The grand-dame of radio music was born in Greenville, Virginia on May 1, 1907 and had a voice that was said to “rattle the timbers of an auditorium.” She was well known for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. Kate Smith’s musical career began in 1930 when she was discovered by Ted Collins, then vice president of Columbia Records, and spanned five decades of popularity.
Collins became Smith’s partner and manager and soon cast her on the radio in 1931, singing the top twenty songs of that year, including the controversial, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” Her radio career was marked with a cheerful greeting everyone came to know as hers – “Hello, everybody!” and she signed off, “Thanks for listenin’.”
Smith was a large woman who was sometimes ridiculed for her size, but in radio – size didn’t matter. At 5’10” tall and 235 pounds, she often made fun of herself with remarks such as “I’m big, and I sing, and boy, when I sing, I sing all over!” She stated in her biography that friend and manager, Ted Collins, helped her overcome self-consciousness about her size and that he was the first man who looked at her as a singer and not ‘a fat lady.’
Kate Smith soon became a significant star of radio, singing with the popular, Jack Miller’s Orchestra. Her radio career soon expanded to a twice weekly show on NBC called Kate Smith Sings. Later, NBC increased the time slots to six shows a week. CBS signed her on for Kate Smith and Her Swanee Music in 1931, followed by The Kate Smith Matinee in 1934, The Kate Smith New Star Revue, also in 1934, Kate Smith’s Coffee Time in 1935 and The Kate Smith A&P Bandwagon in 1936.
In 1937, she was signed to perform in The Kate Smith Hour, a variety show featuring comedy, music and drama. Top stars of movies and theater appeared on the show from 1937 until 1945. Several shows and comics cut their teeth on the popular radio show, including Henny Youngman and Abbott and Costello. A successful sketch of the Broadway show, The Aldrich Family led to another radio show.
Smith continued her radio career with the Mutual Broadcasting System until long into the 1950s and became a popular appearance in ads for companies like Pullman, Studebaker and Jell-O. She was extremely popular with the hockey sports team, the Philadelphia Flyers, for singing God Bless America, and they eventually dedicated a statue to her just outside the Spectrum stadium.
Kate never married and spent several years crippled by diabetes – some of those years confined to a wheelchair. She passed away on June 17th , 1986 at 79 years of age in Raleigh, North Carolina and her remains are stored at Saint Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, New York. She was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame, posthumously, in 1999.