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My Independence Day Post Featuring Kate Smith and God Bless America

July 4, 2014

For my July Fourth post, I would like to feature what is now a well-known American anthem as performed by the iconic Kate Smith, God Bless America. Written by Irvin Berlin and made famous by Smith, the song premiered in 1938. As noted in Parade magazine in August 2013:

…When Irving Berlin rediscovered his old song [originally written in 1918 yet unused] in 1938, he had been looking for a “peace song” as a response to the escalating conflict in Europe. He made changes to it and gave it to radio star Kate Smith to perform on her radio show on the eve of the first official celebration of Armistice Day—a holiday originally conceived to commemorate world peace and honor veterans of the Great War. (The peace part would be dropped in 1954, when it became Veteran’s Day.) In announcing the song’s premiere on her daytime talk show, Kate Smith declared, “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.”

For younger readers unfamiliar with Kate Smith, I offer this fact-packed biographical sketch:

kate smith

 

She was dubbed “The Songbird of the South” and would be forever etched in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans as a true American symbol of World War II, especially after giving voice to Irving Berlin‘s classic song “God Bless America.” Her inspiring rendition went on to sell millions of war bonds and even helped a hockey team in the 1970s win the Stanley Cup.

Singing patriot Kate Smith was born Kathryn Elizabeth Smith on May 1, 1907. As a child she showed a devoted interest toward singing and dancing, initially appearing in jazz nightclubs before opting for a standard music career.

Discovered by the famed singer/dancer Eddie Dowling, Kate made her Broadway debut in his musical comedy “Honeymoon Lane” in 1926. Double-chinned and exceedingly heavyset, she served as the plump, singing slapstick foil to the star, and continued in that same predictable vein with the subsequent tour of “Hit the Deck” and in “Flying High” the 1930 Broadway show headlining Bert Lahr.

Unhappy at being made fun of in burlesque comedy and preferring to focus on her natural singing ability, Kate quickly joined forces with Columbia Records vice president Ted Collins who subsequently became her partner, protector and manager. Pointing her in the direction of radio, Kate made her debut in 1931 and her stardom was secured by year’s end. She went on to break the record for longevity at the renown Palace Theatre.

Her radio celebrity prompted a guest cameo role in the Paramount musical film The Big Broadcast (1932) singing what would become her signature piece “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” (she had co-written the lyrics). This, in turn, led to her first and only film vehicle. In Hello, Everybody! (1933), Kate Smith literally played Kate Smith, a meek, plus-sized radio singer who unabashedly tends to her farm in between jobs while losing the man of her dreams (‘Randolph Scott’) to her svelte-looking sister, played by Sally Blane. As expected, Kate’s character finds true happiness not in the arms of a man but in the helping and caring of others.

True to form, Kate never married. Realizing she was not at all film material, Kate wisely stuck with radio and recordings, appearing in a film only one other time–as a guest singing “God Bless America” in the Warner Bros. star-studded variety show This Is the Army (1943).

She began making records in 1926 and over the years her best-selling hits would include “River, Stay ‘Way From My Door” (1931), “The Woodpecker Song” (1940), “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1941), “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (1942), “There Goes That Song Again” (1944), “Seems Like Old Times” (1946), “Now Is the Hour” (1947) and “How Great Thou Art (1965).

Kate had one of the most popular radio variety shows with “The Kate Smith Hour”, which aired weekly from 1937-1945. At the same time she fronted the top daytime radio show with the midday “Kate Smith Speaks,” a news and commentary program. She made a grand and memorable entrance at Carnegie Hall in 1963 and performed for Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops in 1967.

Television was also a successful medium for the singing star with a Monday-Friday afternoon variety show “The Kate Smith Hour,” which ran four years from 1950. The show proved so popular that NBC handed her the prime time “Kate Smith Evening Hour” as well. A variety show favorite, she appeared for Ed SullivanTennessee Ernie FordJack PaarDean MartinAndy WilliamsTony Orlando, and Carol Burnett.

During her last productive decade, she gave live concerts and performed in clubs all over the country. Illness would intervene in the 1970s and diabetes forced her to retire, eventually crippling her and confining her to a wheelchair. She died of major complications in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 17, 1986. [Paragraph breaks added.]

– IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / gr-home@pacbell.net

Below are two recordings of Kate Smith as she performs God Bless America. The first video is of her very first performance in 1938. The second is of what might be her last recorded public performance in 1976.

Enjoy; Happy Independence Day, and God bless America.

 

Kate Smith, 1938

 

Kate Smith, 1976

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4 Comments
  1. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    In grades 1 and 2, I walked home to have lunch. I knew it was time to go back to school when Kate Smith had finished singing “God Bless America.” Thanks for this lovely tribute and trip down memory lane.

  2. joseph permalink

    Preparation for war. Hitler invades Poland in 1939.

  3. Nice memories…thanks for the post…As a young boy growing up in upstate NY, I had several opportunities to meet her when she visited her sister, who lived in our neighborhood…Kate was, of course, “famous” and it was a huge deal to meet such a warm, wonderful, classy lady who we saw regularly on television (usually at a friends’ house as our family didn’t have a TV…imagine that🙂

  4. Your posts do so much to keep our minds and spirits free. Thank You!
    “When the moon comes over the mountain
    Every beam brings a dream.”
    May our dreams become that beam that illuminates a new path for our USA Public Schools.

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