Smokey Smith

2008 - Matousek Lifetime Achievement Award

Although Smokey Smith has his roots firmly planted in country music, he brought the first Elvis Presley concert to Iowa in 1956. He was not only a promoter, but a radio personality, performer, and recording artist. Smokey booked hundreds of shows at KRNT Theatre in Des Moines as well as at the Iowa State Fair and venues throughout the Midwest as well as booking frequent tours to Nashville and other cities.

The first Elvis concert in Iowa occurred in May, 1956 at Veterans Auditorium. Smokey characterized the show as “financially not a happy time for me” because graduation parties ended up being a big source of competition. “Those parties were pulling people who Elvis appealed to the most. Parents were a little reluctant to let kids be exposed to Elvis’ style of dancing although a few did attend the show. The crowd we had was in seventh heaven,” Smokey said.

The Iowa press also had not looked too favorably on Elvis with his radical style of dancing. The 1956 tour was his first into the North, all dates booked a day or two apart. The tour was sponsored by A.V. Bamford, owner of a radio station in San Antonio; a DJ Smokey worked with in concert promotions. According to Smokey, Elvis was 100% a gentleman. “Always yes sir, yes ma’am, and very humbled by being the center of attention,” according to Smokey.

Born Feb. 12, 1922 in Kansas City, MO, Smokey Smith landed his first radio job as a singer and guitar picker for Ted West and his Range Riders in 1938 at WREN in Lawrence, KS. He went on to California in 1940 where he had live and deejay shows on KYOR in San Diego. Smokey and his band, The Gold Coast Boys, cut transcribed shows in San Diego for radio station XERB in Rosa Rita Beach, Mexico and other Mexican stations including XEG in Monterrey. He recorded for a time for Crystal Records.

His band recorded a version of Ted Daffen’s “I’m A Fool To Care” at Crystal and it did “pretty well,” according to Smokey. A Dallas radio station played three versions of the song by Gene Autrey, Smokey and Red Egner and asked listeners to vote for their favorite. The Gold Coast Boys’ version won the contest and the record sold over 50,000 copies.

In 1949, he went to work at KRNT in Des Moines where he continued doing live and deejay shows plus making personal appearances with his band all over Iowa and throughout the Midwest. Smokey began booking country and Grand Ole Opry shows at the KRNT Theater in Des Moines. Seating 4,172, the once-a-month bookings ran from September through May. The theater wasn't air conditioned, so it was impossible to do shows in the summertime.

Smokey then branched out by booking additional dates in civic auditoriums in such cities as Rochester, Minneapolis and Duluth, MN, Madison, WI, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Davenport, Sioux City and Burlington, IA, Fort Wayne, IN, and Denver, CO. A personal favorite was the Flame Café and Restaurant in Minneapolis, MN. There were two bands playing on most nights. After a Minneapolis civic auditorium concert, Smokey would get the stars over to the Flame to put on another show.

Smokey booked Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride on some of their first concert dates. For more than a year, he booked the country shows at the Arie Crown Theater in the McCormick Place in Chicago for WJJD. He had Buck Owens booked when the McCormick Place burned to the ground two weeks prior to the date. Smokey was able to switch venues to the Civic Opera House where it sold out. He had the first commercial live country TV show in Iowa on KRNT-TV in 1953. He also worked as a country deejay at KWDM in Des Moines, KNIA in Knoxville, IA and KWKY, Des Moines.

He served as a board member for the Country Music Disc Jockey Association, which later became the Country Music Association. Smokey was nominated for the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame in 1980, again in 1981 when he was beaten out by Charlie Walker. Nominated again in 1982, he and Bill Mack tied for the honor and both were inducted. Other Concerts: Smokey booked Wanda Jackson as a single when she first started out. Her father, Tom, traveled with her when she was on tour when she was in her early 20’s. Wanda later formed a band with Roy Clark as her guitar player. Smokey also booked Roy Clark, Brenda Lee, Gene Pitney, Waylon Jennings, The Everly Brothers and Carl Perkins, putting him into the Ponderosa Club south of Des Moines in the early 60s. Smokey’s band backed up Les Paul and Mary Ford. Les Paul loved the song “I’m A Fool To Care” after hearing Smokey play it. He later went on to record it.

Although retired, Smokey still visits the office that his daughter manages booking tours and travel out of Des Moines. For his lifetime of bringing music to Iowans and promoting musicians in other parts of the United States, Smokey Smith is a recipient of the IRRMA Dan Matousek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

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