I was a very young audio engineer working at RKO Sound Studios in Manhattan when Kate Smith called the studio. I didn’t take the call. That was done in another part of the company. All I knew was a lady singer and her accompanist were coming into the studio. There was no pre-booking so they knew the piano was not tuned, and they didn’t care.
Into the studio walked Kate Smith. I knew of her. She wore a black dress with appliqué around the collar. She looked a little like my Aunt Anna. I had heard her voice on all the ball games and saw her on many a TV show. WOW, here she was. She said she was coming into the studio to record a song she had recorded before. She said there were “some copyright issues” with a song. I didn’t know what she meant, but I proceeded to record her.
I set a mic for her and the piano, and went directly to analog tape. She proceeded to sing. I had heard that voice before. It took one take. She performed “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, perfectly. She sang perfectly in tune even though the piano was not. She said she had what she wanted, and I stopped recording.
Then, all of a sudden, and to my surprise, she started to tell a “Borscht Belt” joke, on the vocal mic, to her piano accompanist and me. This is the kind of joke Jews tell about themselves. I started the recorder again but missed the first few words. She was clearly not experienced in telling this kind of joke, but plowed on through. Only the piano player and I heard it. She seemed to take delight in the telling. Being Jewish myself, I sensed no anti-Semitic feelings during the telling of the joke, nor during the session.
She sang what my father said was “his favorite song”, so I asked her if I could take a copy. She said yes, so she and I both had a copy. Really a treat.
42 years later, in 2009, I ran across information on the web on how big a star Kate Smith was. She was a huge star. Kate Smith sold more US War Bonds than any other performer. She had a leading nationwide radio show, as important then, as Oprah is today. She was repeatedly named one of the most popular women in America. She recorded almost 3000 songs, more that any other popular singer. She introduced more than 1000 songs, of which 600 became hits. After radio, she hosted a TV show. It lasted for five years. When the network canceled her show, it received 400,000 viewer complaints for cancellation. She was a star, and as a recording artist, Kate Smith was as big as Oprah and Elvis combined.*
This research into her life made me remember I had this old recording in my tape library. At the time of the recording, I had told Ms. Smith, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” “is my father’s favorite song” and asked if I could take home a personal copy. She said yes, and there it was, still sitting on a shelf in storage.
During my further research on the Internet, I noticed that sometimes her name was left off the copyright of that song. I also read about some jealousy of her talents. She was not only one of the songwriters but she was also the performer and the celebrity with her own radio then television, talk and performance shows. “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” was the theme song that introduced all of her radio broadcast. I also noticed that the song was very short and often began with the chorus, leaving off the introduction. The introduction was taken from a poem she had written. It all came together as a thought. I came up with the thought, that those many years ago, the first four lines of “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain”, were Kate Smith’s contribution. She had written those lines, and she wanted to be acknowledged for it.
As for the Borscht Belt joke, I had also read that some thought Kate Smith was anti-Semitic.* As far as I’m concerned, she never would have tried to tell that joke if she had one anti-Semitic bone in her body.
- My recorded version of “When the Moon Comes Over The Mountain”
- My recording of her Borsched Belt Joke
*Facts about her life are from internet articles and not verified.