Smith Ballew was born in Palestine, Texas in 1902—the youngest of five children. He studied music at the University of Texas, and while there he and his brother Charlie joined Jimmy’s Joys, a jazz group led by their friend Jimmy Maloney. They recorded some songs for Golden Records in California; the songs sold well, but Smith decided to form his own group, The Texajazzers. When that proved to be only a regional success, he joined forces with pianist Dick Voynow to form the Wolverines Orchestra. Ben Pollack, a more successful band leader, invited Ballew to join his group after seeing the Wolverines play in Chicago. It was only at this point that Smith Ballew was encouraged to sing; he had only played banjo until then.
An unfulfilled offer to play in Ted Fio Rito’s new group in New York City found Ballew stuck in a new town with no job and no money. While busking in 1928, he was discovered by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who introduced him to other notables like Joe Venuti, and soon Smith was on his way to singing with Fred Rich’s orchestra at the Astor Hotel, followed by radio appearances and, by 1929, recording with his own orchestra for Okeh Records.
“Painting the Clouds With Sunshine” is a perfect example of the popular culture’s urge to always look on the bright side, of faking happiness until you make it. It’s also a good example of how the singing section of a song was shorter than what we are accustomed to today. The vocals don’t start until almost a third of the way into the song, and they’re finished by the halfway point. The orchestra was thus allowed to reinterpret the melody as the bandleader as saw fit.
By 1931, the depression had made recording dates harder to come by; fortunately Ballew was able to find work with Columbia Records. Here he is, reunited with Fred Rich, singing a song that would become much more famous in the 1940’s.
By 1936, radio and recording work had dried up even further, and Ballew had moved on to Hollywood, reinventing himself as a singing cowboy. From Roll Along, Cowboy, here is “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle.”
Nice and smooth. A pleasant listen. It’s interesting, though, that Smith would continue to have success as a singing cowboy well into the 1950’s when, in fact, he sounds like he’d still be more comfortable at the Astor Hotel than out on the range. Take a listen to Gene Autry’s version and you’ll see what I mean.
See? That had a good, solid, twang to it. Ballew and Autry were both from Texas, but the former was just more comfortable singing in a commercial, urbane style. To take things even further, and just because he was awesome, here is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ version.
But what, you may ask, of Ballew’s B side? Well, a video of his version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” could not be found. However, here is a version recorded the same year as Smith’s—Nick Lucas, singing in The Gold Diggers of Broadway, a wonderful example of two strip (that’s just red and green) Technicolor.
The song was, of course, made famous in later years by this creepy fellow.
Smith Ballew retired from show business sometime in the 1950’s, and instead went into public relations for jet airplane manufactuer General Dynamics. He died in 1984, back home in Texas.