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Kate Smith: Smooth as butterscotch

By Staff | May 1, 2009

As a child, I always admired our Zenith Regent console. It was an elegant-looking piece of furniture in our living room – rich mahogany finish with two upper door panels complete with oval brass hardware, and below were two panels which featured a diamond fabric. Housed behind the upper left door panel was the drop-down phonograph, complete with silent record changer. On the right was the radio with a beautiful fan-shaped face done in ivory and brass. When this radio dial was lighted, it looked like a grand stage. Below, one compartment served as storage for records, and my folks’ wedding album. The other side was a false front because of the speaker.

I was introduced to the rich, thunderous contralto voice of Kate Smith one Saturday afternoon. My mom enjoyed the music of Kate Smith and had many of her albums. The rules for playing records in our home were simple: if Mom is on the premises we will be listening to her tastes in music. I recall liking Kate Smith’s voice immediately. It was not long before I was reading everything I could find about her. I learned early on that her gifts in music were subconscious channels which she tuned to at an early age.

Smith had no formal music training. Her family had tried to nudge her towards a career in nursing. Instead, she creatively developed her God-given talent. She had a wonderful five-decade career in radio, TV, film, and recording. She made more than 15,000 radio broadcasts. She was discovered by Columbia Records’ vice president Ted Collins in 1930.Collins encouraged her to use her talents, and he also helped her overcome her self-consciousness about being a large woman. Their show business relationship lasted 34 years, ending with Collins’ death in 1964. Many will recall she opened her radio shows by saying, “Hello, everybody,” and her closing was, “Thanks for listening.”

Kate was a lady of grace and style. Today, unfortunately, we often see clothing malfunctions among many of our stars. This could have easily been a crisis for Kate if she had been of the persuasion to have plunging necklines and to showcase her middle. Instead she wisely selected fashions that flattered her. You would often see her wearing dark clothing with French seams, “the greatest friends for a person with no waist.” Her garments were often adorned with attractive braiding, rows of fine-looking buttons or lace embellishments. Her skirts had a fine swing to them, which transported your eyes down to her matching, well-heeled feet. Her step was light, as if she were strolling on rose petals. The pace of her pumps was elegant and assured.

I could write columns on this great lady and maybe I will! If her talents were to be presented as cakes, the layers would reach high in the sky. She is fondly remembered for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which she first performed on Armistice Day in 1938. She became an American icon with her popular radio variety program, The Kate Smith Hour, which aired from 1937-45. This program truly showcased her charisma. Optimism poured out of her before and during the gloomy days of World War II. Her bright, energetic, patriotic, and upbeat music provided a joyful release for America. She later transitioned into television. She recorded almost 3,000 songs, more than any other popular performer. She also introduced more songs that any other performers – well over a thousand. Many of these made the hit parade. Remember her theme song, whose lyrics she helped write: “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”? This was an ode to the Shenandoah Mountain country of Virginia.

She would have celebrated her 102nd birthday on May 1, 2009. Kathryn Elizabeth Smith was born in Greenville, Va., and was raised in Washington D.C. She died on June17, 1986 in Raleigh, N.C. I still recall that Wednesday in our home. Along with our two sustaining, comfortable friends, matching bottle-green Pontiac recliners, we listened and reflected on the various Kate Smith recordings. This simple moment now has become a treasure, and I am forever richer because of it.

Smith was a wonderful cook and often promoted cooking products such as Jello, Calumet baking powder and Swans Down cake flour. My mom has Kate Smith’s Favorite Recipe Cookbook, and I share with you now from that book a recipe that we made and enjoyed.

Repnow is a Rugby resident.

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