Howlett Smith: A Los Angeles Treasure, Educator, Jazz Pianist, Composer & More

By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

JUNE 19, 2019 – Celebrating Black Music Month

I first heard the beautiful voice and amazing piano playing of Howlett Smith in the 1970s. My friend and the original bassist with Thelonious Monk, Mr. Larry Gales, was performing with Howlett at the popular Bob Burns restaurant in Santa Monica, California. So,I dropped in to enjoy the music. They were the regular duo at a piano bar near the front entrance of the crowded venue. If you were lucky, you could grab a seat at the half-circular bar that surrounded their grand piano and hear all your favorite standard jazz tunes and thoroughly enjoy the great American songbook. Howlett Smith,(fondly called “Smitty” by friends and cohorts), could also whistle like a flute, perhaps better than that reed instrument, because he added a little vibrato to the whistle. The customers went crazy for his whistle and so did I.It was stunningly beautiful and quite an attention-getter. Also, at the Bob Burn’s venue, a parade of singers would stroll in late night, after the dinner crowd had gone home. Singers loved to ‘sit-in’ with Howlett, who is quite a sensitive accompanist. If you knew your song and what key you sang it in, that’s all ‘Smitty’ needed to know. If you didn’t know your key, after you hummed a little of it, he’d know exactly what to play. Howlett Smith was one of the regular entertainers at the Bob Burns club for over twenty years and performed there until the doors of the restaurant finally closed permanently.

Watching Howlett Smith interact with the singers and guest musicians, I could tell right away that Howlett was a music educator. Over the years, he has worked with a plethora of vocal students, including running a vocal workshop at the famed ‘World Stage’ in Leimert Park, a mainly African American art community in central Los Angeles. He also served as choir director at his church for many years and was once part of the El Camino College faculty, teaching in the Applied Music Program.

Howlett ‘Smitty’ Smith was born in Phoenix, Arizona and educated at the School for the Blind in Tucson and he attended the University of Arizona. His natural talents as a superb pianist, a composer, and a talented vocalist led him to become involved in radio, television, movies, touring with jazz bands and even Broadway. He was greatly influenced by the great Nat King Cole’s trio.

“My dad was a drummer and my aunt was a vocal and piano teacher,” he told me. “At the age of six-years-old, I moved to Tucson, Arizona and was enrolled in the school for the blind. They eventually recognized my musical talents.

“I came to California for the first time in 1958. My brother invited me to stay with him and I stayed a couple of weeks. I loved California. Soon after, I relocated to Los Angeles. I picked up work on radio for KPFK playing background piano music.”

Howlett was always a composer and very religious. When he came up with the idea of writing a song about a “Little Alter Boy” he had no idea it would become a hit record in the commercial pop market. This song was recorded by a slew of singers including, Vic Dana in 1961. It was released as a single 45rrpm record and rose up the Billboard Hot 100 chart to number forty-five. Even better, in 1962 that song was sung by Dana in a motion picture called, “Don’t Knock the Twist.” Next, in 1965, Andy Williams, recorded Howlett’s ‘Alter Boy’ song on a Christmas album. This was followed by Glenn Campbell re-recording the song in 1968 for his, “That Christmas Feeling” album released on CapitolRecords. A&M Records got in the mix in 1984, when The Carpenters recorded a version of ‘Smitty’s’ song on their “An Old-Fashioned Christmas “album and also released it as the ‘B’ side of their single release of “Do you Hear What I Hear.” The royalties for a songwriter whose song was so extensively covered and popular, including film rights, should have gifted Howlett Smith with healthy residuals. So,imagine my surprise when ‘Smitty’ told me today:

“Little Alter Boy launched my career in the music business. It was taken over by two crooks; Lenny and Benny Weissman. They took my publishing and they never paid me.”

This was the beginning of Howlett Smith’s introduction to how unfair and criminal the music business can be when you are trusting and don’t truly understand how to protect your music and yourself from publishing predators.

