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Michael Smith is a veteran songwriter whose name may be unfamiliar but whose songs are almost universally known. Michael Smith has been singing and writing since the early 1960's and his rich and challenging songs have been recorded by more than 30 performers. The list includes Jimmy Buffet, Steve Goodman, Suzy Bogguss, Jerry Jeff Walker, Liam Clancy, Gordon Bok, The Four Freshman, Spanky and Our Gang, Small Potatoes, Anne Hills and many others. But until he received critical acclaim for the music he composed for Steppenwolf Theater's 1988 production of The Grapes of Wrath, Michael, unlike his many great songs, remained relatively unknown. It was after The Grapes of Wrath moved to Broadway and received Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Director that Michael became something of an overnight success - however, he was anything but. He had already put in 20 years of dues paying on the folk club circuit, his travels extending from Florida to the Midwest to California.
Michael Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey in 1941. South Orange was a rough-edged factory town and shades of it linger throughout his writing. He was the oldest boy in the family. He had three younger sisters and they were the basis for his autobiographical play Michael, Margaret, Pat, and Kate. The play is Michael's story of his upbringing and family relationships surrounding his fathers early death.
While in High School in South Orange, Michael discovered the guitar and Rock and Roll. His earliest musical influence was Elvis Presley, although Roy Rogers was a close second. According to Michael, the music "ruined my grades," however, his other love of English never suffered. An avid reader, Michael's command of the language has always shown in the literacy of his songs, and contributed to much of his acclaim. A Song Talk Magazine review commented "Hearing the songs of Michael Smith in this day and age is like reading an anthology of short stories by Hemingway after decades of only comic books."
After High School, Michael's family moved to Florida. Two years later he started college and his interest in folk music blossomed. He cites The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte as his earliest folk influences. He spent three years of the 60's working at a Miami venue called The Flick, playing six nights a week. He was in a Peter, Paul and Mary style trio for a couple of years which included his wife Barbara Barrow. They expanded into a rock band called Juarez and recorded one album for Decca before disbanding. Michael and his wife then played as an acoustic duo for most of the early 70's.
Steve Goodman's recording of The Dutchman in 1973 on his now legendary album Somebody Else's Troubles, formally introduced Michael's songs to a large audience, and propelled The Dutchman into Michael's most popular song. Because Steve Goodman was Chicago based and had been playing several of Michael's songs in his act, it opened a lot of opportunities for Michael in Chicago. So, in 1976 Michael Smith and Barbara moved from Detroit to Chicago, where he became a regular in the cities folk clubs for a couple of years, which allowed him to stop touring. Eventually though, the work began to dwindle and he took a day job as a clerk for Time magazine to pay the bills. He played a few festivals and a show at the Old Town School of Folk Music now and then, but aside from that, became inactive for about six years. Fortunately, he continued writing and his songs continued to get played and recorded by others all through that time.
Besides The Dutchman, which Suzy Bogguss covered on her #1 selling Aces album, Michael Smith classics and their interpreters include Spoon River, a song inspired by the stories of Edgar Lee Masters, which was also recorded by Goodman. Jimmy Buffet recorded Elvis Imitators, Michael's tongue in cheek ode to the King's legions. Dead Egyptian Blues, a song about ex-pharaohs and their riches was recorded by Trout Fishing in America. A couple of other Smith classics include Crazy Mary, a song about the 'crazy lady next door' in everyone's life that David Allan Coe recorded, and Last Day of Pompeii - a smooth jazz number about the cities impending disaster, which appears on the swing recordings of Harmonious Wail. As Michael's resume includes over 30 other artists who have cut or performed his tunes, it becomes safe to assume that if Michael Smith has written a song, someone else has played or recorded it.
In 1986 Michael found himself regularly taking the stage again. He had started to work with Anne Hills, and Anne got Michael to record two albums for Flying Fish Records, while becoming his producer and touring partner. Michael recorded Michael Smith (1986) and Love Stories (1987.) Both albums have been reissued as a single CD, which is among Acoustic Guitar Magazine's list of essential singer-songwriter albums. Anne Hill recorded her own album of Smith songs called October Child (1993).
In the winter of 1987, Claudia Schmidt introduced Michael Smith to theatrical director Frank Galati. It was Galati who asked Michael to write the music for Steppenwolf Theater's production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, founded by Gary Sinese and John Malkovich, has a glowing reputation in Chicago and nationally, and The Grapes of Wrath became a huge success, playing in Chicago, London, San Diego, and on Broadway where it received Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Director. The success of The Grapes of Wrath allowed Michael to quit his job as a clerk at Time, and his work in theater brought both new dimensions to his writing and his performances.
Since then, Michael has been performing regularly, both as a solo act and in a duet with with Anne Hills. He recorded his third album for Flying Fish, Time (1994), and recorded a duet album with Anne Hills called Paradise Lost and Found (1999). He has also continued to write music for theatre, including for a Colorado Children's Theatre production of The Snow Queen. Most notably though, in 1993 Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre premiered his autobiographical play Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate. The play won four Jeff Awards (the Chicago Theater Union's equivalent of the Tony), for Best Original Music, Best Production, Best Actor In A Revue, and Best New Work. February 2000 finally sees the official release of the music from Michael, Margaret, Pat and Kate by Wind River Records in February 2000.
Michael has performed at dozens of major folk festivals including the Kerrville Folk Festival, Black Mountain Festival, and Philadelphia, Owen Sound, and Winnipeg Folk Festivals. He has also appeared on a number of radio programs including WUMB's Circle in the Stream, interviews with Studs Terkel on WFMT, a series of interviews on All Things Considered and Good Evening on NPR as well as interviews for the BBC in London for All Things Considered. Michael continues to write songs, tour regularly, do songwriting workshops as well as perform frequently with Anne Hills. Though sometimes elusive to the spotlight, Michael Smith has had a long, eclectic career as a musician. His songs are played and known throughout the world. Considered by his peers to be one of today's most intelligent, literate songwriters it is a wonder he managed to stay hidden to so many others for so long.
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