One of the most heartwarming and vindicating moments of this year's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony will come when local Soul/Funk legend Kenny Smith takes the Taft Theater stage to accept his long overdue Lifetime Achievement Award. If he accepts, that is.
"Can I turn it down?" Smith says with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh from his independent insurance sales office. "No, I wouldn't turn it down. I think it's great that we have something like this in Cincinnati."
That is classic Kenny Smith. He's delighted when people pay attention to his work, but he doesn't necessarily want a big fuss paid to him personally. That's just not his style.
Maybe if Smith had been more of a self-promoter with just a shade more self-interest, he'd be living easy and large right now by virtue of a lifetime of endless royalty payments. But that didn't happen.
Bad business decisions (and outright fraudulence) have kept Smith from enjoying the monetary fruits of his long musical labors throughout his career. Case in point: He wrote "Think Before You Walk Away," a song that was re-recorded by The Platters and has been included on any number of the band's greatest hits packages over the years, and yet Smith has never received a single royalty check from his publishing rights.
Smith will be the first to tell you the money doesn't necessarily matter to him. His love of songwriting and of music itself is what has fueled his drive over the past 50-plus years. He began singing Doo Wop at Withrow High School in the mid-1950s, forming The Enchanters and touring with them for six years. In the '60s, Smith began a long stint working at the legendary Castle Farms club and took a position with Fraternity Records first as an artist and then as a writer, arranger and producer.
In 1971, he wrote and recorded "Lord, What's Happened?," a regional hit that led him to a Chicago company offering him the host position on a television dance show called Soul Street. The show lasted only 10 episodes before poor business dealings forced it off the air.
Smith continued to record and release singles and work weekend gigs, but the nature of live entertainment changed in the mid-'70s, with the emphasis shifting to DJs and Disco rather than live Funk/Soul bands.
By then, Smith had already started selling insurance for Allstate. His long, successful tenure with the company resulted in his induction into the company's agent hall of fame, one of only two African Americans to hold that distinction. He's as clearly proud of that accomplishment as he is of his impending lifetime honor from the CEAs.
"They did a bronze bust of my face," Smith says. "It's kind of weird looking at yourself in bronze. It's like I'm already dead. But it's a really nice thing. Something like that and this lifetime achievement award show that I did contribute something. I always worked hard."
This has been a big year for Smith so far. Back in May, he saw the release of One More Day, a compilation of many of his rare and obscure singles — vinyl copies of which have sold for as much as $7,000 among collectors — on Darren Blase's Cincy-based Shake It Records. The album has been receiving consistently glowing press, most notably a 4-star review in the latest issue of Mojo, the British music bible.
"Darren just showed me the Mojo article," Smith says. "I didn't know they were that big. These things are humbling to me because I was never a flag-waver, if you know what I'm saying. To hear from not one voice but a lot of voices of different editorials, to be called a legend — I haven't gotten over that one yet."
The big news on the horizon for Smith is his work on an album of all-new songs with local musician/engineer Craig Wilson. The album won't be finished until after the first of the year, but Smith is excited about its potential.
"I've got four songs done ... I got a long way to go," Smith says with a laugh. "I don't expect it to be done until spring. I think the Internet and other things are opening up some doors for independent marketing. I think it will be worth marketing — if it wasn't, I wouldn't even want to put it out. We're looking for another partner, because it's gonna be first class."
The more immediate concern is the CEA ceremony and the performance that Smith will present that evening.
"Dan McCabe asked me if I would do something ... what could I say?," Smith says with a laugh. "I don't sound like I did years ago, because time changes things. I haven't performed in years, so I'm having to change the keys in order to get through this."
For the CEA performance, Smith will be backed by local Indie Blues/Rock trio Pearlene, an inspired pairing. Pearlene bassist Jesse Ebaugh credits McCabe with conceiving the notion of performing together.
"Dan called me and said, 'Hey, I've got this idea for the awards show,' " Ebaugh says. "I'd heard the record and thought the music was really cool. I can remember going to the (Contemporary Arts Center) when Chris Burgan put that show (A Thousand Tears Too Late: A History of Cincinnati Soul) together there and being interested in who Kenny was and watching the Soul Street programs and identifying him as a character, but it never jumped out to me as an opportunity to play with him until Dan thought it up. Pearlene is tight and talented, and we're the kind of guys that can play anything, but it was Dan's imagination that put us together."
Ebaugh says Smith has been careful in their rehearsal process, not wanting to make any missteps in his first live performance in nearly 30 years.
"He's been a little pensive in approaching it, and he wants it to come off exactly right," Ebaugh says. "He's taking it little bit by little bit. He's always been a songwriter and never fancied himself a singer or a player. I think he sells himself short. I think he's a better singer than he thinks he is. We've been doing nothing but trying to boost him. We're like, 'Man, these songs are fantastic, and we're doing it because we love it.' "
At the end of the evening, though, it will be the Hall of Fame award that will give Smith the most satisfaction.
"It's phenomenal," Smith says with more grace and humility than you're likely to find in any 10 artists at most awards shows these days. "It's a moral victory. You know, I always thought, 'I should be in there, too. I made contributions.' But I just put it away and didn't worry about it.
"This is a very special thing for me. I couldn't be any happier if I was walking at the Grammys. This is my Cincinnati Grammy. I guess it would be better to say that I haven't woken up yet."