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SMITH, WILLIAM ARTHUR [MAJOR BILL]

SMITH, WILLIAM ARTHUR [MAJOR BILL] (1922–1994). William Arthur “Major Bill” Smith was a Fort Worth record producer and music empresario who had several hit records in the early 1960s. Smith was a relentless self-promoter who seemed disinclined to let the facts get in the way of a good story, making the accounts of his life he told to various interviewers of somewhat dubious veracity. His bombastic manner earned him a reputation as a con man and hustler, but his savvy marketing instincts also made him a notable force in the recording industry.

Smith was born on a farm in Checotah, Oklahoma, on January 21, 1922, and grew up listening to country performers such as Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers as well as gospel music. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Smith worked at a bomber factory before joining the United States Army Air Corps. During the war he was stationed in Molesworth, England, and flew a number of missions over Germany in B-17 bombers and reportedly achieved the rank of major before being shot down and wounded. In 1946 he was assigned as a public relations officer at Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base. While there, he claimed to have been inspired to write the song “Twenty Feet of Muddy Water” after overhearing a visiting navy photographer describing a particularly difficult assignment. The tune became a hit for Sonny James in 1956.

Smith told a British interviewer that while on convalescent leave in Houston he began working in promotion for Don Robey, the head of Duke-Peacock Records, for whom he also produced occasional recordings by local artists such as rhythm-and-blues singer Joe Hinton and rockabilly Doodle Owens on Robey’s Back Beat subsidiary. Smith claimed to have played a significant role in turning “So Tough” by the Casuals into Robey’s first rock-and-roll hit; supposedly he traveled to Philadelphia and bribed Dick Clark’s producer with a box of steaks to get the song played on American Bandstand.

Smith resigned from the military by the late 1950s and entered into a producing partnership with pianist and songwriter George Campbell in Fort Worth. He founded the first of his many independent record labels, called Le Cam (“Le” for Smith’s wife Letitia and “Cam” for Campbell).

Smith had regional hits with such local acts as the Team-Mates, Ace Dinning, and the Straightjackets, led by a youthful Delbert McClinton. He also claimed to have turned down a singer named John Deutschendorf, who later changed his name to John Denver. Smith’s first national success came in 1962, however, with “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel (born Bruce McMeans in Jackonsville, Texas), which prominently featured McClinton’s harmonica. “Hey! Baby” rose to Number 1 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart, and McClinton’s playing supposedly influenced John Lennon of the Beatles, whose first hit “Love Me Do” featured a McClintonesque harmonica part.

Smith had another huge hit the following year. The story is that Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson, two young students at Howard Payne College, drove to Fort Worth from Brownwood and showed up at the studio on a day when the scheduled singer didn’t show. They played Smith their song “Hey Paula”; Smith decided to record it on the spot, and issued it on Le Cam credited to “Jill and Ray.” Mercury Records picked it up for national distribution on their Philips subsidiary but decided to change their names to “Paul and Paula”; the song hit Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1963.

Smith’s third smash hit (Number 2 on the charts) was the lachrymose “Last Kiss,” a song originally written by Wayne Cochrane and performed by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. The remake, on Smith’s Josie label, hit the charts in September 1964, shortly before Wilson was seriously injured in an automobile accident.

Smith’s last hit was “If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go,” by the Ron-Dels (McClinton’s old Straightjackets, reformed under a new name), which made the Hot 100 in 1965. Thereafter, Smith issued a variety of recordings—by Johnny Copeland, Bobby Skel, Pic and Bill, Willie Hobbs, and Billy Mills, among others—on a variety of labels—Charay, Soft, Shalimar, Manco, Shah, and Billie Fran, among others—with modest regional success. He also kept himself in the public eye by running unsuccessfully for the school board (advocating a formal curriculum in rock-and-roll) and the city council.

Those who worked with Smith did not necessarily recall the experience fondly. McClinton called him a “crooked old bastard” and added, “I’ve spent years trying to outdistance the stigma that afflicts anybody who has ever been associated with Major Bill.” Larry Roquemore, the vocalist for Larry and the Blue Notes, who recorded for Smith in the mid-1960s, recalled, “The Major was a piece of work. He was loud, abrasive, and the joke was he didn't have to hit the control room intercom button to be heard by nervous musicians in the studio.” And Buddy Holly’s producer Norman Petty, with whom Smith once claimed to have struck a business deal, disclaimed any knowledge of such an arrangement and added, “I’d just as soon not have my name mentioned in the same breath with Major Bill, if it’s all the same to you.”

By the late 1960s Smith began funding a Fort Worth shelter, the Union Gospel Mission, and acted “as a self-styled missionary evangelist” known as “Brother Bill” to the homeless. The Major claimed that his own past addiction had once landed him at rock bottom on Skid Row before a dramatic religious turnaround. He continued his support of the shelter for the rest of his life.

Smith’s impressive command of the record industry earlier in life became more obscured by the 1980s, when he gained notoriety for insisting that Elvis Presley had faked his death in 1977 and was living incognito, with Smith as his manager. He wrote the book Memphis Mystery (Requiem for Elvis) in 1987. This obsession, in the opinion of some writers, diminished his musical successes as well as his charitable works.

Smith had married in 1954. He died in Fort Worth on September 12, 1994. He was survived by two sons and three daughters. According to his obituary in the Fort Worth Star–Telegram, “He was so popular in the early 1960s that a new pop group, The Beatles, was bumped off a British TV show when an interview with the major ran too long.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Fort Worth Star–Telegram, September 13, 1994; July 3, 1997. Bill Millar, Let the Good Times Rock! A Fan’s Notes on Post-War American Roots Music (York, England: Music Mentor Books, 2004). Michael H. Price, Daynce of the Peckerwoods: The Badlands of Texas Music (York, England: Music Mentor Books, 2006).

Martin Donell Kohout

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Handbook of Texas Online, Martin Donell Kohout, "Smith, William Arthur [Major Bill]," accessed October 24, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsmae.

Uploaded on May 25, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.