One of the great unwritten chapters in Cincinnati music history will come to light with the release of One More Day, a collection of Soul singles released in the '60s and '70s by local talent Kenny Smith. Rare Soul collectors worldwide know Smith's name well; he was once contacted by an English fan who offered him $6,500 for one of his singles. The only copy Smith had was broken.
The Cincinnati Soul scene is one of the lesser-documented movements in local music lore and Smith is one of its most unheralded lights. The superb One More Day is the first in a series of Cincinnati Soul releases being spearheaded by Shake It Records co-owner Darren Blase and local record collector Chris Burgan, who brought Smith's extensive catalog to Blase's attention. Future releases include albums by Albert Washington, 100 Years of What? and a Cincinnati Soul compilation of rare and unreleased singles.
Blase is eager to expose this incredible and unsung period to a new generation of Soul fans, as well as the generation that might have missed it in the first place. "This is such an important part of Cincinnati's history," says Blase. "People hear 'Cincinnati music' and they go, 'Right, King Records ... got it, move on.' There's this whole amazing story that hasn't been told."
One of those amazing stories certainly belongs to Smith. Born in Maysville, Ky., in 1938, Smith relocated to Cincinnati with his family shortly after his mother's death when he was just 5 months old. As a teenager, Smith fought to regain his health after a bout with polio. When Smith was a student at Withrow High School, he fell in with a group of like-minded Doo Wop singers and formed The Enchanters. Smith claims that he never had an actual career in music in mind at the time, merely the drive to entertain.
"I don't even know if I can sing, I call it communicating," says Smith from his local insurance sales office. "I didn't know that I would be doing music for a living. But I never had a decent job because I was always trying to prepare myself that if something happened, I could follow up on it by being available. Still, my ambition was always to be a songwriter."
After graduating from high school in 1956, Smith remained with The Enchanters for six years, scoring a brief tour with Tiny Bradshaw and a one-time shot at standing in for the recently-dissolved Charms, recording a single at King Records under their name. At one point, his group won a talent contest on a local television program, receiving a Longines-Wittnauer watch for their efforts.
"Four guys, one watch," says Smith with a laugh. "We sold the watch and split the money."
After the end of The Enchanters, Smith started a new band and began working at Castle Farms, the storied local club. Fraternity Records exec Carl Edmondson saw Smith and, drawn to his sound, offered him a label session which resulted in his Fraternity debut, "Deep In My Heart." Unfortunately for Smith, the same session also produced "Memphis" by Lonnie Mack, and the label directed their resources at that surprise hit.
"My thing was overshadowed by 'Memphis'; they put all the promotion behind that," says Smith. "As a businessman, I would have done the same thing. That's what everybody wanted. It was the right thing to do."
After a string of only moderately successful singles, Smith moved into a different role at Fraternity, as a writer, arranger and producer for acts like The Charmaines, The Casinos and The Dolphins, who had a Billboard hit with "Hey-Da-Da-Dow." Smith continued to sing and play guitar, which he did because he couldn't afford to pay session musicians to record his songs.
After gaining some exposure through leased tracks to Chess and RCA, Smith started his own Goldspot label and recorded "Lord, What's Happened?" in 1971 in an attempt to capitalize on the so-called "Jesus Rock" movement. The owners of General American Records (GAR) in Chicago liked the track and picked it up for reissue in 1972, and eventually named Smith their director of publishing. GAR had an even bigger proposition for Smith.
"They said, 'How would you like to be the TV host of a dance show similar to Soul Train?' " recalls Smith. "I said, 'Is the Pope Catholic? Yeah!' How many people get that opportunity? It was all over the country."
The nationally syndicated show, Soul Street, appeared in 36 markets but lasted just 10 episodes. Money and production troubles as well as bad business decisions cut it short, forcing Smith back to his recording activities. He continued to release singles and work weekend gigs into the '70s but the dwindling of clubs hiring Soul and Funk bands, the rise of Disco and the proliferation of cheaper DJ talent effectively ended his live career.
Although Smith's name and music were kept alive by European listeners hungry for obscure Soul releases and stateside producers of Soul side compilations, he rarely received any monetary compensation for his work. In fact, two of his most lucrative deals were a Frisch's commercial that he wrote and produced in the '70s and voiceover work he did six years ago for Allstate Insurance, the company he represents; he is one of only two African Americans honored in the company's sales hall of fame.
Through all of his travails, Smith remains focused on the positive. Two years ago, he recorded a Gospel CD and he continues to work on new material. Convinced that his talent lies more in writing than performing, he still hopes that he might someday be recognized for it with a songwriting Grammy. And he has no desire for fame or celebrity with the release of One More Day; his only hope is that people enjoy what they hear and appreciate his legacy. In fact, Smith's successful battle against kidney cancer has inspired him to pledge half of his proceeds from this disc to The Kidney Foundation. If Soul was stock and humility could be spent, Smith would be the richest guy in town.
"It's kind of hard for me to believe that I have a CD after all these years," he says with an audible smile. "I'm just Kenny. And I always will be."
KENNY SMITH celebrates his new release Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center's "Cincinnati Soul Reunion" event.