KNOXVILLE'S GREAT LOST SONGWRITER, ARTHUR Q. SMITH
Knoxville News-Sentinel, The (TN)
May 12, 1991
Author: WAYNE BLEDSOE
The life's work of a lost man lay on a table in the back of the Glenwood Sandwich Shop: pages of music, boxes of lyrics handwritten in pencil or with a fountain pen on sheets of notebook paper.
Some of the titles of the songs are familiar - "I Overlooked an Orchid, While Looking for a Rose," "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could," "Rainbow at Midnight" and "If Teardrops Were Pennies." Others, like "The Man in the Moon Cried Last Night," "My Imagination" and "I've Been Keeping Score," are not.!
In the upper left-hand corner are names - Carl Story, Don Gibson, Carl Butler - and others that are less famous. At the bottom of the pages is the name Arthur Q. Smith.
Those who remember Smith recall him as one of the most talented and affable songwriters they ever met. They also remember him as an alcoholic - a man who sold the bulk of his songs for $25 apiece, sometimes less, if he needed liquor bad enough.
Smith's son, James Pritchett, flips through photo albums filled with his father's lyrics. There's no telling how much money these songs made for other people, but it isn't the lost money that bothers Pritchett - it's other people taking credit for writing his father's songs.
Getting Smith some credit became the pet project of Knoxville writer Wayne Potter and legendary songwriter Harlan Howard. Howard's song "Be Careful Who You Love (Arthur's Song)," which is inspired by Smith's life, appears on Hank Williams Jr.'s latest album. Potter's feature story, in which he uncovers the (paradoxes of Smith's life and talks with Smith's family and friends, will appear in Country Music Magazine in the fall.
Howard says that Chet Atkins first told him about Smith in the early '60s.+Howard was skeptical, but later talked with Bill Monroe who said Smith was .indeed a great songwriter and that he had bought four songs from Smith.
"I failed to understand how anyone could sell a song," says Howard. "I can't imagine not having my name on a song and hearing it on the radio . . . You shouldn't go through life being that unappreciated or unrespected."
Smith was a complicated man.
Born James Arthur Pritchett, he was raised in Harlan, Ky., where he became an accomplished musician and songwriter. He came to Knoxville in the late '30s where he got a job on the WNOX radio program "The Midday Merry-Go-Round." He!took his stepfather's name, Smith, as a stage name. "Merry-Go-Round" host Lowell Blanchard added the "Q" when another Arthur Smith (of "Guitar Boogie" fame) became popular in the 1940s.
By that time, Smith was well known for selling his songs for money to buy liquor. In fact, Smith sold half-interest in a stack of songs to the owners of the Three Feathers Bar and Grill, where Smith drank and pitched tunes to other
Lyrics would be written on scraps of paper. If Smith were near a bank when a song hit him, he would duck in and write the song on a deposit slip.
Sometimes Smith's wife, Lillian, would hear Smith tapping out tunes for new songs with spoons on the bedroom dresser.
Smith took a job as a staff songwriter for King Records in Cincinnati. It didn't last. He moved on to a radio job in Memphis. There, he met Hank Williams who had recorded Smith's song "Wedding Bells," which Smith had sold to fellow "Midday Merry-Go-Round" performer Claude Boone.
Smith took a job as Williams' business manager - booking shows and getting the group to performances on time. It didn't last. Williams and Smith were fast friends, but they were both alcoholics. Williams' wife, Audrey, fired Smith and Williams' band after one incident when they were drunk and missed a show.
Smith returned to Knoxville, sold songs for liquor money and worked odd jobs.
Williams planned on recording Smith's "The Man in the Moon Cried Last Night" in January of 1953, but Williams died on New Year's Day. Pritchett says his mother put the song away and held onto it. He only got a chance to see it recently.
Smith died in March 1963.
"All I can remember thinking is 'Why?' " says Pritchett, who was 11 at the time. Smith left six children: James, Charlotte, Connie, Sharon, Glen and David Cagle.
& "I was bitter toward him for a long time," says Pritchett. When he died we were living in Western Heights."
Even worse, at that time victims of alcoholism were simply called "drunks."
"For years we didn't hear 'He was a great this or that', it was 'I got drunk with him,' " says Pritchett.
Still, it was from these friends that the Pritchett children were able to fill in areas of their father's life and were told what songs he had written and sold. Still, it is hard to filter out truth from rumor.
Some have even said one popular performer would take Smith to a hotel for several days, keep him supplied with alcohol and come out with a handful of new tunes.
Pritchett says worst of all has been hearing performers tell stories of how they wrote songs, that his father actually wrote. Smith kept sales receipts for many of the songs and Pritchett still has them.
Even the songs that Smith didn't sell have sometimes been difficult to get credit for. Twenty years after Smith's death, Ricky Skaggs had a No. 1 hit with "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could." Bluegrass performer Jim Eanes was listed as songwriter. The publishing house had lost the contracts to the song and didn't know who had written it. The Pritchett family has a letter where Eanes requested 21 songs from Smith, but "I Wouldn't Change You" was not one of them. The family has a copy of the original song publishing contract, on which Smith kept half of the rights to the song.
After contacting Skaggs' manager and the music publisher, Smith's widow eventually began to receive royalties from the song (between $30,000 and $40,000) and Smith's name then appeared on the records.
Pritchett says the other children have tried to write songs, but they haven't inherited their father's talent.
"We used to sit and look at his materials and try to figure out how he figured things in his mind," says Pritchett. "If we had it in us, we shut it out. For so long what people told us about him we didn't like."
Pritchett has tried to interest other performers in the songs that his father left unpublished. But, as of yet, no one has been interested.
Many members of the family work at the Glenwood Sandwich Shop. Lillian has worked there for 32 years, James for 17, Connie (Corum) and Charlotte (Johnson) for nearly as long. Lillian still receives small royalty statements twice a year for songs Smith didn't sell.
% In the back room where James has spread out his father's lyrics and music, a muddy demo tape of Smith singing his songs plays quietly.
Howard's song and Potter's article may help get the voice on the tape the recognition he deserves.
"Just give this man some credit," says Pritchett. "He was a very gifted man who had probably the worst case of alcoholism that I have ever seen.
"Some people have said he had to be drunk to write good songs. If that's true he must have been drunk for a long, long time."