Kate Smith never took a voice lesson. There seemed to be no need. As early as age 8, she was singing for the troops at WWI Army camps in the Washington DC area where she grew up.
Her dad insisted Kate attend nursing school, but she quit after a few months and opted instead for a singing gig at Keith’s Theater. By age 17, she was on Broadway in the musical comedy “Honeymoon Lane.” But her next role, that of Pansy Sparks in “Flying High” in 1930, demoralized her. Not only did the script give her little chance to sing, it also included jokes about Smith’s weight (then around 200 pounds), delivered by co-star Bert Lahr.
Radio to the rescue.
Twenty-two-year-old Smith didn’t hesitate to accept the offer of her own radio show. Kate Smith Sings debuted in 1931, soon followed by the midday Kate Smith Speaks, a news and commentary program. Further success came with her popular radio variety show, The Kate Smith Hour, which aired weekly from 1937-1945, and then moved to television.
For her Armistice Day radio broadcast, November 11, 1938, Smith wanted to sing something new, something patriotic and inspiring for her listeners. She liked to say that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” especially for her to use on that occasion.
Well, not exactly.
Berlin had actually composed “God Bless America” in 1918, when he was an Army sergeant stationed at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island. Accustomed to working on his music well into the night, then sleeping late the next morning, he was ill-suited to the military routine. His superiors took pity, and assigned Berlin the task of staging a show to raise funds for a new visitors’ center at the base. He titled his musical Yip Yip Yaphank.
The revue burst with dancing and singing, including “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a song that neatly summed up Berlin’s feeling about Army hours:
Someday I’m going to murder the bugler
Someday they’re going to find him dead
I’ll amputate his reveille and stomp upon it heavily
And spend the rest of my life in bed!
Berlin wrote “God Bless America” as the closing number for Yip, but changed his mind and substituted “We’re On Our Way to France.”
Twenty years later, when Smith asked Berlin for a special Armistice Day song, he gave her “God Bless America,” with only minor changes to the lyrics.
Her alto voice as sturdy as her physique, Smith reassured the nation with her stirring rendition of “God Bless America.” She went on to sing it at bond rallies during WWII, raising $600 million in war bonds over her lifetime.
The original radio broadcast of Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America” is available on YouTube. Here’s how she recreated it in the 1943 Warner Bros. movie This Is the Army:
Nobody could belt out a song quite like Kate Smith. Except perhaps Ethel Merman, who never took a voice lesson either.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.