(From Old Corral collection)
Sykes 'Smith' Ballew
1902 - 1984
|Special thanks to Geoffery J. Orr for the great photos and info for this section on movie cowboy Smith Ballew. Geoff lives in Australia and is the author of Texas Troubador: A Bio-Discography of the Life and Times of Smith Ballew, 1902-1984 (Exact Science Press, Melbourne, Australia, 1985).|
Long before his film work as a western movie hero, Ballew was a successful singer and leader of his own big band during the 1920s through the mid 1930s. Six foot, five inch tall Smith Ballew was born in Palestine, Texas on January 21, 1902, attended local schools, and wound up at the University of Texas. It was there that Ballew formed his first jazz band. During the next dozen or so years, he became one of the more important figures of the big band era as he put together and fronted several orchestras, was the 'boy singer' in other bands, and recorded scores of tunes.
(Pressbook ad courtesy of Les Adams)
The never-ending question about Smith Ballew - was it really his singing voice that was used by John Wayne in RIDERS OF DESTINY?
One of John Wayne's early Lone Star/Monogram films was RIDERS OF DESTINY (1933), and he portrayed an undercover lawman named "Singin' Sandy". Forrest Taylor is the brains heavy and Earl Dwire is his gunslinging cohort. In the gunfight scene with Dwire, Wayne strolls down the street warbling "There'll be blood a runnin' in town before night ... tonight you'll be drinkin' your drinks with the dead". Earlier, and with guitar in hand, the young Wayne serenades pretty blonde heroine Cecilia Parker with something about a "Desert Breeze". Wayne was dubbed of course. Many western film experts say the singing was done by Bill Bradbury, the son of Robert North Bradbury, Sr. and twin brother of Bob Steele ... and my understanding is that Lone Star producer Paul Malvern confirmed this years ago. Whomever and whatever, it was definitely NOT sung by tenor Smith Ballew (who was on the road with his band during that period). Les Adams interviewed Ballew in the mid 1960s, and Ballew confirmed that he didn't do the singing for Wayne. You'll find Les' writeup on his interview with Ballew and others on the next page.
Around 1934, Ballew dissolved his last band - and several of the Ballew sidemen, including trombonist/arranger Glenn Miller, drummer Ray McKinley and saxist/clarinetist Skeets Herfurt, joined the Dorsey Brothers. When Ballew wasn't fronting his own group, he was singing or playing guitar or banjo with Ben Pollack, Hal Kemp, Ted Fio Rito, others. He even sang briefly with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
Ballew and Glenn Miller were close. In April, 1935, Miller was working in the Ray Noble Orchestra as a trombonist, arranger, and even fronted the band on occasion. Miller had an opportunity to record some sides under his own name for Columbia records, and he assembled an orchestra that included trumpeters Charlie Spivak and Bunny Berigan, trombonist Jack Jenny, and pianist Claude Thornhill. The vocalist on two of these recordings, "A Blues Serenade" and "Moonlight On The Ganges", was Smith Ballew.
In summary, Smith Ballew was not simply one of many jazz and big band era performers - he was a bona fide member of big band's inner circle that included Paul Whiteman, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Pollack, Berigan, Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, and other familiar names. He was also a very popular singer and recording artist. That was career #1.
Want more info on Ballew's band and recording career - see if your local library can find Texas Troubador: A Bio-Discography of the Life and Times of Smith Ballew, 1902-1984 by Geoffery J. Orr (Exact Science Press, Melbourne, Australia, 1985).
That popularity probably got him his next job which became career #2, Hollywood radio and film work. THE SHELL CHATEAU radio program was a variety series to showcase Al Jolson, and it ran on NBC from 1935-1937. After Jolson exited, there were several hosts including Wallace Beery and Ballew. The show originated from California, and the bios on Ballew note that he and his family moved to Hollywood around 1936.
Producer Sol Lesser and his Principal production outfit had churned out George O'Brien westerns for Fox release ... he did the CHANDU serial with Bela Lugosi ... and was later involved in the Tarzan film series. Somehow Ballew and Lesser connected, and the result was a short-lived series of singing cowboy oaters released through 20th Century Fox during 1937 - 1938. Five films were made, and the first, WESTERN GOLD, arrived at the theaters in late Summer, 1937. Included among the five was Ballew doing hero duty in RAWHIDE (1938), the offbeat oater that is remembered today because it featured legendary New York Yankee first baseman and slugger Lou Gehrig.
His movie career came and went rather quickly, and the timeline on Ballew gets a bit fuzzy from this point on. Around or during World War II, Ballew embarked on another career change. From then to his retirement around 1967, he worked in the aircraft industry, including jobs at Northrup and at Convair (later to became General Dynamics). In the early 1950s, Ballew and family moved to Fort Worth, Texas.
During this later period, he made occasional film appearances, though not in a starring capacity. He had a prominent role in Columbia's 1948 TEX GRANGER serial. He also was with singing group Curt Barrett and the Trailsmen in several post World War II Monograms with Johnny Mack Brown. Ballew's last movie job was playing a Union officer in the 1951 RED BADGE OF COURAGE which starred Audie Murphy.
Smith Ballew passed away on May 2, 1984, and was interred at Laurel Land Memorial Park, Fort Worth, Texas. Newspapers noted his passing - Ballew's home was in Forth Worth, but he had recently broken his hip and was residing with his daughter Justine in Longview, Texas. He passed away at the Longview hospital at age 82.
