March 27, 2012
Warren Smith (b. February 7, 1932, Humphreys County, Mississippi – d. January 31,1980) was a pioneer rockabilly singer and guitar player.
Smith was born to Ioda and Willie Warren Smith, who divorced when he was young. He was raised by his maternal grandparents in Louise, Mississippi where they had a small farm and dry goods store.
Smith took up the guitar to while away his evenings while in the United States Air Force stationed in San Antonio, Tx. By the time of his discharge from the service, he had decided to make a career of music. He moved to West Memphis, Arkansas and auditioned, successfully, to play the Cotton Club, a local hot spot. Steel guitarist Stan Kessler, who was playing at that nightclub with the Snearly Ranch Boys, immediately spotted Smith’s potential and took him to Memphis’ famed Sun Records, to audition for Sam Phillips with the Snearly Ranch Boys providing backup.
Phillips liked what he heard, and decided that “Rock & Roll Ruby”, a song credited to Johnny Cash, would be Smith’s first record. (Smith later claimed that “Rock & Roll Ruby” was actually written by George Jones and sold to Cash for $40.) Smith recorded that rock & roll classic on February 5, 1956. Phillips, who was hedging his bets over whether rock & roll would maintain its popularity, released that record with a country crooner, aptly named “I’d Rather Be Safe Than Sorry”, on the flip side. By May 26, “Rock & Roll Ruby” had hit number 1 on the local pop charts. Smith’s first record for Sun went on to outsell the first Sun releases by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
In August 1956, Smith went back to the Sun Records studio to record his second release “Ubangi Stomp”. This infectious rocker had an incorrect lyric including an African chief with the syntax of a movie Indian. For the B side, Smith recorded the classic ballad “Black Jack David“. This song, which originated in early eighteenth century Britain and survived in various forms, in the mountains of the American south, may be the oldest song ever recorded by a rock & roll performer. Although a resounding artistic success, this record did not sell as well as Smith’s debut.
In 1957, Smith recorded “So Long, I´m Gone”, a song written by Roy Orbison, and it did become Smith´s biggest hit at SUN, peaking at No.74 nationally (Billboard). But SUN had no cash to put behind it to make it a bigger hit at the same time as Sam Phillips put every dollar SUN had behind Jerry Lee Lewis´ “Whole Lotta Shakin´ Goin´ On”. Although Smith continued to make great rockabilly records for Sun, including a rocking cover version of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If Your Want It” (recorded in October 1957), these records did not do well commercially. Toward the end of 1958, Smith, seeing his future in country music, cut a final record for Sun, a cover version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl”. In spite of a review in Billboard magazine calling it “ultra commercial” (high praise from a music business publication), this record also failed to sell. Smith decided to leave Sun Records.
In 1959, Smith and his wife and son moved from Mississippi to California, settling in Sherman Oaks, not far from Johnny and Vivian Cash. Cash offered Smith a spot on his show, but Smith turned it down, seeing himself as a headliner, not a supporting player. In early 1960, Smith signed with Liberty records, and immediately scored a hit with “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today”, which went to #5 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. This record, and Smith’s subsequent records, was produced by Joe Allison, and featured one of California’s best country session musicians, Ralph Mooney, on pedal steel guitar. Smith scored again with his next record for Liberty, “Odds and Ends, Bits and Pieces”, written by Harlan Howard. Liberty had Smith record several more tracks, mostly cover versions of recent country hits, to flesh out an album called “The First Country Collection of Warren Smith”.
Smith continued to record with some success for Liberty, and to tour with his band, from 1960 – 1965. On August 17, 1965, Smith, had a serious car accident in LaGrange, Texas, suffering serious back injuries, from which it took him nearly a year to recover. By this time, his contract with Liberty had lapsed. Smith made several attempts to restart his career, first with a small, virtually amateur label called Skill records, then for Mercury Records, but, sadly, difficulties with addictions to pills and alcohol held him back. Eventually, Smith’s drug problems led to an 18-month term in an Alabama prison for robbing a pharmacy.
After his release from prison, Smith continued to struggle to restart his career. In the late 1970s, he got a bit of a boost from the rockabilly revival then occurring. He was invited, in 1977, to appear at London’s Rainbow Theatre, on a bill featuring Charlie Feathers, Buddy Knox and Jack Scott. To his shock, Smith was received in London with standing ovations. His reception in England boosted his spirits and, upon his return to the U.S., he began to perform with newfound vigor. In November 1978, Smith and fellow Sun alumnus Ray Smith toured Europe, again to great success.
In 1980, while preparing for another European tour, Smith died of a heart attack at 47 years of age.
Warren Smith’s contribution to rockabilly music has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan has repeatedly featured Warren Smith on his XM Satellite Radio Show Theme Time Radio Hour, playing Smith’s records “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache”, “Uranium Rock” and “Ubangi Stomp”. Dylan himself recorded a studio version of “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache” in 2001 and also played that song and “Uranium Rock” in concert in 1986.