Keys to Success

On Thursday evenings at the Terranea Resort, a trio of musicians sits for a few sets of “background music” while guests and residents wander in and out of the lobby.

On Thursday evenings at the Terranea Resort, a trio of musicians sits for a few sets of “background music” while guests and residents wander in and out of the lobby.

Without much fanfare or advertisement, most of these passing patrons fail to realize they are in the presence of one of the finest jazz pianists of the last half-century, Paul Smith. “I play to two people, three people a night, but it’s nice to get down there to practice,” he says humbly, sitting comfortably in the living room of his Palos Verdes hilltop home. “There’s not a huge market for an 87-year-old pianist, but I still do it and I love it.”

Born in San Diego in 1922, Paul studied with a couple teachers before meeting the city organist, Royal Brown. “He was literally the guy who made me what I finally became, which was a studio pianist,” says Paul of his four years studying with Brown. Setting his sights on one day working for the movie studios, Paul learned how to orchestrate by himself and soon landed a few gigs with Johnny Richards, which led to a meeting with Ozzie Nelson. “Ozzie had a very popular dance band. The people went around the ballroom floor nicely, but they never stood under the band,” Paul notes. “I took one of my arrangements to him called ‘Rasputin’s Laundry.’ We were in Denver and he played this thing and all of a sudden all the people were standing around the bandstand keeping time. He said, ‘I don’t understand this stuff but write some more.’”

After Ozzie, he went on to become an arranger for the Red Skelton radio show before getting drafted into the army for three-and-a-half years, two of which were spent with a band. Sent to Germany as infantry, he was spared the front lines when his train stopped abruptly, sending him to the floor and his hand onto an opened can of Spam. The deep wound prevented him from firing a gun and he instead became a guard at one of Patton’s prison camps, his large frame making him desirable for the position. Once his injury healed, he spent the last years of the war playing in the 104th division band before heading back to San Diego in 1946.

After working with a trio for 85 bucks a week, Paul met another threesome, the Les Paul Trio, and joined them on the road as the opening act for the Andrew Sisters. “They were about as popular as the Beatles,” says Paul of the Andrew Sisters, whom he continued to work with before getting an introduction to play with Tommy Dorsey’s band. He recalls Dorsey throwing him chorus after chorus, 15 in all, at top tempo, seeing if the young pianist could keep up. Later on, the trombonist came over to Paul and said, “The old man wants to know if you want to join the band.” He accepted and played with them for a year-and-a-half.

Paul rehearses with Ella Fitzgerald

Eventually, Paul got his gig in the studios, as a rehearsal pianist for the dancers at Warner Bros. About the second week in, the head of the music department, Ray Heindorf, came wandering in and noticed Paul playing more than just counts. “What are you doing in here playing rehearsal piano when you play like that?” Heindorf asked him. “You should be with me in recording.” Paul said, “I’d love to be with you recording.”

While at Warner, an arranger friend, Frank Comstock, asked Paul for a record date with Doris Day. “He gave me an eight-bar solo that made my whole career,” says Paul, “Cause the right two guys were in the booth.” Those two guys were Dave Klein, the number one music contractor in town, and Paul Weston, head of Columbia Records. A few days after recording with Doris, Klein gave him a call. “I want you to drop that job. I’ll get you four radio shows within in a month…guaranteed,” he told him. “So I gambled and left Warner. He got me the Bing Crosby Kraft Music Hall, Red Skelton, and more. Then it’s been uphill from there,” Paul laughs. “Somehow I became Hollywood’s favorite pianist.”

Paul began working with Ella Fitzgerald on her composer albums for Verve Records. “We liked each other,” he remembers. “I took a lot of time to teach her the verses of the songs because she didn’t read music, but she had a great mind…you play it a few times and she got it.” That relationship would continue all the way to the early ’90s, playing numerous touring engagements over her later career. He also did 12 1/2-years on staff with NBC, playing for the Dinah Shore Show and other musical programs. All the while, he continued to record with some of music’s greatest talents, like Kay Starr on her hit album “Wheel of Fortune.” “I made a lot of hit records accidentally, I was just on the record playing piano.”

In the ’50s, Paul first met Annette Warren, a concert pianist and singer, who was the voice of Ava Gardner in Showboat and Lucille Ball in the Bob Hope pictures. At the time, he was married and she was engaged. They met again later, now both unattached, when she was singing at a club in Beverly Hills. “It was love at second sight,” he says. “We’ve been married 51 years.” Together they raised Paul’s two children from his first marriage, and an adopted son, who died tragically in a car accident as a young man. Since 1960, both he and Annette have called Palos Verdes home, a breath of fresh air from their years spent in Hollywood. Annette continues to teach voice lessons to students out of a studio in their home.

Paul (top center) with the Les Paul Trio, 1946

“You have about 20 years if you’re lucky…mine stopped in 1972,” says Paul of his studio career. He recalls the session where he was asked to “give eight-bars of wind on a synthesizer.” “All of a sudden I’m not a musician. I’m a sound effect operator,” he says. So, he told Annette he’d like to just to play piano and enjoy himself. Shortly after he got a call to do a few nights with Sammy Davis in Europe, which led to gigs in Vegas. “I had so much fun that I stayed on. Working with Sam was the most fun I’ve had playing. He was the best entertainer there was.”

Paul with Captain and Tennille, 1984

Paul continued working into the millennium, playing with Pat Boone and Steve Allen to name a few. “They were all tremendous people, you know. Tops in the business,” he gleams. Sent home with one of his jazz piano CD’s, I turn the volume up in my car radio as I roll though the Peninsula to his exuberant version of “Girl From Ipanema.” A pianist of incredible talent and skill who played with some of the best musicians of the 20th century, Paul Smith certainly deserves to be included on the “tremendous” list.

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