Kelly Smith

 
ďCher has always been an influence of mine,Ē notes Kelly as we begin a speaking during a media night with a Legends in Concert cast. Then she starts to laugh. ďAlthough honestly, Iím still surprised my mother let me watch all those Sonny and Cher shows when I was younger.Ē

Ah yesÖ the Sonny and Cher shows.

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, variety shows were a frequent part of network programming. From those featuring The Smothers Brothers, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Barbara Mandrell to legendary titles such as Laugh-In and Hee Haw, television stations were filled with top-flight, performance-driven entertainment, often provided by some of the biggest names in music.

And one couple joined together for much of the success of these variety shows, delivering The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and The Sonny & Cher Show. For whatever reasons, so many that it would be impossible to explore them here, the audiences connected with this couple. They became, as participants in some of the most successful programs do, part of our own families.

Kelly took their separation hard. ďI was done with it when they split up,Ē she recalls. ďIt really affected me, and I can honestly remember thinking I was done with them.Ē

How wrong time would show her to be.

Kelly shared a story about high school. Incredibly shy, she couldnít bring herself to sing in front of others. But, everyone knew her ďCher voiceĒ was incredible, and on bus rides her friends would insist she sing for them.

ďIt was kind of crazy. I would tell everyone to turn around. I wouldnít do it if anyone was looking at me. But they looked away, and I sang. And now,Ē she pauses to laugh and shake her head a bit, ďIím still singing.Ē

The audiences arenít turning around these days. (But weíre getting a bit ahead of the story.)

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ďLife is short, even if you live to be 90.Ē

These are the words from Kelly during one of our conversations. And if you ask her how sheís doing, sheíll tell you that she has more energy and her voice feels strong. This is quite an accomplishment, and the quote itself is very significant. At the time we met, Kelly was beginning her first extended run of performances since having a kidney transplant a year earlier in June of 2010.

Kelly and I got together twice in the summer of 2011. By pure definition, we conducted interviews at those times. But her approachable nature, and the way she asked questions of her own, led our second meeting more toward a terrific conversation than any plain question and answer session.

She is soft-spoken, unfailingly polite, and incredibly attentive. She considered each subject we discussed with respect and thought, and provided tremendous insight into her own professional career and personal challenges.

For many years now, she has pursued a career in music. And while the twists and turns may not have followed the exact path she ever could have imagined when younger, it is absolutely certain she has enjoyed a successful career to date and has many significant moments and accomplishments yet to come.

One thing is absolute about KellyÖ you will rarely encounter a person with as much appreciation for the little moments as her. I am grateful she allowed me so much time and access to her story, certainly hope to share more of it with you in the future, and I am very proud to share this interview with you here on the web site.

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How long have you been performing with Legends in Concert?

Itís been just over 11 years for me with Legends.

Where did the connection come from between you and your tribute performances as Cher?

Thereís a lot to that question, because it goes back to when I was really young, continues throughout school, and then right up to when I began singing professionally.

As a very first memory of music and entertainment, Cher has always been an influence of mine. I can clearly recall watching her and Sonny on TV. (Laughs) Although honestly, Iím still surprised my mother let me watch all those Sonny and Cher shows when I was younger.

They separated, and I was done with it when they split up. It really affected me, and I can honestly remember thinking I was done with them.

Then there was high school. I always loved singing, and several of my friends knew I could do a good impression of Cher. In fact, they called it the ĎCher voiceí when we would sing on the school bus or wherever. It was kind of crazy. I would tell everyone to turn around. I wouldnít do it if anyone was looking at me. But they looked away, and I sang. And now, Iím still singing.

Letís go back a bit, even before Legends, to the movie you were a part of. A little over a decade ago you had a chance to do the singing voice of Cher for a television movie about Sonny and Cher (And The Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story). What was that like?

That movie was a high-point of my career and a fabulous experience. It was based on Sonnyís autobiography.

I actually auditioned for the role of Cher and they asked me to provide the vocals. In the end, that worked out great because they were recording the music at the same time they were filming, and I have no clue how anyone could have done both.

Have you ever met her?

Not in person. But I have been in the same room as her, sort of.

When I was 8, I was really focused on Cher. I had gone to Kansas City for a conference. Seals and Croft were performing, and I can recall being in an auditorium and seeing Cher there out of the corner of my eye.

Thatís about it though. Iíve never met her in a way to be introduced. She may know of me though, in part because of the movie.