NOTE: On June 26, 2019 I received an e-mail from Judy Smith in response to this article. She told me that Howlett gets confused about things since he had a stroke last year. He is collecting royalties for this song currently from Sony and from performance rights organizations. Judy Said, “He did not have representation when the Weissman brothers presented the publishing contract to him many years ago. We eventually had a lawyer renegotiate the contract. He gets more than the original contract but still not as much as he should.”

His next composition to be scooped up and recorded was “Let’s Go Where the Grass is Greener” sung by the late, great, jazz icon, Nancy Wilson. That was in 1964.

Later, it was also recorded by jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie in 1967. In 1989,Sonya Hedenbratt re-recorded the popular song,followed by Steve & Eydie who covered it in 1990. Karen Francis re-recorded it in 1996, Ava Logan in 2008 and Lori Carsillo in 2014. It was also recorded by jazz bands like Pete Jolly and his trio, Bud Shank, as well as the epic Three Sounds with the Oliver Nelson Orchestra. That goes to show you that a great song will be recorded time and time again and by a variety of artists. Smitty’s melody was as strong as his lyrics.

Howlett Smith’s “Let’s Go Where the Grass is Greener” composition was followed by a hit record on another vocalist, Spanky Wilson, titled, “The Last Day of Summer.”

More recently, it was recorded by a blossoming, young, jazz vocalist named Darynn Dean. She is the granddaughter of iconic drummer Donald Dean, who recorded on the Les McCann and Eddie Harris hit record, “Compared to What?”

Many years ago, I went to a Los Angeles stage play that celebrated the legacy of blues vocalist, Bessie Smith. The star of that one-woman-show was the great Linda Hopkins and it was a show-stopping, standing-ovation performance. The musical conductor for that musical titled, “Me and Bessie,” was the very talented Howlett Smith. That play went on to New York for a long-term run on Broadway.

Speaking of musicals, ‘Smitty’ has written and produced several musicals inclusive of one titled, “The Carpenter” which is a depiction of the life of Jesus Christ. It features a 20-voice harmony Choir and an eclectic mix of musical genres, including gospel, jazz, spiritual and traditional music.

One of the things I love about ‘Smitty’ is his great sense of humor. When he began recording his original music, he always featured some compositions with lyrics that would entertain and tickle your funny bone. For example, one of his songs is titled “Ugly Woman.” Some of the lyrics read:

“I’m one of those guys, who lets his eyes
Go roving now and then; Check out them girls, from toe to curls
I’d love to find myself a ten.
My looks survived, on fours and fives, when I go out for fun.
But last night in desperation I approached a minus-one; and she said, NO!
An ugly woman told me no. Nothing makes you feel as low, as when an ugly woman tells you no.”

Smitty’s albums are numerous and personify his extraordinary talent on the piano. His smooth, emotional vocals touch your heart, and his lyrics make you bust out laughing. He has mad composer talents. Howlett made a vinyl recording with a pair of hands on the piano keys titled, “With These Hands – Recorded ‘live’ at Sterling’s Cocktail Lounge. His next LP reflected his nickname, “Smitty!” Another vinyl album was titled, “Here I Come” and featured Howlett with his trio. In 2001, He recorded an album titled, “Lets Go Where the Grass is Greener.” In 2007, he released “Songs You Can Get Killed for Singing.” One of my favorite recordings by Howlett is with he and bass player, Larry Gales titled, “Here For You.” Another favorite of mine celebrates his unique lyrical ability and sense of humor titled, “Funny Side Up.” As recent as 2016, Franny McCartney released her CD titled “As Is” featuring Howlett Smith on piano.

Recently, the 86-year-old pianist, composer, vocalist, playwright, producer and educator has slowed down his pace. In 2018, because of health challenges, he retired from his seven-year stint teaching vocals at the World Stage. However, he continues to play piano, faithfully attends church services and stands tall as a positive inspiration to us all.
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One Response to “Howlett Smith: A Los Angeles Treasure, Educator, Jazz Pianist, Composer & More”

  1. Doug Debber Says:

    Don’t ever play chess with Smitty. He will touch the pieces and beat you!

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