NEW YORK — Paul Smith, a jazz pianist who accompanied singers like Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Sammy Davis Jr., and Rosemary Clooney but was best known for his long association, both on record and on concert stages worldwide, with Ella Fitzgerald, died Saturday in Torrance, Calif. He was 91.
His death was announced by his publicist, Alan Eichler.
Tall, lanky, and rugged-looking, Mr. Smith did not fit most people’s image of a jazz musician. When he was the musical director on the comedian Steve Allen’s television show in the 1960s, Allen told him that he looked more like “a Nebraska cornhusker.” At concerts, Mr. Smith would sometimes walk onto the stage and ask the audience, “Where is the piano you want moved?”
He did not entirely see himself as a jazz musician either. Early in his career, he told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1991, “I could see there was more money to be made in studio work than playing a jazz joint.” And studio work took up much of his time: He worked as a staff musician for NBC and Warner Bros., and for many years he was the musical director for Dinah Shore’s daytime talk show.
But he was at home in the jazz joints, too, and after gaining early experience with Tommy Dorsey’s big band and guitarist Les Paul’s small group in the late 1940s, he went on to record dozens of jazz albums under his own name, gaining a following for his prodigious technique and his lighthearted approach.
Critics sometimes accused Mr. Smith of emphasizing flash over substance, and some were put off by his pianistic playfulness.
He made his most lasting mark through his work with singers, most notably Fitzgerald, with whom he worked on and off from the late 1950s until the early 1990s. In addition to leading the trio that backed her in concert, he was the sole musician on her 1960 album featuring selections from “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” one of the few movies in which she acted.
Paul Thatcher Smith was born in San Diego on April 17, 1922. His parents, Lon Smith and Constance Farmer, were vaudeville performers and encouraged his interest in music.
Mr. Smith performed in Southern California nightclubs until his death, mostly with his wife of 54 years, singer and pianist Annette Warren. He leaves her as well as his daughter, actress Lauri Johnson; two sons, Gary and Paul; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.