Do you have a favorite time from Cherís career?

Personally I like the 70s and especially her work with Sonny. Thatís where my first experiences were with Cher. I grew up with their variety show and remember not watching her solo efforts for a while after they separated.

Iíve heard you sing songs, for lack of a better description, in three different voices: your own, as Cher, and as Shania Twain. Personally, I think your voice is much closer to Shaniaís than to Cherís. Do you find it difficult to portray someone else? And, how has your performance developed over time?

Itís definitely been a learning process for me.

I spent about 8 years performing in Branson, Missouri, and that was a tremendous period of time for me. I felt good about my voice, but that period of time was when I really began gaining confidence in myself and my stage presence.

Itís funny, because youíre wondering if itís hard to perform as someone else, but I actually find it to be easier. Shania scared me when I began working with her material. As you mention, my normal voice is much closer to how she normally sings, and I never wear a wig as Shania.

It comes back to confidence I suppose, and the acting as another person is a part of it. If we tried to dig deep we might find some connection, that in the same way I wanted people to turn around on the school bus I enjoyed a bit of the extra layer brought about by changing my voice and putting on a wig or costume.

Almost like a security blanket?

Yes. I suppose. (Pauses for a moment.)

Itís strange. I remember being a kid and putting on shows. And I donít recall being aware of any of the extra details. Maybe as kids we know who we are a bit better because we arenít as aware of who we arenít. (Laughs) Does that make sense?

I tend to be a very private person. I donít want too much focus on me. In fact, I have friends that have asked me to sing, say at a wedding, and I get very uncomfortable with that. I donít like it.

You take someone like Cher. She can be blonde. Itís still Cher. And in my performances, I can change the wig Iím wearing and the costume, and it doesnít completely matter as long as Iím true to what people remember. Memories are very powerful assets for tribute artists. Getting the voice, the wardrobe, the mannerisms, and the song to come together gives me plenty to focus on while performing, and I think it does provide security for me in some ways.

What are some of your favorite songs to perform?

I love singing ďAfter AllĒ when I can. Itís a song Cher originally performed as a duet with Peter Cetera. People tend to comment on it positively after shows when I can sing it, though it isnít one I can easily include in a shorter set.

Speaking of audiences and their reaction, what are some of the more memorable responses youíve had to your efforts?

Iíve had people come up to say things like ďyou brought a special moment backĒ or to thank me while saying ďplease donít ever stop.Ē Those mean a great deal to me.

I often find that people that have never seen a good, professional tribute performance have preconceived notions about what is going on, and they are almost all at least a bit wrong.

Iíve had a chance to compare my experiences with other tribute artists, and itís pretty consistent. People know Iím not Cher, or that they arenít seeing Elvis. But when they smile and tell me how much they enjoyed the show and how it brought back great memories, I know itís not a nothing job. And it seems to connect with the people I meet after each show.

On a personal note, Iíve heard you recently went through some major medical issues. I donít know if you want to talk about that, but I was wondering if this was your first time back on stage in a while.

Youíre right, and you can mention it.

I had a kidney transplant. I have performed some one-night shows, but this will be my first series of performances since the transplant. Itís great being back on stage, performing and doing what I love. All of the effort to be here makes it even more special to see the audience and their reaction.

In order to bring some of this together, from your musical career to your illness, I want to backtrack a bit. Letís head back to the beginning and place you on a stage. Did you sing in any way as a performance while in school? When did you get your professional start?

I was in bands beginning back out of high school. But if you want the real glamour, I was cutting hair for ten years before music really became a full-time professional option for me.

In 1991, I began working in Branson, and if there is a moment where you could place the career for me, that would be where it would start.

Before you mentioned being in Branson for about 8 years. The math from 1991 moves right up to about And The Beat Goes On, and also the amount of time youíve been with Legends to today.

Legends did find me after the movie, but you have the timing and the connections just about exactly right. I was looking to expand things a bit, and they knew my bio and that they wanted me to perform as Cher.

It was a bit of wonderful shock joining Legends. The people I worked with and met as part of Legends in Concert were fantastic then, and they always have been since those early days. Itís a great group, and I am so grateful for the opportunities they have provided me with. The shock was the travel. I was finishing some work in Branson and then my first performances were to be in Atlantic City. From there I was supposed to go to the island of Diego Garcia. It was a lot of travel, and I found myself at the time thinking that it would be nice to slow it down a bit.