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Smith Ballew: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0050827/
Find A Grave website has a photo of the grave marker for Ballew at Laurel Land Memorial Park, Fort Worth, Texas: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9815
The Internet Archive has dozens of Smith Ballew recordings: https://archive.org/details/georgeblood?and%5B%5D=%22smith+ballew%22&sin=
The Handbook of Texas Online at the Texas State Historical Association has a bio on Texas native Sykes 'Smith' Ballew: https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbaeg
The Red Hot Jazz Archive has a bio and photos of Ballew, including more details on his recordings and early days in Texas and at the University of Texas: https://syncopatedtimes.com/smith-ballew-1902-1984/
The Internet Archive has two of Smith Ballew's westerns for you to view or download - RAWHIDE (with Lou Gehrig) and ROLL ALONG, COWBOY: https://archive.org/details/moviesandfilms?and=%22smith+ballew%22
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect - Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Ballew was ranked during his brief series of westerns for producer Sol Lesser.
|Popularity Rankings of Smith Ballew|
||Motion Picture Herald Poll Ranking
The Family Search website (free) and Ancestry.com (subscription) have information on Smith Ballew and family:
- Texas Birth record for Smith Ballew, born January 21, 1902 in Anderson County, Texas. Parents were William Young Ballew and May Elizabeth Smith: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F6GG-FVL
- 1910 census summary and census takers worksheet - owning their home in Palestine, Anderson County, Texas are W. G. Ballew, his 38 year old wife May, 8 year old son Smith, and two older brothers and two older sisters. All were born in Texas: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M298-HDS
- 1920 census summary and census takers worksheet - renting in Sherman, Grayson County, Texas are 53 year old William J. Ballen [sic], his 47 year old wife May, 18 year old son Smith, and two older daughters and one older son. All were born in Texas: https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/sources/L5DG-ZXF
- August 20, 1923 marriage license of Smith Ballew and Justine Vera in Rockwall County, Texas: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV1C-VVDW
- 1930 census summary and census takers worksheet - renting in Manhattan, New York City are 28 year old Smith Ballew (born Texas), his 26 year old wife Justine V. (born Texas), newborn daughter Justine V. Jr. (born Texas), and a servant. His occupation is "Leader and Musician - Orchestra": https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X42G-D5R
- 1940 census summary and census takers worksheet - renting in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California are 38 year old Smith Ballew (born Texas), his 36 year old wife Justine (born Texas), and 10 year old daughter Justine (born Texas). His occupation is "Actor - Movies": https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K974-NRV
- Ancestry.com had his World War II draft registration dated February 14, 1942: 40 year old Smith Ballew was born January 21, 1902 in Palestine, Texas. He and wife Justine live in Beverly Hills, California; employer is "M. H. Hoffman - Hal Roach Studio" in Culver Sity; and he's 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 200 pounds.
- Social Security Death Index (SSDI): https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:J5XX-5ZP
- Texas Death Index: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JVFP-ZZZ
(Courtesy of Geoffery Orr)
Above - Smith Ballew in the center with the Ted Fio Rito Band in 1927. He's 6 feet, 5 inches tall on his World War II draft registration.
(Courtesy of Geoffery Orr)
Above - Smith Ballew (seated in lighter colored suit) And His All Star Orchestra at Salzman's Restaurant in New York City, 1929.
(Courtesy of Geoffery Orr)
Above - Smith Ballew and musical director Victor Young clowning during a 1936 SHELL CHATEAU radio program.
Does the name Victor Young strike a bell? He wrote a bunch of songs including "Sweet Sue" and "Stella By Starlight", but is best remembered for creating dozens of movie scores to films like WELLS FARGO, RIO GRANDE, SHANE, THE FLYING TIGERS, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, THE QUIET MAN, lots more. He was nominated for an Oscar many times, and won (posthumously) for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. You can read more about Victor Young at: https://www.songhall.org/profile/Victor_Young
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are Monte Montague, Smith Ballew, Bud Osborne, and a moustached Gordon Elliott (before his hero days as 'Wild Bill') in ROLL ALONG, COWBOY (20th Century Fox, 1937). While the above lobby card shows the ROLL ALONG, COWBOY with a comma, the opening title in the film is just plain ROLL ALONG COWBOY.
(From Old Corral collection)Above - Smith Ballew and Lou Gehrig in RAWHIDE (20th Century Fox, 1938).
Producer Sol Lesser (1890-1980)
During the silent era, Sol Lesser owned a California theater chain and was involved in both film distribution and production. In the 1930s, he produced a variety of films including the Bela Lugosi CHANDU and Buster Crabbe TARZAN THE FEARLESS serials. His western series included early Buck Jones features released through Columbia, George O'Brien oaters for Fox, and the brief 20th Century Fox "singing cowboy" group starring singer and band leader Smith Ballew. Lesser was also the production boss on higher budget films such as OUR TOWN (1940), THE TUTTLES OF TAHITI (1942) and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN (1943), and from about 1943-1958, he was in charge of the Tarzan jungle adventures. The names of Lesser's production company included "Beverly" and "Principal".
There's biographical info on Sol Lesser at the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers website: http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/sol_lesser.htm
| ||Smith Ballew Filmography|
Westerns are in black, serials are in red, non-western features in blue
Special thanks to Les Adams for providing this filmography
||ROLL ALONG, COWBOY
||PANAMINT'S BAD MAN
||MAN WHO WALKED ALONE, THE
||Johnny Mack Brown
||UNDER ARIZONA SKIES
||Johnny Mack Brown
||TEX GRANGER (Serial)
||CARIBOO TRAIL, THE
||Edwin L. Marin
||I KILLED GERONIMO
||RED BADGE OF COURAGE, THE