Orriel Smith – A Voice In The Wind
Possessing a voice like a human theremin, a window-shattering soprano so high that the heavens above have to part to give it room to breathe, Orriel Smith began singing coloratura arias almost before she could speak. She attended one of Johns Hopkins University’s experimental school for gifted and talented children, and briefly lived in Milan, Italy, where she learned Italian and studied piano and violin at the Milano Conservatory. Her family moved to Hollywood, USA, where her mother worked at Paramount Studios and Orriel performed at city concerts and the Hollywood Bowl and occasionally acted in such TV shows as ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘Divorce Court.'
While still a teenager, Orriel went to New York to study singing with Roberta Peters' voice coach, and once performed ‘The Russian Nightingale’ to a standing ovation on the Johnny Carson show after a theatrical agent suggested she had a “voice higher than Yma Sumac.” A Columbia Records contract followed, and she released her debut album, ‘Voice in The Wind’ for the label in 1963. A few years later, this self-confessed “Renaissance Woman” won the women's chess championship at the Nevada State and Invitational Tournament. Her musical career continued with a stint with the Jimmy Joyce Singers, which landed her on ‘The Red Skelton Show,’ ‘The Smothers Brothers Show’ and numerous television specials. She’s toured with the Ray Conniff Singers (she appears on the ‘Live in Japan’ album) and Dolly Parton and even opened for Dick Gregory at The Hungry I in San Francisco. Along the way, Orriel received a Psychology degree from UCLA/University of California (Irvine), and for the past two decades has been teaching presentation skills for private, government and educational (e.g., the Universities of California) institutions.
In the midst of all this activity, Orriel found the time to record a one-off single for the small Tudor imprint in the early 70s with the classical composer, Phillip Lambro, ‘Tiffany Glass’ c/w ‘Winds of Space’ [you can hear both sides on the lovely ‘Fuzzy-Felt Folk’ compilation CD, which is where Ms. Smith came to our attention and whom our reviewer Steve Pescott praised as “the major find of the album”], as well as provide the haunting backing vocals to his soundtrack to ‘Crypt of The Living Dead,’ which was reissued last year on Perseverence. An unreleased full album was rumoured to exist, but more on that in a moment. In 2002, Orriel returned to the recording studio for the delightfully delirious operatic spoof, ‘The World’s Favorite Cluckoratura Arias,’ wherein she clucks half a dozen arias like a chicken. Of course, she says this is the most fun she’s ever had in the recording studio!
To unravel the mystery behind this enigmatic performer, we sent Jeff Penczak in search of a lot more than lost chords, and herewith are his discoveries.
Your name is perfectly suited to what you do – sing like an oriole! Is that your birth name, evidence that your folks envisioned a career for you behind the microphone?
My mother always joked that since my last name was “Smith” she was determined to find me an interesting first name. So (she said) she hid me under the bed and started looking. “Orriel” is supposed to mean “Divine Power” in some pre-Teutonic language. I didn’t know how she found it until after she had died. I was going through old pictures to file when I found a poem typed on a manual typewriter on yellowed paper:
“Hovering piteously, the nightbird soft laments
No silvery notes, nor dazzling scales, nor roulades endlessly ~
Hovering piteously, ‘neath his tiny wing
He tucks the velvet dark safe from the monster day.
Hovering piteously ~
Aha! It’s actually a man’s name (with that spelling) more popular in the 1800’s, I’m told. Because my name is often mistaken for “Oriole” or “Oreo”, I’ve though of making a pendant that looks like a cookie with a feather filling sticking out as a conversation piece.
Could you tell us about your early life – birthplace, etc etc. How old were you when you lived in Milan? When did you move to Hollywood?
I was born in Washington DC. My father, Bill, was in the Federal Reserve Board and travelled to banks quite a bit. My mother kept singing and went her own professional way as well. I was at some wonderful early age in Johns Hopkins schools that centered on creativity. My mother was afraid of all the shots I would have to have to have me travel with her to the Amazon, etc., so I went to a few boarding schools that were also wonderful. I think they also were part of a Johns Hopkins program in those days.
