Kenneth Patten Smith was born in Maysville, Kentucky, approximately sixty miles up the Ohio River from Cincinnati in 1938. His mother died before he had reached one year of age and he, along with his sister and father, moved up river to the Queen City not too long after, settling in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. Except for a couple brief stints in the Air Force and Marines, he has spent his whole life in Cincinnati.
Kenny's first singing group was called The Enchanters and was composed of a group of friends from Withrow High School, from which Kenny graduated in 1956. Kenny sang second tenor, and the group had a slot opening for Tiny Bradshaw on an eastern tour. The Enchanters won a talent contest on the local Harris Rosedale variety television show, the grand prize being a Longine’s wrist watch. Unable to figure out how to divide the prize four ways, the group sold it and split the profits. Reputedly, the group recorded for Deluxe, a subsidiary of Cincinnati's King label, filling in for and using the name of the popular R&B group The Charms.
His first, true forays into the music industry came at Castle Farms, a legendary venue that played host to local performers such as The Drivers, The Casinos and the aforementioned Charms. Carl Edmondson from Fraternity Records heard Kenny perform at Castle Farms and told him that he liked the way he sounded. "Deep In My Heart" on Fraternity, Kenny's first release under his own name, soon followed. Produced by Carl Edmondson and written by Kenny himself, the disc is much prized by collectors of the early group r&b sound.
Having gotten his foot in the door with Fraternity, Kenny started writing and producing for the label as well as recording. He wrote and produced songs for the Charmaines and the Casinos, as well as being co-arranger with Edmondson on "Hey-Da-Da-Dow" by the Dolphins, which made it into the Billboard charts.
Kenny is modest about his singing talents, and considered himself more a song-writer than a vocalist of any merit. "You know, it’s funny. I realized my voice limitations early on, and I... wanted to write. And in doing so, I didn’t have enough money to pay somebody to sing it and I wound up doing the same thing with the accompaniment, the guitar. I couldn’t afford to pay anybody to play it, so I wind up learning how to play guitar myself, so I could do my own stuff."
Kenny would go on to write and produce for many other acts in the years to come including Albert Washington, Leroy and the Drivers, Gerri Diamond, The Casinos, Win Mennifee, Eddie Whitehead, Soul, Inc. and basketball legend Oscar Robertson. Through circumstances now lost to the fog of memory, his name even appears in the credits of an obscure garage 45 by The Checkmates on the Injoy Life label from 1967. One of Kenny's proudest achievements was his song "Think Before You Walk Away". The song was originally recorded by Kenny's friend Herman Lewis on Stone Blue records. Lewis, a.k.a Herman Griffin, was at one time married to Motown singer Mary Wells and was intimately connected with the Detroit music scene. Through Herman's efforts, "Think Before You Walk Away" was re-recorded by The Platters, one of the biggest vocal groups of the day. Kenny's own recorded output for Fraternity comprised of numerous singles including tracks leased out to majors Chess and RCA.
However, there's a good chance you would not be
holding this CD right now if it weren't for one song in particular: "Lord, What's Happening
To Your People?".
However, General American had bigger things in mind for Kenny than the Billboard charts. They made him the Publishing Director of the company and the host of their new television show: Soul Street. Soul Street, for which Kenny also wrote the opening and closing themes, was broadcast in 36 markets around the country and featured a range of guests from local artist Tommy Wills, to more well known acts such as Lynn Collins, the Ohio Players, Little Royal, the Detroit Emeralds, Gladys Knight and James Brown. Soul Street ran for ten episodes, the first nine of which were hosted by Kenny. Behind the scenes, things were falling apart for GAR. A new host was brought in for the tenth episode, and that was it as the studio pulled the plug on the show due to unpaid bills.
Kenny was out of his element in the television studio. By the early seventies Kenny was a seasoned performer and a regular on the regional club scene. Used to the gritty and aggressive atmosphere of the nightclub, the cold, sterile television set was an environment with which Kenny was unfamiliar. Besides being a fish out of water, Kenny was face to face with people who he previously considered to be his idols. ""I got intimidated a little bit, by these people ...I used to worship ‘em. James Brown, you know, I did all his stuff, danced like him, everything else. And all of a sudden, here I am in control of this guy, askin’ him questions."
However, "Lord, What's Happened" would provide Kenny with recognition yet again in a strange and unexpected way. The song failed to ride the gospel-rock wave that Kenny had tried to latch onto in the U.S., but it got a second shot at success across the Atlantic in the dance clubs of Northern England.
A couple of years after its release in the States, the British Northern Soul scene discovered the record and it became an anthem at the legendary Blackpool Mecca. Demand for the single from British dj's and collectors was high enough that in 1976 that Kenny was tracked down by the infamous French rare soul dealer and producer Simon Soussan. The original contract between Kenny and Soussan's Soul Galore Disco-Sound Productions details how Smith was paid $300 in advance for the right to reissue "Lord What's Happened" for the Northern Soul market and a promise of royalties to come for any copies pressed up and sold. Look more closely, however, and one notices that it is doubtful that any "commercial" copies were ever pressed up, because Soussan had 1000 to 1500 "promotional" copies made beforehand, after which there'd be no need for any commercial copies.
As with many revered performers of the past, financial success eluded Smith. But his name was firmly fixed in the canon of rare soul artists. He would have further contact with the Northern Soul collectors and dj's through other records. His very rare release on the Flo-Roe label, "One More Day" has become a hot item for collectors only recently. "Just Your Fool", penned by Smith, but performed by Eddie Whitehead is another record that failed to make the cut here in America, but found posthumous fame across the way.
Lately, connoisseurs of a harder funk sound have latched onto "Go For Yourself", also on Flo-Roe, from 1969, "Here Comes The Law" on Lena Records (named for Smith's wife) from 1975 and the extremely elusive "Skunkie" on Kogan Records from 1973.
In a sure case of hindsight being 20-20, if Kenny had only held onto a twenty five count box of each of his releases and sat on them for thirty years, he could have made far more money from selling to collectors in Germany and Japan now than he ever did off of royalty checks.
Smith gave an interview in the Cincinnati Enquirer in the mid seventies, a decade and a half after his first record. When questioned about why he keeps fighting the good fight in an industry which doesn't always reward hard work or talent, he replied, "I know it's a rough game, but it can be done. It goes beyond money. I won't accept defeat....In order to win, you've got to have a horse in the race. There's no way to do anything if you don't try."
Smith's creed remains the same today. His mother died when he was five months old, he spent the last year of high school battling polio, and recently he has been successfully dealing with cancer. Add to that list the usual tribulations suffered by Black Americans, and Kenny's will to persevere becomes quite inspirational. Today, Kenny is still writing music, trying to score a hit. Now in the autumn of his years, he doesn't dream of riches, but rather of recognition, and, perhaps even a Grammy for songwriting.