Warren Smith isn’t a name people just know off of the top of their heads. Most everyone it seems, knows Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Even if they aren’t great fans of the music, people generally know these guys’ names. Warren Smith is a name that gets by most of us.
Warren Smith–Auditions for Sun Records
Smith was born in Mississippi and started playing guitar to ward off boredom while stationed in Texas, in the United States Air Force. When he was discharged from the service, Smith moved to West Memphis, Arkansas to pursue a career in music. After a successful audition at the Cotton Club–not THE Cotton Club in Harlem–this Cotton Club was a local, Arkansas night spot–Steel guitarist Stan Kessler, who was playing at the nightclub with the Snearly Ranch Boys, took Smith to Sun Records to audition for Sam Phillips, with the Snearly Ranch Boys as his band.
Phillips liked Smith’s sound. “Rock & Roll Ruby”–a song credited to Johnny Cash–would be Smith’s first Sun recording. Smith later claimed that George Jones actually wrote “Rock & Roll Ruby” and sold to Cash for $40, but that is a story for a different time.
Warren Smith–Rock & Roll Ruby Out-Debuts Some of the Greats
Smith recorded “Rock & Roll Ruby” on February 5, 1956. “Rock & Roll Ruby” hit No. 1on the local pop charts. Smith’s first Sun Records recording went on to outsell the first Sun releases by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.
Warren Smith–Ubangi Stomp
In August 1956, Smith went back to the Sun Records studio to record his second release, “Ubangi Stomp”. This catchy, rollicking song had a politically-incorrect lyric including an African chief with the the grammar syntax of a bad movie Indian. “Ubangi Stomp” would almost certainly not be well-received today, and in fact, could be condemned racist by the more sensitive listener, but in the ’50s, people weren’t paying attention to that sort of thing. Besides, it is still a fun song.
For the B side, Smith recorded the classic 18th century British ballad, “Black JackDavid”. This English folk song had survived for generations in various forms in the mountain communities of the American south, and may be the oldest song ever recorded by a rock and roll performer. Although it was a great artistic success, “Black Jack David” did not sell anywhere near as well as “Rock & Roll Ruby”.
In 1957, Smith recorded “So Long, I’m Gone”, a song written by Roy Orbison. It did become Smith’s biggest hit at Sun, peaking at No. 74 nationally on the Billboard charts, but Sun had no cash to promote it at the time. Sam Phillips was putting every dollar Sun had behind Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”.
Although Smith continued to make rockabilly records for Sun, including a cover version of Slim Harpo’s “Got Love if You Want It”, which was recorded in October 1957, none of these records did well commercially. Toward the end of 1958, Smith, seeing his future in country music, cut a cover version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Sweet Girl”. It was Smith’s final record for Sun. In spite of a review in Billboard calling it “ultra commercial”, this record also failed to sell. Like other artists such as Sonny Burgess, Hayden Thompson, Billy Lee Riley and Ray Harris, chart success largely eluded him. Smith then decided to leave Sun Records.
In 1959, Smith and his wife and son moved from Mississippi to California, settling in Sherman Oaks, not far from Johnny and Vivian Cash. Cash offered Smith a spot on his show, but Smith turned it down, seeing himself as a headliner, not a supporting player. In early 1960, Smith signed with Liberty Records, and immediately scored a hit with “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today”, which went to Number 5 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. This record, and Smith’s subsequent records, were produced by Joe Allison, and featured one of California’s best country session musicians, Ralph Mooney, on pedal steel guitar. Smith scored again with his next record for Liberty, “Odds and Ends, Bits and Pieces”, written by Harlan Howard. Liberty had Smith record several more tracks, mostly cover versions of recent country hits, to flesh out an album called The First Country Collection of Warren Smith.
Smith continued to record with some success for Liberty, and to tour with his band, from 1960–1965. On August 17, 1965, Smith was involved in a serious car accident in LaGrange, Texas, and suffered serious back injuries from which it took him nearly a year to recover. By this time, his contract with Liberty had lapsed. Smith made several attempts to restart his career, first with a small, virtually amateur label called Skill Records, then for Mercury Records; but addictions to pills and alcohol held him back. Eventually, Smith’s drug problems led to an 18-month term in an Alabama prison for robbing a pharmacy.
After his release from prison, Smith continued to struggle to restart his career. In the late 1970s, he got a bit of a boost from the rockabilly revival then occurring. In 1977, he was invited to appear at London’s Rainbow Theatre, on a bill featuring Charlie Feathers, Buddy Knox and Jack Scott. To his shock, Smith was received in London with standing ovations. His reception in England boosted his spirits and, upon his return to the U.S., he began to perform with new-found vigor. In November 1978, Smith and fellow Sun alumnus Ray Smith toured Europe, again to great success.
In 1980, while preparing for another European tour, Smith died of a heart attack at 47 years of age.
Smith’s contribution to rockabilly music has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan has repeatedly featured Smith on his XM Satellite Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, playing Smith’s records “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache”, “Uranium Rock”, “Ubangi Stomp” and “So Long, I’m Gone”. Dylan recorded a studio version of “Red Cadillac & A Black Moustache” in 2001 and also played that song and “Uranium Rock” in concert in 1986.
Warren Smith still isn’t a name a lot of people are familiar with. To the rockabilly enthusiast, however, Warren Smith isn’t someone to let slip from your attention too long. Virtually unknown or not, Warren Smith has earned his place at the table.