An examination of the not surprisingly large number of people named Ben Smith credited with doing things on recordings reveals that one of the earliest born was also one of the most prolific. Some subtracting needs to take place in references such as Tom Lord's massive jazz discography, however, since there is a tendency to assume Ben Smith the reed player born in 1905 and Ben Smith the drummer who worked with bandleaders such as Wayne Horvitz in the '80s are the same person, which they are not.
The former Smith is considered a historic jazz artist with early activities involving intriguing bands whose legendary status is based on historic accounts and word of mouth but not any actual recorded documentation. Smith began his professional career with various local bands on the Memphis jazz scene of the '20s. He had begun to hit the road with territory bands as well as carnival acts as well by the middle of that decade, the former list including the Connor and McWilliams Boston Serenaders, William Holloway and the Merrymakers, and Eli Rice's Plantation Cotton Pickers. Smith's travels took him through Texas, Omaha, and Kansas City. He began leading his own bands in the latter jazz mecca as well as joining forces with the talented George E. Lee in 1930.
By 1932 Smith was working out of Pennsylvania, fronting his own White Hut Orchestra as well as gigging with Blanche Calloway and Charlie Gaines. Smith's talents as an organizer of recorded musical events came to the fore during this period. He put together a series of sessions for Washboard, in this case a record company and not a percussion instrument, usually fitting himself into whatever instrumental lineup was featured such as the Washboard Rhythm Kings. He would return to this sort of enterprise with his own label in the '50s as well as branching out into a service providing arranging and copying.
Smith arrived in New York City in 1934. In the next few years his was a reliable face in various classic jazz ensembles, working with saxophonist, arranger, and composer Benny Carter, noted Kansas City jazz pianist and bandleader Claude Hopkins, and entertaining trumpeter Hot Lips Page. During the '40s Smith tried to keep the focus on his own bands but was still featured as a sideman with Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk, Snub Mosley, and others. The picturesque "I Dreamt I Dwelled in Harlem" is the most widely recorded title in this artist's catalog of original compositions.