Joseph C. Smith and His Orchestra

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.

Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra was very successful from 1917 to 1921, reaching its peak popularity around 1919-1920, with the Victor Talking Machine Company issuing new Smith recordings almost every month. The labels on many Smith records have the phrase "for dancing" or "dance music." It recorded fox trots, one-steps, and waltzes, a few featuring a vocal refrain contributed by a Victor studio singer. Although musicians varied, generally eight instruments were used in the band, a combination of violin (Smith was a violinist), viola, piano, cello, trombone, cornet, drums.

Smith's Orchestra began recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company on September 25, 1916. From this session came twelve-inch 35593 featuring Stewart James's "Songs of the Night" (the Victor Dance Orchestra is on the reverse side). It was issued in December 1916, and Victor's supplement for that month calls the orchestra "a new organization...popular with New York dancers." "Money Blues" was also recorded at this session but was held for a few months, and that session's take of a Cole Porter song went unissued.

The record number of Smith's first ten inch Victor disc--18165--suggests it was intended for a December 1916 release, but Brian Rust's American Dance Band Discography shows that the orchestra returned to Victor on January 8, 1917 to re-record Cole Porter's "I've A Shooting Box in Scotland," a number introduced in 1914 in a Yale University Dramatic Association production and used again in the 1916 show See America First. It was the first Porter composition to be recorded (Prince's Band soon afterwards recorded it for Columbia A5950, issued in June 1917). It is a curious choice for a dance record since the song charmed audiences with clever lyrics--it is a list song par excellence. But the choice of a Porter song may be viewed as an appropriate beginning for Smith since he would go on to record many songs from popular Broadway shows, as well as medleys from shows. "I've A Shooting Box in Scotland" was backed by "Money Blues" on Victor 18165, which was issued in April 1917. Recording a song with "blues" in its title was an anomaly for Smith.

Two other performances recorded at this second session were issued on twelve-inch 35615: "Havanola" (also recorded by Prince's Band around this time for Columbia A5938 and by Jaudas' Band for Edison Blue Amberol 3298), and "Waltz from Drigo's Serenade." The disc was also issued in April, and Victor's supplement for that month gives "Havanola" the subtitle "Have Another," calling this "a very bright and cheerful number."

The next ten inch Smith disc featured "Poor Butterfly" backed by "Allah's Holiday" (18246), both recorded on February 19, 1917. Raymond Hubbell's "Poor Butterfly" was recorded by a handful of Victor artists at this time--Frances Alda, Fritz Kreisler, Elsie Baker (as "Edna Brown"). The Record Bulletin in the April 1917 issue of Talking Machine World notes that the disc was announced in March as a "dance special" along with the Original Dixieland Jass Band's first disc (recorded on February 26).

In May 1917 "Evensong Waltz" and "Get Off My Foot" were issued on 18247. Victor's May supplement states, "The waltz is coming into its own again, and all dancers will welcome the dreamy 'Evensong' ([by] Easthope Martin), which is rich with color."

At this time the orchestra was featured at New York's Plaza Hotel. It is uncertain who the musicians were, but Hugo Frey was probably the pianist at the first session since Frey's composition "Money Blues" was recorded. Frey was a regular member of Smith's ensemble and its most important one aside from director Smith since Frey was a skilled composer as well as a talented pianist (on a few labels Frey is credited for his piano work--for example, the phrase "Piano passage by Hugo Frey and Frank Banta" is on Victor 18816). Other Frey composition recorded around this time--not by Smith--were "Uncle Tom," played by Howard Kopp and Samuel Jospe on Columbia A2058 (issued in October 1916), and the sentimental Irish song "Molly Dhu" (written with Wilbur Weeks), recorded by Charles Harrison and issued in March 1917 on Victor 18154. The Van Eps Banta Trio perform Frey's "You're The One That I Want" on Emerson 1023, issued in August 1919.

Along with the previously mentioned "Money Blues" and Havanola," Frey compositions recorded by Smith's Orchestra include "Calicoco" (18478), "My Dough Boy" (18478), "Rockin' the Boat" (18521), "Happy" (18715), "Mary" (18500; co-written with George L. Stoddard), and, on twelve-inch 35676, the waltz "Dodola" (Prince's Orchestra recorded this for Columbia A6010, issued in February 1918).

On saxophone for at least some sessions is Jack Wasserman. When Wasserman in 1924 recorded with Jack Shilkret's Orchestra, advertisements placed in trade journals by the Buescher Band Instrument Company described Wasserman as "formerly with Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra...He is rated one of the best players of the High Soprano Saxophone and rates with the very best players on three other sizes of Saxophone."

