Paul Smith dies at 91; jazz pianist, arranger, composer

Paul Smith, a jazz pianist, arranger-composer and music director for stars such as Sammy Davis Jr., Anita O’Day, Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, the Andrews Sisters, Sarah Vaughan and Rosemary Clooney, has died. He was 91.

Smith died of heart failure Saturday at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center, publicist Alan Eichler said.

At 6 feet 5, with hands that easily spanned the piano keyboard well beyond octaves, Smith was an impressive sight on stage. Playing with a versatility comparable to that of Oscar Peterson and a harmonic richness similar to the work of Bill Evans, he was both a brilliant soloist and an accompanist who was highly praised by the many singers with whom he performed.

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His initial solo album, “Liquid Sounds,” is the first of numerous convincing examples of his impressive musical skills. Fluent with jazz, classical music and beyond, he moved from genre to genre with ease.


“Paul was a perfectionist and worked every day to improve his art,” said jazz singer Lyn Stanley, for whom Smith was a mentor, an accompanist and a close friend. “When you worked with him, he expected the same of you.”

For more than 25 years Smith was the pianist and music director for the “The Steve Allen Comedy Hour.” “What Paul Smith does with two hands would ordinarily take three. He does the impossible,” Allen — himself a pianist and jazz fan — once said.

Smith recorded more than five dozen albums — many of which are still available — as a leader of his own groups. As a much-favored accompanist, he recorded with singers and musicians of extraordinarily diverse styles, including Tony Martin, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Pat Boone, Nat “King” Cole, Pearl Bailey and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others. He worked for more than 11 years as a pianist and conductor with Ella Fitzgerald, and four with Sammy Davis Jr.

“You know,” Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991, “an accompanist has to be selfless — he has to put his ego on the shelf and make the vocalist sound better than she would without him. But with Ella that was no problem.” Their musical relationship was a fulfilling creative experience for both, with Smith playing on many of Fitzgerald’s critically praised, classic “songbook” albums.

In addition to his far-reaching activities as an accompanist and solo artist, Smith spent many years as a studio musician, performing and arranging for film and television scores and a wide range of recordings. Among many other assignments, he was a staff pianist at Warner Bros. and NBC, appearing on Dinah Shore’s TV variety show for eight years. But, unlike many musicians, he enjoyed the challenges and the opportunities of studio work.

“I liked the studio work because I could stay at home,” he told the Idaho Statesman in 2006. “I enjoyed the variety of music, not just playing the same 34 songs every night. Accompanying every kind of singer — jazz, country, bossa nova — was a lot more fun than sitting in a club every night.”

Smith was also active as a teacher and educator, training established professionals as well as eager novices. He wrote piano method books, covering styles reaching from boogie-woogie and bebop to ballads and accompaniment techniques.

Smith was born in San Diego on April 17, 1922. He began studying classical piano music at 8, had his own band in high school and was still in his teens when he became a working professional with the Johnny Richards band in 1941.

After playing with a military band led by Ziggy Elman during World War II, he joined the Les Paul Trio in 1946. Shortly thereafter, he worked with the Tommy Dorsey Band as a pianist-arranger in 1947-48 before moving to Hollywood in 1949 and becoming an active studio musician.

“My father told me when I was young,” he told The Times in 1994, “that since I was going to have to work a very long time, choose something I enjoyed and I’d never have to work a day in my life. I’m 72 and I still enjoy playing.”

Smith was an active player until his death. He was scheduled to perform with his wife, singer and pianist Annette Warren, at Catalina Bar & Grill jazz club in mid-July.

For the past four years, Smith and Warren toured with a show titled “A Marriage of Music and Mirth.” They also recorded several albums together, including the appropriately titled “His and Hers.”

Besides his wife of 54 years, Smith is survived by their daughter, actress Lauri Johnson, sons Gary and Paul, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.