America has had many voices, and for a time one of the loudest was Kate Smith's. It was a big, warm, all-embracing voice, and it sang us sentimental songs, and heartbreak songs, and picker-uppers, and at least one invocation: "God Bless America."
The voice was effectively stilled long before Kate Smith's death yesterday, at 79, in Raleigh, N.C., of respiratory arrest, following years of illness. And yet Kate Smith's long career in records, radio and television was one marked by repeated comebacks after tragic setbacks. She became a resilient symbol, a national maternal beacon. We toughed it out together.
Her comebacks took many forms. In the late '60s, she proved herself hip and good-humored by appearing on the Smothers Brothers show and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." In the '70s, she became a good-luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers, who compiled an enviable record of wins when Kate Smith sang "God Bless America" at the Spectrum before their hockey games.
Her trademark tune on the radio was "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," which continues, "ev'ry beam brings a dream, dear, of you." But it was Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" that she introduced in 1938 and sang into the national consciousness, performing it in the film "This Is the Army" (with Ronald Reagan and George Murphy) and using it as the finale to such momentous personal appearances as a cheering, sold-out Carnegie Hall concert on Nov. 2, 1963.
The line that will be most quoted in the wake of her death was one spoken by FDR when he introduced her to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during a visit to the United States. Roosevelt said, "This is Kate Smith; this is America."
She was not only enormously popular; she was, indeed, enormous. She started her career as the target of fat jokes in Broadway comedies, and reportedly wept in her dressing room after some of those performances. Later, on good advice, she dropped the comedy and opened her arms and sang. In a way, her career came full circle, for in the '60s and '70s, her name became a stock reference in fat jokes by television comedians.
By then, though, she was able to discuss her weight matter-of-factly with interviewers, and more than once went on diets that would see her lose as much as 90 pounds. Once, after losing so much weight that no one recognized her, she told a reporter how she put the weight back on eating chocolate sundaes so that people would speak to her on the street again. She carried a photograph of her thinner self in her wallet.
Her size was surely no problem for her fans. Besides, a voice that huge had to come from somewhere; it was no mere peep. Despite its size and a tendency toward bombast, that voice was also capable of subtlety and tenderness. Maybe all us kids who grew up to the sound of Kate Smith's voice privately felt that this was what Mom would sound like if only Mom could sing. If all the Moms could sing together.
After becoming a star on radio, Kate Smith graduated to television in 1950 with "The Kate Smith Hour" and returned in 1960 with "The Kate Smith Show." In between, there were specials, like one on ABC in April of 1957 that featured guest stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Ed Wynn, Boris Karloff, Gertrude Berg -- and Benny Goodman.
Smith told an interviewer in 1966: "I waited and I watched television for five years before I went on. I waited until they had the bugs worked out. I watched what other performers did wrong, and then I profited by their mistakes."
By then, Kate Smith had already compiled a list of hardships and personal ordeals that would have crushed a more frail spirit. Her manager and mentor Ted Collins died in the early '60s, and soon after, Smith herself was badly injured in a fall through a glass shower door. In 1976 she suffered brain damage during a diabetic coma, and in 1980 news stories about Smith contained allegations that she had become the all-but-penniless victim of "mooching relatives."
This time, there would be no comeback, except for a brief personal appearance at the White House in 1982 to accept the Medal of Freedom from the president who'd been a costar four decades earlier. She was weak and thin and confined to a wheelchair. But something of the old plucky sparkle remained in her eyes. She wore a yellow corsage and pearls. President Reagan said, "Kate always sang from her heart, and so we always listened with our hearts."
On stage, Kate Smith stood regally, her hands clasped beneath her Wagnerian bosom; in one hand, sometimes, a then-ladylike handkerchief. She was of a performer generation that endeavored to give the audience all and then, still, a little more, and she smiled a broad, buoyant, bolstering smile. When she got to the finale, she belted it out with unapologetic gusto. You always felt the microphone would tumble to the floor from the sheer force of her voice.
American music has suffered grievous losses in the past week: Benny Goodman, Alan Jay Lerner, Kate Smith. Miss Smith never learned to rock and roll, and she could rarely if ever be caught singing the blues. Whatever the opposite of the blues is, that's what she sang. She was from a time in which a performer completing a musical variety show on television would always thank us for the privilege of coming into our homes.
Should the moon come over the mountain tonight, there's little doubt what ev'ry beam will bring a memory of -- at least for those old enough to remember: A smile, a song and a voice mountain-sized if not moon-sized. It was a voice that picked you up. It was a voice that filled you up.
The verse to Berlin's anthem goes: "While the storm clouds gather, far across the sea, we will pledge allegiance, to a land that's free. Let us all be grateful, for a land so fair, as we raise our voices, in a solemn prayer." This was Kate Smith. This was America.