Paul Smith, a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and conductor for such stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney and Anita O’Day, died of heart failure June 29 at Torrance Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 91 and still performing, frequently appearing at the Terranea Resort near his home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Smith was born in San Diego and started playing piano at the age of eight. He formed his first band while in high school, began his professional career in 1941 with the Johnny Richards band and became a member of the Les Paul Trio in 1946. He was pianist-arranger for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1947-48 and moved to Hollywood in 1949, where he began recording with arranger-conductors such asas Paul Weston and Billy May.
He worked as a staff pianist for Warner Brothers Studios (playing on numerous film soundtracks), and spent over a decade at NBC, arranging, conducting and playing on hundreds of radio and TV broadcasts, including eight years with the “Dinah Shore Show” and more than 25 years with Steve Allen.
Smith recorded nearly 60 solo albums under his own name, more than half of which are still in print, and accompanied Ella Fitzgerald both on recordings and on tour from 1956 to 1978. He also played and recorded with musicians including Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Tony Martin, Carol Burnett, Red Skelton, Pat Boone, and Gordon MacRae.
Smith was still active and was scheduled to perform with his wife of 54 years, singer-pianist Annette Warren, at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood on July 17. Married in 1958, they had recorded several albums together, including “His and Hers” for Capitol Records.
Smith is survived by his daughter, actress Lauri Johnson, and sons Gary and Paul, as well as eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.