Chris Smith

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When he is remembered at all, Chris Smith receives momentary attention every time someone bothers to check and see who composed "Ballin' the Jack." His contribution to early jazz and the growth of the…
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When he is remembered at all, Chris Smith receives momentary attention every time someone bothers to check and see who composed "Ballin' the Jack." His contribution to early jazz and the growth of the entertainment industry, however, was more substantial than his subsequent obscurity would seem to imply. Following a period of involvement with an Afro-American medicine show, Smith teamed up with his boyhood chum Elmer Bowman (1879-1916). Their two-man vaudeville team was successful enough to warrant a move to New York, where Smith found plenty of work devising songs for some of the most eminently successful black entertainers. One lasting professional alliance was with lyricist Cecil Mack (aka R.C. McPherson). Smith's first notable success, "Good Morning, Carrie" was published in 1901. "Shame on You," the result of his collaboration with Jolly John Larkins, enjoyed some popularity in 1904. Smith and Mack cooked up "All in Down and Out" in 1906, and produced two hits in 1908: "Down Among the Sugar Cane" and "You're in the Right Church but the Wrong Pew." This last number, made popular by comedian Bert Williams, could very well be the source of "You've Got the Right String Baby but the Wrong Yo-Yo." 1909 found Smith working with lyricist Jim Burris. They concocted humorous ditties with noteworthy titles like "There's a Big Cry-Baby in the Moon," "Come After Breakfast, Bring 'Long Your Lunch and Leave 'Fore Supper Time," and "Transmagnificanbamdamuality (Or C-A-T Spells Cat)."

In 1910, Smith and Bert Williams collaborated on two songs specifically designed for Williams' inimitable stage presence: "Constantly," and "If He comes In, I'm Going Out." While the year 1911 only yielded something called "Honky Tonky Monkey Rag," during 1912 Smith and Bowman gave the world "That Puzzlin' Rag," "Beans, Beans, Beans," and "That Snakey Rag," (soon to be popularized by Fanny Brice), while Smith paired up with lyricist Jack Drislane to create the ballad "After All That I've Been to You." Hot music-wise, 1913 found Smith at the peak of his powers, for it was during this year that he composed "Fifteen Cents," set words to Luckey Roberts' electrifying "Junk Man Rag," and brought about a few preliminary tremors of the Jazz Age by introducing "Ballin' the Jack," an authentic fox trot with lyrics by Jim Burris. One reason the song caught on so quickly was due to the effect upon the public of a red-hot instrumental rendition, presented by James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra. Coasting on the success of this archetypal stomp, in 1915 Smith published "Keep It Up," closely basing this tune upon its famous predecessor. In 1916, Smith wrote "Down in Honky Tonk Town," "Never Let the Same Bee Sting You Twice," and "San Francisco Blues," which was his first commercial venture in that idiom, placing him in league with W.C. Handy as a pioneer of published blues.

As jazz erupted throughout the world, Smith managed to slip in several hot notions of his own. 1921's "I've Got My Habits On," written in collaboration with Jimmy Durante, enjoyed wide circulation in the form of a player piano roll by James P. Johnson. In 1924, Smith trundled out a tune with the vestigially vaudevillian title "If You Sheik on Your Mama, Your Mama's Gonna Sheba on You." But the biggest surprise was yet to come: On December 18, 1929 Fats Waller & His Buddies recorded Chris Smith's "Lookin' for Another Sweetie," a lovely exercise in wistfulness sung with sentimental passion by Orlando Roberson. Within a few years, that unforgettable melody was hijacked, only to reappear with new lyrics under the title "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," now credited to Doc Daugherty, Al J. Neiburg and Ellis Reynolds. What happened here? Was Smith bought out? Or did he completely fall out of the music business and lose control of his own catalog? The remaining years of his life are shrouded in mystery. Chris Smith passed away in New York City on October 4, 1949.