At nine, I travelled to Italy with my mother on a maiden voyage of an Italian liner, ‘Cristofero Columbo’. She sang some concerts on the ship and I sang at the end of them. It was wonderful fun, and I learned enough Italian on the ship to go to my grade in public school when we arrived in Milano. We were there for several years with my Mother performing and taking lessons from some famous Italian Opera singers. I was enrolled at the Milano Conservatory and in the La Scala Ballet School. We would have stayed longer, I’m sure, but we found out that my father had lung cancer back in Washington DC, so we made arrangements to return to the U.S. We decided to go to California, since my father had some relatives near Long Beach. I was twelve and singing in some concerts around the area. Les Brown Jr. had written a unique arrangement of ‘Caravan’ that I performed with my exceptional high notes.
After my father died, a year later, my mother asked me if I wanted to continue performing and move towards Hollywood, or if I wanted to go back to the East Coast. I said I’d like to try some more commercial singing, so we moved to Hollywood where I enrolled in Hollywood Professional School. My mother had great talent as a legal secretary, typing 110 words a minute, so she went to work at Paramount Pictures. I spent lots of time after school riding my bicycle around the Paramount lot and watching films being made. I also acted in some shows like ‘Divorce Court’, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’, some series and a few independent films.
You performed at an early age at the end of your mother’s concerts. Tell us a little about your mother’s career and what that experience was like at such a tender age (how old were you?)
I think I was something of a “baby bird”. I was very easy going and followed my mother around doing what she did, and singing what she sang. She never had to “teach” me or convince me to practice. I had a good ear and learned whatever arias she was learning, and had exceptional high notes. I was able to sing fully past the highest piano keys when I was around eight years old, so was able to add embellishments to the arias that I was learning. My mother sang more in South America and Europe than in the United States, but she did sing in concerts in Los Angeles. I sang at the end of her concerts, as well as alone as a “prodigy” in musicals and other shows. People would ask me if I had “stage fright” but I would only get calmer as I walked on stage. My mother was a “Dramatic Coloratura” so was able to sing the heavier roles. I always loved Lucia! I used to dress up in a white red stained nightgown, carrying around a dagger for Halloween. I loved singing because it was such a part of my surroundings and the music was in my subconscious having heard as a baby to child.
At what time did you decide that you wanted to be a musician?
Up until my teens, I never really “decided” to be a musician. Singing was what I did best, but I was very well rounded taking ballet lessons, violin, horseback riding and fancy roping, ice skating. I was athletic and things came easily to me, but I knew that my important talent was my unusual voice, so that’s what I concentrated on, and protected.
You performed at local concerts and at the Hollywood Bowl – was this with self-penned, folk-based material or covers?
The concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and other venues were my doing classical arias as a teenager. I was thinking about whether I wanted to try to enter the world of opera with my essentially “sweet” voice, when I went to summer camp at Arrowbear Music Camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. I was 13. I went there as a violinist to play in the orchestra (with a cast on my foot from a broken toe... running into a ping pong table!). Jean Ritchie was a guest performer there and sang Appalachian folk songs on a guitar and Dulcimer. I loved the melodies, and the fact that she could carry her accompaniment around with her! I realized that the melodies were actually quite lyrical and operatic in their own right, and decided that day to learn to play the guitar. Having familiarity with the violin helped a bit.
When I was 17, I received a scholarship to study with William Herman in NYC who was Roberta Peters’ teacher. My mother gave me a year to do that, and then return to California to start college. I was off to NYC alone. I would have lessons with Mr. Herman during the day. In the evenings I would go to “Gerde’s Music City” to Hootenannys with Jose Feliciano, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and some wonderful local singers.
