smith Ballew the day my photographer and I were at his home taping a story on his Bing Crosby memorabilia.

A small number of Smith Ballew’s recordings are on CD, having been re-mastered and you can probably find them on Amazon.com or Ebay.com If you haven’t heard the music of the 1920’s and early 1930’s you owe it to yourself to do so. There’s nothing like it. I’d suggest you start with the recordings of Smith Ballew, Bing Crosby, Annette Hanshaw — who retired before the age of 30 — and who is my favorite female vocalist of all time. Her vocals are amazing. How I wish this incredibly shy young woman not retired from the music business so early in life.

The English bands of that era are also incredible, especially Bert Ambrose and His Orchestra, Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Ray Noble, Lew Stone and His Orchestra, and the Roy Fox Orchestra. Find the vocals of Al Bowlly. You will love them. These are songs you will not, it’s likely, ever hear on your local radio station but, thankfully, they still exist thanks to the zeal of a few record collectors like Olin Carver.

Author's Bio: 

James Clayton Napier was a television broadcaster for many years in Texas. He is an avid collector of the original music of the 1920's and 30's. James is presently working with others on the establishment of a new global TV news operation. More about James at www.jamesclaytonnapier.com
or write James at ithreads@aol.com