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Des Moines, IA
The country music industry lost a legendary member when Smoke Smith passed away at home on Monday, February 3, 2014, due to complications following two surgeries for a traumatic brain injury. The former local radio and television personality, entertainer, recording artist, promoter and owner of Smokey Smith Tours would have been 92 on February 12.
He was born on February 12, 1922, in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there he learned at an early age that singing and playing guitar created the perfect tempo for his life.
Smokey’s career began in California, which spanned most of the 1940’s as a recording artist and ballroom singer. It was there his reputation for constantly puffing on his favorite cigars earned him the lifelong and much preferred identity of “Smokey.”
He later migrated to Des Moines in 1950, becoming a popular entertainer and broadcast personality on KRNT Radio. When KRNT-TV (now KCCI) began airing in 1955, he had the area’s first live primetime country music television show. He later worked for local radio stations KWDM, KWKY and KNIA in Knoxville.
Smokey also promoted country music shows at KRNT Theater for 24 years. The early success of those events led him to include six other Iowa cities on his tours before expanding into six other states as well. This distinction earned him membership into an elite group of promoters known as “package show specialists” that controlled vast territory in their respective regions.
It wasn’t an easy task handling every last detail of every event, some bordering on catastrophic, from an occasional headline artist who didn’t show up to inclement weather which often did. Yet, adversity could never stifle that hair-trigger laugh so instantly recognizable even in a crowded room.
His tenacity proved to be the collateral earning him recognition as one of the premier promoters in the country. This wasn’t the only reason he also became an icon in Nashville’s entertainment community. Hiring every name act of the era would have probably qualified in itself, however, he also provided significant leadership in 1953 during creation of the Country Music Disc Jockeys Association.
By 1958 Smokey was serving as treasurer of the group and again displayed foresight in supporting a drive encouraging the membership to disband in favor of creating a much broader coalition known as the Country Music Association. He became one of the very first board members of the organization now recognized worldwide.
Smokey was a 33rd degree Freemason for 61 years, a 60-year member of the Knights Templar and the Za-Ga-Zig Shrine. A sampling of his many awards includes the Johnny Cash Award of Merit; induction into both Nashville’s Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame and the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the. International Media Award presented by the Reunion of Professional Entertainers (ROPE) in Nashville and many other Iowa and regional awards..
The State Historical Society of Iowa honored him in 2011 by recognizing his many achievements with a special exhibit of personal memorabilia entitled “Smokey Smith: Iowa’s Mr. Country Music.” It was the first time the organization chose to honor an Iowa personality from the country music industry.
Smokey was always humbled by the special attention he received, even to the point of questioning whether he deserved it at times. To him, the crowning achievement in life was his family, especially the granddaughters and great grandchildren that simply knew him as “Papa.”
His huge success in life was only eclipsed by a gregarious persona best described by entertainer Wanda Jackson, who lovingly saw him as “kind of a Santa Claus figure with a cigar.” He had that that type of personality, too, she said, “always jovial and laughing all the time, just a happy guy.”