Most fans of early rock and roll know about Sun Records in Memphis and how it helped give starts to guys like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. But there was at least one talented Sun alumnus — Warren Smith — who was just as good as those guys, but never seemed able to break out in a big way. Of course, he did have a few obstacles along the way.
Born and raised in rural Mississippi, Smith embarked on a musical career after fulfilling his military obligation. He’d taught himself guitar by then, and had a strong singing voice that began to attract some attention as he appeared in clubs in Texas and Arkansas in the mid-1950s. It wasn’t long before he found himself auditioning at Sun in Memphis, one of a crowd of singers who were performing what would become known as rockabilly.
His recording career began with a Johnny Cash song, “Rock N’ Roll Ruby,” which made quite a splash with savvy Memphis fans, rising to the top of local charts. It didn’t do nearly as well nationally but it was still a great start for Smith, who followed up with records like “Ubangi Stomp,” “Uranium Rock,” “Black Jack David,” and a Roy Orbison song, “So Long, I’m Gone,” which would be Smith’s first nationally charted record.
But over the next couple of years Smith gradually moved more and more to the country side, eventually leaving Sun Records and moving to California, where he was able to get a new recording contract. It seemed to work out well for him when he subsequently hit the country Top Ten with “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today,” and “Odds And Ends (Bits And Pieces).” His success continued for several years but he was seriously injured in a car wreck in 1965, and during his long recovery fell prey to problems with drugs and heavy drinking. He hit bottom when he was arrested for robbing a drugstore and had to serve a prison sentence.
After years of struggle, Smith began to make some headway in restarting his career in the late 1970s, helped along by a resurgence in the popularity of rockabilly. The music was especially popular with British fans, and in 1980 Smith was preparing for the latest of several European tours he’d made when he was struck down by a fatal heart attack. He was just 47.