“After all that time, you wonder; do I still have it? Am I still gifted? Can I really do it?”
The 73-year old Miami native is on the phone with me and talking about recording in a music studio for the first time in more than 40 years.
“By me singing in a church and by me singing around the house and that kind of thing, and everybody saying, yeah you still have it, it’s good. Come on, let’s do it”.
“It was a good experience,” she says.
Smith’s return to the studio is the subject of a new documentary, Sweet Soul, which had its premiere at the Miami Film Festival in March and is scheduled to play at festivals in Las Vegas and Sydney this year before heading for public television syndication.
Smith was born in 1947. Her parents settled here from Alabama and had ten children. “I’m number four,” she says. The Smith family was a musical family. Some of her brothers played in bands and orchestras. Some of her sisters sang at the local Baptist church. As a youngster, Helene Smith demonstrated unique talent. At Brownsville Junior High, she was discovered by a teacher named Johnny Pearsall. “He would hear me sing and he asked me if I wanted to sing along with some other girls. But I guess the other girls had too much to do or whatever and I really wanted that, so I sort of hung in.” When Pearsall opened a record shop in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, Smith took a job there as a salesperson.
“In the afternoons, we met Clarence Reid. A few other people, they came. Clarence would write songs. Willie [Clarke] would write songs. My husband would write songs (Smith and Pearsall married in 1971). I would sing and rehearse. A lot of people came there, singing and rehearsing.”
Pearsall and Clarke, his former roommate from Florida A&M University, together with input from Reid, formed Deep City Records from the store. It was Florida’s first black-owned record company.
“Johnny had a big tape player and a piano,” says Smith. “We had a room back there. It was sectioned off. And we would practice till we get it – how do you say – down pat, as best we could.”
Deep City Records, along with related labels, Blue Star and Lloyd, became an incubator for Miami’s R&B talent. It was also Miami’s answer to Motown. Besides Smith, Deep City’s discography included artists such as Betty Wright, Frank Williams & the Rocketeers, Snoopy Dean, and The Moovers.
Smith’s 1964 recording, The Pot Can’t Talk about the Kettle, was the group’s first release, earning her the distinct honor of being Miami’s First Lady of Soul.
She followed up with other Miami soul classics including, Thrills and Chills, True Love Don’t Grow on Trees and Wrong or Right He’s My Baby. In the late 1960s, Deep City’s founders differed on the direction of the company and split. Pearsall took Smith to Philadelphia to record for the Phil-L.A. of Soul label under Jamie-Guyden Records which released her biggest commercial hit, A Woman Will Do Wrong, reaching #20 on Billboard’s R&B Charts in August 1967. (The track was written by Deep City’s Willie Clarke.)
Smith toured throughout the East Coast while her music played on Miami and Philadelphia radio stations. She then returned to Miami and recorded for Dash Records in 1971, a sub-label of TK Productions. TK Productions was owned and operated by the late Henry Stone, who produced smash hits for KC & the Sunshine Band, George McCrae, and Timmy Thomas.
In total, between 1964 and 1972, Smith recorded more than 25 songs.
But in the mid 1970s, after the birth of her only daughter, Smith was reluctant to continue along the same path.
She also became disenchanted with the music business.
“It didn’t work. It was just too hard,” says Smith. “Too many obstacles. I am going to leave like that. Too many obstacles. So I just left it alone.”
The wake left behind by promising black female artists from the 1960s is long and murky. One consequence is a hardened mistrust of others that cuts deep and can leave scars. Smith admits this is one of the reasons she exited the music business when she did.
Instead, she pursued a degree in education and became a public school teacher, which was a natural alternative for Smith. “I really wanted a lot of children. But that didn’t happen. So I wanted to be around children. I love children.”
She continued singing on Sundays at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Miami.
In 2014, a trio of Miami filmmakers, Marlon Johnson, Chad Tingle, and Dennis Scholl, made a documentary film about Deep City Records and Miami’s early soul scene. Smith agreed to be interviewed for the film. During its premiere at Miami’s Olympia Theatre, Smith was nudged by one of the filmmakers to sing a few notes a cappella for the sold-out crowd. She obliged. Her vocals sounded as fresh and crisp as they did on the tracks she recorded in the sixties.
“Once seeing [the] Deep City [film], it really ignited her passion to go back to the studio,” says Johnson, who collaborated again with Tingle and Scholl on the new documentary. Johnson refers to the now legendary moment when Smith sang on stage and the audience’s enthusiastic response as “the beginning of the rebirth of her career.”
During the recording session, the filmmakers were impressed with Smith’s confidence after so many years away.
“I think that when she was working with Clarence [Reid], Johnny [Pearsall] and Willie [Clarke], back in the Deep City days, they would just tell her what to sing,” says Tingle. “Clarence would say: this is how I want you to sing it. They would rehearse, rehearse, rehearse it and it almost became robotic.”
This time, Smith took ownership of the song, he says, which was a welcomed sight. “It’s painful for a lot of them,” he adds. ”Having stardom and all of a sudden having nothing.”
At first, Smith says she was a little nervous but she embraced the journey. “Everybody was so nice and they just told me, listen, we are all going to do this together.”
The opportunity to revive one’s career and get another chance is a blessing. “I say to myself, in my lifetime – and I don’t plan to go anywhere, though it’s not up to me anyway.” She pauses and then begins again. “I have done this. I have done some of that, and I did some of this and I did that, and I think I made a circle here, which I’m happy about.”
Smith hopes that the film and her new song resonates with old and new audiences, particularly given our current times.
“The world has been through a lot and we’re still going through a lot. Once we get ourselves together, with the help of our master, which is God, whom I love, we can really enjoy each other and enjoy life. We got a new day. He’s granted us another day.”
“Let a new day begin,” she says, which happens to be the title of her new record.
About the Song
Let A New Day Begin was released in 2019 on Deep City Records and distributed by InnerCat Music Group, LLC. The song was written by Jason Joshua, produced by Andrew Yeomanson and WIllie J. Clarke, and recorded at Yeomanson’s City of Progress Studio in North Miami, Florida. The song is available for streaming here on Spotify.
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