Palestine Magazine Spring Edition 2021 - Page 13

Sykes “ Smith ” Ballew hailed from Palestine Story by PennyLynn Webb with contributed photos

At one time in Hollywood history , singing cowboys were all the rage . The Gene Autry / Roy Rogers-type cowboys that could rope , ride , shoot , fistfight , rescue the damsel in distress and then sing her a love song .

Carl T . Sprague was the first to establish the singing cowboy in 1925 , when he recorded the first cowboy song , “ When the Work ’ s All Done this Fall .” The following year , John I . White was the first representative of the genre to perform on a nationally broadcast radio show . However , it wasn ’ t until sound films that the singing cowboy reached his height of popularity . And one of those famous singing cowboys hailed from Palestine . Sykes “ Smith ” Ballew was born in Palestine on Jan . 21 , 1902 , the youngest of five children born to William Y . and May Ballew . After graduating from Sherman High School , where he studied arts , he went to college at Austin College and the University of Texas .
It was at UT that Ballew ’ s interest began to lean toward music . He and his brother , Charles Roberts “ Charlie Bob ” Ballew were both enchanted with jazz music . Ballew began playing guitar and banjo . He got a part-time job as a singer on a local radio station and undertook formal studies in music . He also worked to sharpen his talents by learning jazz stylings from African-American musicians who lived close to Austin . It was at this time that Ballew and his brother , Charlie Bob met clarinet player and band leader Jimmy Maloney , who invited them to join the Jimmie ’ s Joys . Ballew played banjo in this popular group . In 1923 the Jimmie ’ s Joys went to California to record for Golden Records . The disc reportedly “ sold like hotcakes ” when the boys returned to the University of Texas .
Ballew eventually formed his own band , the Texajazzers , which worked throughout the state of Texas . This band disbanded in 1927 , and Ballew joined up with Dick Voynow in a group they called the Wolverines Orchestra . While playing in Chicago , Ballew was seen by Ben Pollack , who invited him to join and play banjo in his group . Although Ted Frio Tito asked Ballew to join his band in New York , when Ballew arrived in the Big Apple he found he had no job and no money . He busked the sidewalks of New York until he was discovered by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey . They introduced him to Joe Venuti , Arthur Schutt and some of the top music men in the industry . Ballew was hired by orchestra leader Fred Rich to play at the Astor Hotel , and he began working with Meyer Davis on records and radio . It was at this time that he recorded “ Was It A Dream ?” with the Dorsey Brothers . This would open the doors for Ballew to work and record with some of the best musicians in New York .
Although the Depression years hit Ballew hard financially and meant losing heavily in his investments , his career skyrocketed . In 1929 , Ballew formed the Smith Ballew Orchestra , which highlighted his singing . His orchestra featured Venuti and Lang , the Van Eps Brothers in the rhythm section , Johnny ‘ Scat ’ Davis on trumpet , Peter Pumiglio on alto saxophone and clarinet , Dee Orr on drums and later added a trombone to be played at times by Tommy Dorsey , Ted Raph , Glenn Miller and Abe Lincoln . Through this orchestra , Ballew would work with some of the top jazzmen , including Glenn Miller and Bunny Berigan .
In 1932¸Glenn Miller whom Ballew met during his Ben Pollack days , put together a new orchestra that featured Bunny Berigan on trumpet and Chummy MacGreagor on piano . This group toured New Orleans in the latter part of 1932 and was such a success they did not return to New York until the latter part of 1933 , at which time they disbanded . It was also between the years of 1929 and 1935 , Ballew made hundreds of dance band and jazz records for OKeh , Columbia , Crown and the dime-store labels that included Banner , Domino , Jewel , Regal , Perfect , Oriole as Buddy Blue & His Texans , Jack Blue ’ s Texans and under his own name to boot . He was hailed as one of the most recognizable and prolific studio vocalists . Although these records were allegedly very popular , they reportedly gave no indication of his future signature cowboy stylings .
In 1935 , Ballew decided to go west to Los Angeles . His good friend , Victor Young , who he had worked extensively on records with , had arranged for him to be offered the role of Compere in a Hollywood-based Radio Show “ Shell Chateau .” Victor was the Musical Director for Decca Records and NBC Radio in Hollywood . “ Shell Chateau ” was a high-rated Saturday night show that featured the best musical talent , sports celebrities and Hollywood actors . When Ballew began to delve into acting , he was invited to do a series of “ B ” Westerns for Sol Lessers at Twentieth Century Fox . Ballew became one of the first singing screen cowboys . He starred in a series of westerns for Paramount and 20th Century Fox . In his later acting years , he was featured in supporting actor roles . By 1938 , Ballew was voted to be No . 8 in the Top 10 Western moneymaking stars .
When the popularity of musical westerns waned , Ballew worked in the aircraft industry , where he became a manager in the missiles division . Ballew retired from showbiz and left Hollywood for the Lone Star state in 1952 , settling in Fort Worth as a spokesperson for jet aero plane company , General Dynamics . He retired from the aircraft industry in 1967 .
Ballew married twice in his lifetime , first to Justine Vera , with whom he had a daughter . After Justine passed away in 1960 , Ballew married Mary Ruth Clark , who passed away in 1972 . Ballew passed away , at the age of 82 , in Longview on May 2 , 1984 . He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth .
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