RIP Billy Dawn Smith: You Know the Songs Even If You Don’t Remember the Name
Like so many other artists, Billy Dawn Smith ended up giving us more than he got back.
Smith, who died Monday at the age of 87 after a long illness, helped shape the sound of 1950s rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll by writing songs like “The Angels Listened In,” “Step By Step,” “Trouble in Paradise” and “To the Aisle.”
The fact he never got rich or world-famous didn’t diminish their quality or durability.
Or make him unique. The crazy and marvelous quilt of 1950s music was stitched by a lot of names you rarely heard even then, never mind today. It took a village, and Billy Dawn Smith was an important citizen.
The Brooklyn-born Smith was recording as a singer in his early 20s, but he made his wider mark as a songwriter, particularly from the songs he wrote for Johnny Maestro and the Crests.
Besides writing and singing, he was also an arranger and later a part owner of two important 1950s New York record labels, Hull and Coed. He cofounded the Coed label in 1958 largely to showcase the Crests — and, as part of that package, the songs he wrote for them.
Smith wasn’t a precise lyricist in the style of the 1930s golden age songwriters. There’s a line from “The Angels Listened In,” for instance, that illustrates why 1950s pop and R&B writers often drove traditionalists crazy.
It goes like this: “The angels listened in / And brought you near me / The angels listened in / I love them dearly.”
Now “Near me” and “dearly” are not a precise rhyme. Inside this song, however, with an irresistible melody and the Crests’s galloping vocals, they work just fine.
Nor were Smith and his numerous cowriters simply from the “whoa whoa whoa love you so never let you go” school that did populate the songwriting profession in the ‘50s.
Their imaginations flew a little higher, witness the line in “To the Aisle” that goes “You may start with a simple conversation / Like ‘Darling, please put me on trial’.”
Whether that’s a simple conversation remains open to discussion, 60 years later, but what’s inarguable is that “To the Aisle,” recorded by the Five Satins, is a great romantic ballad.
Smith wrote or cowrote more than 700 songs. What’s less known outside rhythm and blues collector circles is that he also recorded several dozen.
“This Is the Real Thing Now,” cut with The Billy Dawn Quartet when he was 21, was as beautiful as it is obscure. It was released by the tiny Decatur label in New York, which didn’t even have the resources to send out promotional copies to trade publications, never mind slip a few bucks to disc jockeys or juke box operators.
Smith and his group, whose membership became fluid after a time, made the rounds for the next few years. They recorded as the Four Dukes for Duke Records (“Crying in the Chapel”) and the Heralds for Herald Records (“Eternal Love”). They were a popular live act, both with their own material and backing other artists.
Smith told R&B historian Marv Goldberg that he was approached by Atlantic to replace Clyde McPhatter in the Drifters when McPhatter left. That could have put him on the map, but he elected to stay with his own group — which let him continue his writing, arranging and other work in the business.
Trouble was, none of that paid very well for artists, when they were paid at all. That was presumably one motivation for Smith to step up into management, like by co-owning Hull and Coed.
He left Coed fairly soon, though, and most of his success there came from the string of hits he wrote for Maestro and the Crests, which also included “A Year Ago Tonight,” “Six Nights a Week,” “I Thank the Moon” and “Isn’t It Amazing.”
This cemented Smith’s reputation in a business where most writers hope for one hit. He was a respected figure in the songwriting world for the rest of his life.
His songs were eventually recorded by artists like Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Aretha Franklin, the Heartbeats, the Passions, the Avons, the Platters and Percy Sledge.
He was the subject of several tribute evenings and he guested on radio shows like Dan Romanello’s “Group Harmony Review” over New York’s WFUV, talking about his own work and the history of the music.
Even hit songs rarely guarantee a comfortable lifetime income, however, and the one major Crests hit that Smith didn’t write, “Sixteen Candles,” turned out to have the longest and most lucrative legs.
After Smith died on Monday, his friends were discussing whether to start a GoFundMe page to raise money for a proper memorial.
That’s too common a story, for too many artists whose work enriched so many other lives.
And still does.