In previous years dance records had a different sound, and Smith's music must have struck many dancers as fresh, original, different. For dancing, Victor recordings made by the Victor Military Band, Conway's Band, and Pryor's Band, among others. Dance music evolved so that military bands gradually went out of fashion, and Smith's music--with violin and piano--became increasingly popular (predecessors on the Victor label include Europe's Society Orchestra and McKee's Orchestra). Victor's June 1917 supplement, announcing two new Smith discs (one ten inch, one twelve inch), states, "Smith's Orchestra has a quality of sound peculiar to itself, and one that is especially ingratiating with dancers." In July 1917 four dance records by the Victor Military Band were issued (none by Smith), but in August, two Smith dance records were issued, only one by the Victor Military Band. Gradually a new era in dance music was ushered in, the way paved for Paul Whiteman and His Ambassador Orchestra, the Isham Jones Orchestra, and others of the 1920s. After 1919 no new Victor Military Band titles were issued.

The December 1917 supplement, announcing the release of two Smith discs (one ten inch, another twelve inch), again stresses the novelty of the sound: "Both these medleys are full of striking instrumental effects which almost compel one to dance, even if one doesn't know how. Joseph C. Smith and His Orchestra manage to produce a tone quality peculiar to themselves. It haunts you like the tone of a saxophone."

The ensemble recorded a couple of dozen titles for Victor within a year of its recording debut in September 1916. Nobody today would mistake it for a jazz band but the August 1917 Victor supplement states, in announcing a new Smith disc, "'Dance And Grow Thin'...has some sounds in it that would not disgrace a Jass Band--one observes particularly the sighing of the trombone and a mouse-like twitter in the treble that defies analysis." By September 1917, when Earl Fuller's first disc was issued, Victor used the spelling "jazz" instead of "jass."

On November 20, 1917, Smith's Orchestra recorded two titles for Columbia disc, both being Frey compositions: "Calicoco" and "When You Come Back" (A2460). Announcing the disc's release, Columbia's March 1918 supplement states, "For fifteen years, Mr. Smith has been an important factor in Metropolitan dancing circles."

Since Smith's first Victor session had been in September 1916 and his one Columbia session was 14 months later, it is likely that Smith initially had a one-year contract with Victor. Evidently nothing issued up to end of that first year had been successful enough for Victor to care much that Smith turned to a rival company soon after the end of that year--clearly Victor had not induced Smith to remain exclusive to Victor. Perhaps to the surprise of Smith and Victor executives, a song recorded at the end of Smith's first year, "Missouri Waltz" (35663), proved to be extremely popular when finally issued in February 1918. When Smith returned to Victor again for a May 8, 1918 session, he remained exclusive to Victor for four years.

Half a year passed between the recording of "Missouri Waltz" on October 29, 1917 and the session on May 9, 1918, that began Smith's second phase with Victor. Among other numbers, the orchestra recorded "Calicoco," which it had recorded for Columbia. On June 3, 1918, Smith's Orchestra recorded "Smiles," with vocal by tenor Harry Macdonough (Victor 18473), and this proved enormously popular. This may be the first dance record to feature a vocal refrain, and several Smith records that followed would feature vocal refrains, a novelty at the time. Vocals on "Mary" (18500) were provided on July 29, 1918, by Charles Harrison, Lewis James, and Harry Macdonough.

Harry Raderman's distinctive trombone playing is featured on Smith's popular "Yellow Dog Blues" (18618), recorded on October 1, 1919. The label of this disc even identifies Raderman as soloist--"Harry Rederman [sic] and his Laughing Trombone." It was the most popular recording of a W.C. Handy composition up to this time.

The orchestra recorded a few titles for Victor every month or two for the next few years. "Hindustan" (Victor 18507) was popular, as was the waltz "Alice Blue Gown" from Irene. "Peggy," recorded on September 25, 1919 and issued in February 1920 as Victor 18632, is notable for being a late recording with a contribution by tenor Harry Macdonough, who sings a refrain. Macdonough in this period supervised recording sessions held in Victor's New York City studio and would have determined what Smith numbers should include vocal refrains, always provided by studio singers--Henry Burr was used on some occasions, Billy Murray on others.

On October 1, 1919 Macdonough sang the refrain for a waltz number titled "Lovely Summertime," composed by Smith himself. The take featuring a vocal refrain was rejected. "Lovely Summertime" was instead issued as an instrumental on Victor 18681.

Though in 1920 Smith's Orchestra was Victor's most important dance band ensemble, by 1921 Victor depended as heavily on the Benson Orchestra as well as Paul Whiteman for dance music. By 1922, larger dance orchestras were in fashion as well as smaller semi-jazz ensembles, such as the Virginians. New dance records often featured choruses dominated by banjoists and saxophonists. Moreover, numbers were more carefully arranged, allowing for greater variety in instrumentation during a performance. Smith's arrangements, by comparison, were monotonous, with long musical sections repeated without variation (a percussionist limited to woodblocks does add variety to the sound on occasion).

