The wonderful voice of Keely Smith first got me in the mid 80s when I discovered her “I’m In Love Again” album. Back then in 1985, after a 20-year recording break, she was already at a stage in her career where, like other popular singers such as Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, or Tony Bennett, she had “arrived at that point in their lives where their credibility in reading a lyric cannot be denied”, according to liner notes writer William B. Williams from WNEW New York.
And it was in New York where I finally had the honor to interview her for a live radio broadcast fifteen years later. Here she was, ageless, timeless, a lovely and outspoken lady who remembered each and every detail of her illustrious career, her big success streak with her first husband Louis Prima in the 50s, the very popular Las Vegas years, her solo runs. When I started to check her early albums out, like “I Wish You Love” (1957), “Politely!” (1958), or “Swingin’ Pretty” (1959), I was hooked.
That special smokiness in her voice, combined with her dark, very mystical timbre, made her a one of a kind interpreter of the Great American Songbook who could set standards. On pieces like the title track to “I Wish You Love” or on “I’ll Never Smile Again” from “Politely!”, she could exhale a whole dramatic tale with just one syllable, just one word, just one phrasing. The four big band albums on Concord records which she released between 2000 and 2005, were masterpieces in swing.
On Saturday in Palm Springs, her heart stopped beating. Keely Smith was 89.