I especially liked a fellow who sang funny English ditties, and another who sang sea shanties. Eventually I sang on a bill at Gerde’s as a regular performer double billed with Jose Feliciano. I remember I had to have an escort to stage because I was underage to be working at a bar.
When my mother came to NYC to “collect” me to go back to California, we stayed at an old hotel. We were vocalizing and whooping it up one day, when there was a knock on the door. We though “oh, oh…we scared somebody!” It was Jack Beekman, a personal manager, who asked who was singing with the high voice. My mother pointed at me, and he asked us to come to his office ASAP. We were slated to fly back to California the next day, but we delayed our plans and went to see him instead. When we got there, he asked me if I’d be able to sing an audition for Johnny Carson that day. He had called the show and said he had a girl who could sing “higher than Yma Sumac”. He drove us there, and there was no place for me to sing except in a freezing piano storage room. Johnny gave me his coat, my mother played one of the pianos. I sang a bit of the “Russian Nightingale” . When we got back to the hotel, Jack called and said I was on the next night. All I remember was lots of hot lights, but I was told that some people in the audience gave me a standing ovation! Johnny interviewed me. He asked me something about whether I had “time for boyfriends” and I said “Oh no, not at all.” He thought that was very funny.
Mr Beekman arranged for me to have an interview at Columbia Records on the strength of having been on Johnny Carson. In those days you could actually go to a record company and sing for them in person! I went in to [Columbia A&R man] Bill Randle’s office, sang ‘The First Time’ and he said. “OK”. Luckily there was an opening for a female Folk type at Columbia…so there I was. I was introduced to Bobby Scott (‘A Taste of Honey’) to be my A&R man. I knew he was very jazzy so I worried as to what he’d do with my pristine soprano-folk, but as it turned out, he was a great lover of Irish and English folk ballads and helped me with some of the vocal turns, etc. [Randle and Scott are credited as co-producers of Smith’s debut album.]
Did you also do any local T.V. or radio?
My mother and I returned to California. The TV shows I did from then on were “Shindig” and “Hootenanny” type shows as promotion locally and through the US. Others were concerts and some club dates like The Hungry I in San Francisco and The Troubador in Los Angeles.
Did you originally hope to be an opera singer or were you secretly hoping for a career as a folk singer like Joan Baez?
I was assuming that I might be an opera singer, although my mentality and temperament is more commercial than that. I imagined myself singing in a small Opera house in Germany somewhere and whether that was really me. I realised my temperament was more suited for television and eventually studio singing. I joined the Jimmy Joyce Singers, which was like a family for me. We were the singer/dancers on The Smothers Brothers Show, Johnny Mathis Show, Glen Campbell Summer Show, Specials and movie backgrounds.
As a folk singer, I made it pretty clear that I was a “singer of folk songs” rather than a folk singer. So many of the folk singers had causes, and I never felt I was in the position in my life or personality to “protest” for causes at the time. My interest was in the message of the songs and melodies themselves. I maintained a classical thought in that regard, so I was a bit of an “odd bird” amongst the Folkies.
I can definitely hear your voice appearing in some of the old musicals I loved growing up as a kid – you know, the ones usually featuring someone like Marni Nixon singing for Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn or Deborah Kerr. Were you ever approached to provide the off-screen vocals in any films?
I was probably born 20 years too late. So much of my type of voice was used in the 40’s and 50’s. I actually had a screen test at Paramount in the 60’s to do a remake of ‘Three Smart Girls’ (originally a 1936 film) as the Deanna Durbin character, and was in the running, but they finally decided against producing it.
I also was reminded of that timeless scene in the sci-fi classic, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ where Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy are trapped in a tunnel and they hear this gorgeous voice coming across the farmland from a nearby radio. It always reminded me of a theremin, and I can hear that chilling, pristine quality in your stratospheric vocals. Have you ever worked with “wordless vocals” in your career (obviously, not counting your recent “cluckoratura” operatic spoof).