I live east of Springfield, Missouri. And I am a true homebody. I love being at home and spending time there. And itís funny, because my husband, Dave, travels a lot as well. Heís fine when both of us need to travel, and I couldnít ask for a bigger or better supporter of what I do, but he also seems to love it best when weíre both at home.

Do you think that enjoyment of a quiet home life has changed anything for your professional efforts?

I donít know. Itís definitely part of it.

Youíve probably heard some stories from people, say about heading to Nashville to pursue a career. I wanted to go to Nashville, and I did. At the time I was there though, I didnít have the confidence in myself that I really needed to have in order to make it.

Looking back, I also know I didnít have the health. But thatís not what you think about when youíre young and impressionable.

I cut a 4-song demo that was greeted by slamming doors. It took me a year and a half to get over that.

How long has your health been a concern and a part of the story?

Weíre probably talking about when I was 19, but itís strange.

In entertainment, especially doing things like a tribute performance, you are consistently focused on your appearance. I knew back then it was something I would have to fight my entire life, but I was young and just starting out. I felt good enough that there were other things to pay more attention to.

How did that change for you?

Well, I always took care of myself. And Iím sure that helped buy me extra time before things became unavoidable. I went through all the stages though.

Early on it was denial for me. I had no clue back then what I was truly facing. The doctors prescribed some medication, and the symptoms disappeared. And if the symptoms werenít there, it was almost like I was perfectly fine. So I always figured that I would beat it somehow.

At one point my doctor started talking about dialysis and a transplant list and my reaction was to just walk out. I really needed to be smacked in the head a bit before I came around.

When did that happen?

It was probably about three years ago that I knew I may not make it with these kidneys.

My husbandís brother died of kidney disease. And thatís one of those connections from life that really brings focus to you. My husband has been adamant about my taking care of things.

Going back before that, my family, specifically my brothers, knew something was wrong but never how bad it was. I kept moving, and my body was just used to working.

Things started changing for me when I got to St. Louis about three years ago and was told my kidneys were functioning at about 10% of what they should be. That time probably provided most of my darkest moments. I had explored all sorts of options. But this time, the next day I ended up with a port for dialysis and I knew time was pressing.

It was around Thanksgiving that year that things started to move more quickly as a result of all this. My husband had been tested as a possible donor, but he was the wrong blood type. By now my condition was more apparent to those close to me, and my family had decided to get tested as well. And, my brother Aaron turned out to be a match for me.

And this led to the transplant?

Yes. It took place on June 1, 2010.

Obviously having you with us for this series of shows is a great sign in general. How are you doing now?

Medically Iím doing really well. All the tests and numbers they run come back with good news and strong results. Iím working very hard at pacing myself and taking care of myself. Iím very fortunate to have some wonderful people around me. Thatís so important.

I find I have more energy now than I did in recent years before the transplant. My voice is stronger. Itís a learning process though. I think I have a bit of a rasp in my voice, and so far there have been a few notes Iíve been afraid to go for. But much of that seems to be trust, in that when I was younger I could simply trust that they were going to be there. As I continue working Iím finding my confidence is coming back, and I believe that trust in my full voice will return as well.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have plans for re-visiting some of your own material?

Do I have plans? (She smiles, offers a slight laugh, and repeats the question while considering it.)

Sure, I would like to get back to some of the material that I consider my own. I also keep looking at the material I perform as Cher or Shania and re-vamp it every so often.

The reality though is that I enjoy what Iím doing. And whether that means delivering more inspirational material and my own personal material, or, performing on stage as Cher, when I see an audience smiling and having fun itís rewarding for me.

More than anything else though, I simply want to appreciate life and enjoy the opportunities my family has provided me with.

Life is short, even if you live to be 90.

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Words alone cannot express my gratitude to Kelly for her time and consideration. We met in personÖ exchanged e-mailsÖ and worked around two completely different schedules on this piece. And through it all she was kind, attentive and patient. Truly a wonderful person, and I am extremely grateful for her help and friendship.

You can catch up with Kelly by using the following linksÖ

The official web site of Kelly Smith

Kelly Smith at Legends in Concert

The Kelly Smith photo gallery at In My Backpack

The two pictures you see in this article have been provided by Kelly Smith. All rights to these pictures belong to Kelly, and she has approved their use on my site. They cannot be used for any other purpose without her permission.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com