The "Songbird of the South," vocalist Kate Smith was one of the most popular stars of the pre-World War II era; she remains best remembered for her definitive version of the patriotic anthem "God Bless America," which became a hit on no less than three separate occasions. Born Kathryn Elizabeth Smith in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 1907, she initially trained to be a nurse but began singing professionally during the early 1920s, soon relocating to New York to pursue roles in vaudeville and on Broadway, where she appeared in Honeymoon Lane in 1926. The owner of a thunderous contralto, Smith signed to Columbia in 1927, debuting with "One Sweet Letter From You," backed by Red Nichols' Charleston Chasers. In 1931 she began hosting her own radio show; its theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," subsequently became her first major hit, selling some 19 million copies.
In 1932, Smith scored her second smash with "River, Stay 'Way from My Door," recorded with Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians; they later backed her on "Too Late," another Top Ten success issued that same year -- in all, she recorded two dozen hits for Columbia between 1927 and 1946. While American listeners looked to Smith for assurance throughout the Depression era, she became an icon in 1938, when she recorded Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" for Victor; within a year its success established it as a kind of unofficial national anthem, and upon the United States' entrance into WWII it re-entered the charts in both 1940 and 1942. In addition to her radio popularity, Smith also appeared in films, starring in The Big Broadcast of 1932 and This Is the Army in 1943; from 1951 to 1954, she also hosted an afternoon television program. Smith remained active after the 1964 death of her longtime manager Ted Collins. She began suffering from poor health a number of years later, and died from diabetes on June 17, 1986. ~ Jason Ankeny