For over 100 years, Viscount Organs has been producing organs of unparalleled quality. In that time, countless musicians have sat behind the pedals and keys of our organs and played everything from timid first notes to entire concertos. We’re glad that we’ve been a part of the music community for so long, and we’re always happy to recognize the musicians who have had truly spectacular careers.
Our second installment of our Famous Organists series will look at the career of the incredible Ethel Smith. Ethel was an accomplished musician in every sense of the word, and her contributions to the world of organ playing cannot be understated.
From Humble Beginnings
Little is known about Ethel’s early years. While she widely expressed that she was born in 1910, she was actually born in 1902. She was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her parents Max and Elizabeth, did their best to give Ethel every opportunity to pursue her interests and passions. In her formative years, she quickly began her working in her three lifelong passions of golf, music, and languages.
She began her golf career at the age of 16, playing regularly at the courses in Pittsburgh. Later, she began studying languages at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and became fluent in German, French, and Spanish. At the same time, she began her studies of the organ with Dr. Caspar Koch, the organist to the city of Pittsburgh, and an accomplished author of many pedagogical works for the organ, and music studies more generally.
After her time at the university, she sought employment in the performing arts and took a job playing piano with a local theater group. However, when a traveling show, a Shubert show performing Romberg’s “The Student Prince,” stopped in Pittsburgh, the show’s manager quickly realized that Ethel was destined for more than just theater hall performances, and invited her to continue on with the tour for the next 28 weeks. The tour took her across the entire country and eventually landed her in California.
It was here that Ethel’s organ career would begin its path toward stardom. While working on a Hollywood studio lot in 1935, Ethel, already an accomplished pianist and organ player, was asked if she could play the recently developed Hammond electric organ. Having never worked with an electric organ before, Ethel went to a nearby Hammond store and asked to practice on their floor models. She quickly took the instrument, later saying in a New York Times interview, “I just ran my fingers over it and said ‘That’s for me!’” She hosted small concerts at the store, and people flocked to hear her impromptu performances as she practiced the new instrument.
The Start Of Something
Hammond recognized that they had a star in their midst, and quickly offered a 26-week engagement to play their new instrument at the famed Copacabana Club in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She spent nearly a year there, immersing herself in the local culture, and exploring the unique sounds of Latin music.
Her tenure in Brazil would prove to be an invaluable experience. While visiting a rough part of Rio, Ethel stopped to listen to a local dancehall combo play a song she’d never heard before. The musicians were playing a traditional Argentine favorite, but the composer and the name of the tune were unknown. Ethel took the tune, called it “Tico Tico,” and included it in her performances. It quickly became a favorite for her and her audiences.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor late in 1941 brought Ethel back to the United States, where she was invited to perform on the smash-hit radio show “Your Hit Parade.” Because of her skill, and personality, she quickly became the highest paid performer on the show. Her work on “Your Hit Parade” opened the door for Ethel to begin her own recording career. In 1944, she recorded “Tico Tico,” and became an overnight success. The record would go on to sell well over a million copies, and become one of the best-selling albums of the 1940s.
Ethel, in addition to her incredible organ playing, was an accomplished actress. In 1944, she had her onstage debut in Bathing Beauty. She appeared in films in 1945 and 1946 alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time.
A Performer To The End
Ethel Smith was born to be a musician and performer. She played in shows, and performances, and starred in films well into her 80s. She would appear in non-musical roles on Broadway, and toured throughout the 1950s and 1960s, riding on the success of “Tico Tico.” Ethel Smith would live to be 94 years old and was active in making music for nearly all of it. She became known as the “Empress of Hammond” for her titanic organ playing career, and near-exclusive use of Hammond’s electric organs. She made organ music accessible and fun for generations of audiences, and introduced new genres of music to American listeners.
When you’re ready to capture that same sense of joy and fun that can only be had playing a top-quality organ, be sure to visit Viscount Organs. Our Legend digital organs capture that same classic electric organ sound that Ethel made so iconic. Contact us today to learn more!