No doubt in an attempt to keep up with musical trends, Smith experimented in some of his later Victor records, relying less on strings, even adopting a reed section. "It's You" (18827), recorded on October 20, 1921, features a long cornet solo by Ernest Pechin--this is unusual for a Smith performance. But Joseph C. Smith's music was becoming out of fashion though the February 1922 Victor supplement, in announcing the release of two fox trots conducted by Smith on Victor 18845, states enigmatically, "'Joe' Smith's dancers swear by him--so do every other Victor conductor's." Smith's last Victor recording was made on March 16, 1922.

Though Smith's sound was becoming dated, one of his best selling discs was made at the end of his Victor tenure: "Three O'Clock In The Morning" (18866), recorded on January 27, 1922. Around the time Smith left Victor, Paul Whiteman recorded the song (on August 22, 1922), and this became Whiteman's best selling record. Victor did not ordinarily have two dance orchestra cover the same number--though there are differences, the Smith and Whiteman performances would have seemed very similar to most dancers--and it is likely that Whiteman was permitted to record the popular waltz only because Smith had left Victor by this time. It is not known why Smith left the company though it would be understandable if he had envied the popularity of Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, whose records outsold Smith's dance records.

In the late summer of 1922, Smith's Orchestra began making Brunswick recordings, none of which sold well. Smith is listed in the 1923 Brunswick catalog as an exclusive Brunswick recording artist. Smith's Orchestra continued making Brunswick recordings into 1923. Smith is included in a photograph of Brunswick orchestral leaders--others include Walter C. Haenschen (Carl Fenton), Isham Jones, Benny Krueger, Arnold Johnson--on page 35 of the February 1923 issue of Talking Machine World. "Un Tango Dans La Nuit (A Tango In The Night)" backed by the Argentine tango "De Cinq a Sept" was issued as Brunswick 2393 in April 1923. In May, Brunswick issued "Love and the Moon" and "Wonderful You" (2402). Four additional Smith sides were issued in August 1923.

Hugo Frey was no longer Smith's pianist. In the early 1920s he directed or co-directed with Nat Shilkret such studio dance bands as The Great White Way Orchestra (some records feature piano duets by Banta and Frey, just as some Smith discs had), the Manhattan Merrymakers, and the Troubadours. Labels for some records credited to these orchestras cite Frey as director. He worked steadily in Victor's New York studio from 1922 through 1925 though he directed a Troubadours session as late as June 30, 1927 (Victor 20922 and 35831). He became a music arranger for the publisher Robbins Music Corporation, responsible in 1926 for transcriptions and arrangements in the song books Famous Negro Spirituals and Celebrated American Negro Spirituals. He continued to work for Robbins into the 1940s.

By the fall of 1924 Smith was leading the Joseph C. Smith and His Mount Royal Hotel Orchestra for CKAC radio broadcasts in Montreal. Smith's final recordings were made in Montreal for HMV in early 1925. According to Brian Rust, Smith brought his band to London from Montreal in the autumn of 1925, and when he returned to the United States, he left behind his drummer and xylophonist Teddy Brown, who went on to become a popular solo entertainer in Great Britain. Smith's recording career was over by the time of electrical recording.

It is not known when or where Smith was born. Little is known of him after he made his final recordings in 1925 although Rust reports owning an Okeh disc issued in March 1925 (40251--it features Jimmy Joys' St. Anthony Hotel Orchestra) with a sticker suggesting that Smith owned a music store in La Porte at that time. Rust also reports that Smith lost his savings in the Wall Street crash of 1929 and spent his last years in Florida.

Frank Kelly wrote in his "Where Are They?" column for Record Research (January 1970, Issue 103), "Another big old-timer who was hit hard in his later years was JOSEPH C. SMITH whose orchestra recorded scores of tunes for Victor...Smith ended up as a doorman in Florida in recent years." But Kelly provides no source for this. Subsequent Record Research issues featured letters by Smith fans, but few shed light on the man himself. One letter mentions that Smith's orchestra played the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal from June 1923 to October 1925 and made six records for Canadian Victor in March and June 1924. One writer reported that he had corresponded with Hugo Frey, who had commented that "Smith was very popular in his time but slipped...when Paul Whiteman came on the scene." Issue #105 (May 1970) reports, "Joseph C. Smith is listed in the 'In Memoriam' list for 1964-65 published by the Associated Musicians of Great New York, Local 802, A.F.M."

He is not to be confused with the Joseph Smith who appeared in motion pictures. One generation earlier, a Joseph C. Smith (1878-1932) was well-known as an exhibition dancer and choreographer, but it is unlikely that he is the same as the bandleader since Victor promotional literature is silent about any connection.