Anyone reading this can be forgiven for not knowing much about Melvin Smith. Indeed, if more than a few thousand listeners even remember the name of "Looped," his most popular recording of the early '50s, that would be amazing. In a 15-year recording career, Smith never charted a record nationally; he wrote songs, but not one of them was a hit in any form for him or anyone else; he never sang with any bands that became famous; and he wasn't an influence -- so far as anyone knows -- on any major rock or R&B acts that followed in his wake.
None of that, however, means that his music isn't worth hearing or as enjoyable as any other R&B of the same era. Stylistically, he stood somewhere midway between Roy Brown and Louis Jordan, and aside from Piano Red, he was just about as strong an R&B singer as RCA had on its roster during the early '50s. It wasn't his "fault" that he never had a hit, and it is to RCA's credit that they stood by him through three years and 32 recorded sides.
Smith was born in Atlanta in 1936, the son of Samuel and Minnie Smith, fourth in a family of nine children. Samuel Smith, a truck driver, abandoned the family in the mid-'40s, and all nine children were raised by their mother, a hotel chambermaid. Melvin began listening to music at an early age, and among his favorite singers growing up were Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, and Jimmy Witherspoon. By the time he was in his early teens, Smith was winning talent contests in the Atlanta area and singing regularly with a group called the Arstell Allen Sextet.
In early 1951, a group of RCA-Victor executives came to Atlanta in search of talent to expand their R&B roster. They were referred to Smith, then 15 years old, and were suitably impressed. On January 11, 1951, Smith had his first recording date, fronting saxophonist/bandleader Clyde W. "Blow Top" Lynn and his House Rockers on four songs. Their first single, "Reliefin' Blues" backed with "School Boy Blues," was released to little notice in March of that year. Smith's career was now in high gear, with regular shows outside of Atlanta spaced in between odd jobs and school whenever he could fit it in -- he was finally expelled from school sometime in 1951. By the end of that year, he was known as "Little Melvin" and was singing with Tommy Brown's Maroon Notes. In the meantime, he recorded a further four songs with Lynn and his band in the spring of 1951.
The first resulting single, "Rampaging Mama" backed with "Real True Gal" (the latter co-written by Smith), also failed to chart. By January of 1952, Smith was back in the studio with a new band, in a session that generated the critically well-received but poor-selling Smith-authored "California Baby"/"Everybody's Got the Blues." RCA was still convinced that Smith had what it took to succeed, however, and in late March of 1952, they brought him to New York for a recording session with some of the top players of the period, including jazz legend Tyree Glenn on trombone, Taft Jordan on trumpet, Eddie Barefield on sax, and leader Howard Biggs at the piano. The result was Smith's most critically acclaimed single, "Looped," which managed to become a regional hit and elicited a rival cover version.
Somehow, "Looped" never broke out, and Smith and RCA were left to look back on another promising failure. The session did bring Smith to New York, however, and some very enjoyable and lucrative club dates. These were good times for Smith, despite his stagnant recording career, singing before bigger and more appreciative audiences than ever before.
Unfortunately, RCA saw the need to make some changes in Smith's sound, and his next sessions featured the presence of a trio of backup pop singers whose voices were too prominent for the song's own good. The single "Sarah Kelly (From Plumnelly)" flopped. Smith's recording career continued with RCA for another two years without any success, and he was finally dropped by the label in early 1954.
Smith was only 18 years old, however, and hardly done singing. He had moved to Philadelphia the previous year, and for the next decade, he fronted a quintet called the Nite Riders, whose membership included pianist/composer Van Walls ("Chains of Love"). He was signed to Apollo Records and later recorded for Sound/Teen, Swan, Cameo, and Sue Records. Smith and the group reached the pinnacle of their success in the late '50s, playing an extended engagement at the Wagon Wheel club in midtown Manhattan, and also enjoyed considerable popularity in Canada and Boston.
Smith continued working into the 1970s and early '80s with a variety of bands. In his late forties, at the beginning of the 1990s he decided to quit in favor of a federal civil service job while he still had his health and some good memories of a few great times and records of which he was proud.