Born on May 1, 1907, Kathryn (Kate) Elizabeth Smith would in time become known as America’s singing patriot. She began life in Greenville, Virginia and grew up with a love for singing and dance. By the time she was 17, Kate decided her life’s calling would be show business.
At the age of 21, Kate was discovered by a producer from New York City who later featured her in Honeymoon Lane, a musical comedy performed on Broadway. She went on to appear in Hit the Deck and Flying High.
During these shows, Kate was restricted to the role of the “comic fat girl”, something she totally despised. At no time was she given the opportunity to sing. That changed in 1930. That year Kate’s singing skill was noticed by Ted Collins, vice president of Columbia Records. He soon became her manager and partner and had Kate singing on the radio in 1931, debuting on her birthday.
An immediate success on air, Kate went on to break the Palace Theater record for longevity. Ted would continue to guide her career until he died in 1964. Kate later stated that Collins helped her to overcome her self-consciousness, when she wrote, “Ted Collins was the first man who regarded me as a singer, and didn’t even seem to notice that I was a big girl. I’m big, and I sing, and boy, when I sing, I sing all over!”
Kate Smith Sings was the joint project of Collins and Smith. It ran from 1931 to 1947 and became one of the most popular radio programs broadcast by CBS. The first broadcast opened with When the Moon Comes over the Mountain, a song Kate helped write the lyrics for, and became her theme song for the show. At the beginning of each show, Kate greeted her audience with “Hello, everybody!” and each show ended with “Thanks for listenin’.”
In 1938, Kate began a radio talk program titled Kate Smith Speaks. Two years later, she wore the title, “first lady of radio.” The following year, Kate was introduced to King George VI of England by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his introduction, the president said, “This is Kate Smith. Miss Smith is America.”
During the course of her career, Kate recorded more than 2,000 songs, with 19 of her titles selling more than one million copies each. Despite the fact she recorded so many songs, even today when Kate Smith’s name is mentioned to someone familiar with her, the one song she is most fondly remembered for is Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. First sung on Armistice Day (November 11th) 1938, Kate predicted the song would still be sung long after she, Berlin and everyone else involved in the music industry at that time had passed away. During World War II, Kate’s singing of God Bless America helped to raise millions of dollars in war bonds. She also sang the song in the 1943 wartime film This is the Army.
With the advent of television, Kate was given an afternoon variety show, The Kate Smith Hour, which was seen Monday thru Friday for a four year time span. The show’s popularity encouraged NBC to provide her an evening slot as well, Kate Smith Evening Hour. She was also seen on a large number of variety shows – appearing with hosts Ed Sullivan, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Carol Burnett and others.
On October 26, 1982, Kate was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. She received the award from President Ronald Reagan who said of Kate:
“The voice of Kate Smith is known and loved by millions of Americans, young and old. In war and peace, it has been an inspiration. Those simple, but moving words, ‘God bless America’ have taken on added meaning for all of us because of the way Kate Smith sang them. Thanks to her, they have become a cherished part of all our lives; an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours. In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith, God has truly blessed America.”
Following her death on June 17, 1986, President Reagan stated:
“Kate Smith was a patriot in every sense of the word. She thrilled us all with her stirring rendition of ‘God Bless America’ and sang with a passion which left few eyes dry.”
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On July 21, 2011, Kate’s beloved voice and song heralded the final wake-up call for the astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis as the 30-year shuttle program came to an end.
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