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Pianist Paul Smith Dies at 91

Worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, Steve Allen, many others

Paul Smith

Paul Smith, a pianist and composer primarily known for his work behind singer Ella Fitzgerald, died June 29 in Torrance, Calif., at age 91. The cause was heart failure.

Smith also accompanied the Andrews Sisters, Tommy Dorsey, Les Paul, Bing Crosby, Dizzy Gillespie, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Sammy Davis Jr., Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore and others during his career, which lasted more than 70 years.

Born in San Diego in 1922, Smith studied piano from age 8 and played with his high school jazz band. He turned professional at age 19, playing with Johnny Richards’ band, then spent three years in the military before working with Paul and Dorsey into the late 1940s. As a studio musician in Los Angeles starting in 1949, he supplied piano for NBC and Warner Bros., and served for eight years as musical director for Shore’s TV program. His playing style has been compared to that of Bill Evans, Cole and Oscar Peterson.

Smith’s highest profile affiliation was with Fitzgerald. He worked with her as both pianist and conductor from 1955-78 and continued to make appearances with her until the early ’90s. He appears on eight of Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums as well as several other important recordings by the singer, including 1960’s Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin.

Smith also worked as the longtime musical director on Steve Allen’s television program. His credits also include associations with Stan Kenton, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Bellson, Jo Stafford, Anita O’Day and others.

Smith recorded numerous albums (more than 60, according to one account) as a leader for labels such as Capitol and Savoy jazz. He also contributed music to many film soundtracks and authored educational books and CDs. Smith was still performing until his death. He was married for 54 years to singer Annette Warren, who survives him, as do several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Originally Published