Lifenotes: Country Radio Disc Jockey Smokey Smith

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• February 10, 2014
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Pictured (L-R): Smokey Smith and Johnny Cash. Photo: Snowflake Enterprises

Country Radio Disc Jockey Hall of Fame member Smokey Smith was buried Sunday (Feb. 9) in Des Moines, Iowa.

He died at age 91 on Feb. 3 due to complications from surgery following a brain injury. In addition to being a radio personality, Smith was also a recording artist, a television entertainer and one of the biggest country concert promoters of his era.

He was born Donald Charles Smith on Feb. 12, 1922 in Kansas City, Mo., and was raised in Lawrence, Kan. He was 16 when he began his radio career on WREN in Lawrence as a singer/guitarist for Ted West & His Range Riders in 1938.

Smith migrated to California in 1940 to work on airplane engines at Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in San Diego. He resumed his radio career a year later on the city’s KYOR station, working as both a musician and a disc jockey.

He thought that Don Smith was not a good show-business name. He smoked cigars constantly, so his band nicknamed him “Smokey,” which he much preferred.

Smokey Smith and The Gold Coast Boys recorded many country shows for the Mexican “border radio” stations that beamed megawatts of power into the U.S. during the 1940s. In 1946, the group began recording for Crystal Records.

The group scored its biggest hit with a version of Ted Daffan’s “I’m a Fool to Care” in 1946. Other songs recorded by Smith during the 1940s include “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Fading Away” and “Hobo Boogie.”

In 1950, he relocated to KRNT in Des Moines, and the station remained his home for years to come. When KRNT-TV came on the air in 1955, Smokey Smith became one of the Midwest’s country television pioneers as the host of his own show.

He was a key figure in the formation of the Country Music Disc Jockey Association in Nashville in 1953. He was the group’s Treasurer in 1958 when he urged it to disband in favor of forming a broader organization representing the industry, the Country Music Association. Smith held CMA membership card #4 and was a member of its founding board of directors.

Pictured (L-R): Smokey Smith with Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright

Pictured (L-R): Smokey Smith with Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright. Photo: Snowflake Enterprises

Back in Des Moines, Smokey Smith became one of the biggest concert promoters in the Midwest. Beginning in Iowa, he expanded his show territory to include Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Colorado, Illinois and South Dakota. Known as a “package-show” specialist, he put together multi-artist billings throughout his region.

As a concert promoter, Smith became known for his scrupulous honesty in his financial dealings with stars of the 1950s and 1960s. Among the artists he presented were Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton, George Jones, Sonny James, Elvis Presley, Jean Shepard, Jimmy Dickens, Hank Thompson, Wanda Jackson and Tammy Wynette.

Smith left the concert business in 1974. He formed Smokey Smith Tours, taking busloads of tourists to destinations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

He remained a familiar face in Nashville throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s at music-industry functions, particularly during Country Radio Seminars and at functions presented by R.O.P.E. (the Reunion of Professional Entertainers). It is said that he was more recognized in Nashville than he was in Des Moines.

He was inducted into the Country Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 1982. R.O.P.E. presented him with its International Media Award in 2007. In 2010, he became the subject of an illustrated biography by author Terry Manley, Smokey Smith: The Legendary Life of Iowa’s Mr. Country Music.

Memorial contributions in Smokey’s honor may be directed to R.O.P.E. International, P.O. Box 2048, Madison, TN 37116-2048.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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