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Ethel Smith

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The widely acknowledged "First Lady of the Hammond Organ," Ethel Smith remains best remembered for her recording of the Argentine traditional "Tico-Tico," which sold close to two million copies during the mid-'40s. Born Ethel Goldsmith in Pittsburgh on November 22, 1910, she studied music and linguistics at Carnegie Tech, and upon graduation accepted a job playing piano with a local theater; when a Schubert show passing through the Iron City invited Smith to join their troupe, she soon embarked on a 28-week U.S. tour, eventually landing in California. There she was first asked to play the Hammond electric organ on a Hollywood studio lot — virtually overnight she seemed to master the instrument, and in 1940 she was tapped for a headlining gig at New York's St. Regis Hotel. While at the St. Regis, Smith received a call from Hammond Studios: the owners of Rio de Janeiro's famed Copacabana Club were looking for a female organist to headline a 26-week engagement. In all she remained in Brazil for about a year, immersing herself in the local musical culture and traditions.

While strolling through one of Rio's seedier districts, Smith stumbled on a local dancehall combo performing a song she'd never heard before; intrigued, the musicians explained the song was a traditional Argentine favorite, although its name and composer were unknown. Dubbing the tune "Tico-Tico," she incorporated it into her act, and it quickly became a crowd favorite. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hastened Smith's return to the U.S. and the St. Regis, where one evening she was approached by George Washington Hill, the head of the American Tobacco Company. Hill had caught Smith's show at the Copacabana and now invited her to join the radio blockbuster Your Hit Parade — she accepted, becoming one of the show's highest-paid performers. In 1944, she recorded "Tico-Tico," which would go on to rank among the best-selling hits of the decade; that same year, Smith also made her film debut, appearing opposite Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty. Subsequent film appearances include 1945's George White's Scandals and 1946's Cuban Pete, which starred Desi Arnaz.

With her bright, colorful dresses, omnipresent hats, and trademark high-heels, Smith cut a glamorous figure indeed, and in 1945 she made headlines by marrying actor Ralph Bellamy, then appearing on Broadway in State of the Union. The couple split two years later, and Smith rededicated herself to her performing career, becoming almost as proficient on guitar as she was on the Hammond. Although she never repeated the massive success of "Tico-Tico," she toured extensively during the 1950s and 1960s, and also continued her acting career, appearing in a series of non-musical roles in small off-Broadway plays. In 1969, Smith also enjoyed a brief run in a musical version of Tom Jones. But with the arrival of a new decade she retired from touring and settled in Palm Beach, FL, where she continued performing at local benefits and social engagements well into her eighties. Smith died at the age of 85 on May 10, 1996.


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