Tab Smith and the Birth of Rhythm and Blues

Tab Smith Portrait from the Library of Congress

A circa 1946-1948 portrait of Smith from
the Library of Congress.

On January 11, 1909, alto saxophonist Talmage “Tab” Smith was born in Kinston.

Smith’s first professional musical endeavor came in 1929, when he formed the Carolina Stompers in 1929, and he soon achieved national acclaim as part of bands fronted by Count Basie and Lucky Millinder.

Through the 1940s he recorded with some of the finest performers, including Billie Holiday, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins. His peers on the alto sax included Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington Band and Earl Bostic.

With the evolution of musical tastes, Smith gravitated toward rhythm and blues in the 1950s, recording primarily on United Records. His version of the Tony Bennett hit “Because of You” was a chart topper in 1951. Most of Smith’s numbers were short and were favorites on jukeboxes.

He recorded a sax version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” latter covered by Otis Redding, and toured with the Five Royales, based in Winston-Salem, in the mid-1950s.

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