I’m a great admirer of the Theremin, and I do hear some of that quality in my high voice. I’d love to learn to play one! I did a lot of wordless obbligati in studio music and sang without words as background for the spooky movie ‘Crypt of the Living Dead.’ I’m working on a CD using my voice as an instrument, hoping for a bit of my “inner Theremin” to come out.
Speaking of the ‘Cluckoratura Arias,’ have you ever recorded “serious” opera music? From what I’ve heard, you could certainly give Beverly Sills a run for her money!
I have recently recorded some of the 'Cluckoratura' arias “straight” and hope to include them in something in the future. Most of the recorded arias that I did were done in the “prodigy” stage, but I often get requests for newer examples.
I must say that that album is one of the most unusual in my collection. Please do tell us how that came about!
I was rehearsing some music with my teacher, Jill Goodsell, when I noted that it was a shame that they don’t seem to teach agility and vocal gymnastics much anymore. Most of the college students are given German Lieder, and slow lyrical songs. I was saying to her that it was a shame and that “staccato” to a lot of people might as well be a chicken clucking so I started clucking away. I thought “Why not?” They say to “do what you love”. I love the arias, being silly, and making animal sounds…so why not do them all at once? I also love to write and I’m having a wonderful time with the e-mails I receive from “Cluckoratura” admirers. The Cluckoratura CD received Fourth Place, Novelty category in the ‘Just Plain Folks’ music awards 2006. Over 25,000 CDs were judged, so I felt very honoured. I’m hoping there will be a “cross species” category some day! I performed ‘Queen of the Night’ for the evening awards show, feathers flying! It was great fun.
You recorded your debut album back in 1963 and you interpret several Scottish/English/Irish ballads, such as ‘The Deceived Girl,’ ‘Down By The Glenside,’ ‘Black Is The Colour,’ and ‘Geordie.” Did you have any input into the song selections, or were they chosen for you and (if the latter) was it difficult to get behind songs that you really didn’t care for? (You certainly seem to be giving it your best shot, so the listener would never know that you were disappointed in the track selections.)
Most of the album selections were songs that I already loved singing. Bobby Scott introduced ‘White Curtains’ and the two blues songs. I really liked them all.
Did you ever write or record any of your own songs or did you always rely, as the old saying goes, “on the kindness of strangers?”
I went through a period of writing songs. One that I wrote in about 10 minutes for a man to sing was a country song called ‘Lifetime Woman’. It was sung by David Frizell and did well for awhile. I have a feeling I’ll be writing again. I seem to tend towards country with music writing. Right now I’m doing some arrangements of some Classical piano pieces for voice.
How was the album received when it was released?
The ‘Voice in the Wind’ album was received quite well. I remember walking by Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood one day and seeing the windows filled with huge posters of me! I was surprised. I got lots of fan mail, some saying that they hung the cover on the wall, which was certainly flattering. I learned recently that a Green Beret friend played the album often when they were stationed in Viet Nam and could find a record player. Apparently ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ was the favourite.
I assume this one, for example, has never been reissued on CD. Is that something you would be interested in seeing someday, or do you prefer to focus on your current projects?
Of course, I’d love to see it reissued. I still get a lot of emails asking about the album. I’m not sure how to go about that possibility through Columbia.
Who accompanies you on acoustic guitar on the tracks?
I didn’t play the guitar on any of the album tracks. Walter Raim did the accompaniments. I wish I played as cleanly as he did!
Is it true you taught yourself to play by listening to Joan Baez records at 16rpm?
Yes, when I got home from Arrowbear Music Camp, I tuned my guitar down to where Joan Baez’ album was when played at 16rpm and tried to copy the notes. It actually worked! But it was very tedious.
Did you always want to be a folk singer or did you have broader dreams of hooking up with others and possibly putting a group together?
I never was very interested in having a group at the time. I really liked the ability as a “bard” or story teller singer playing my own guitar to have the freedom to interpret the rhythm each time I sang a song. It gave the song a lot of expression, although I always wished I had looked into more accompaniment.
I hear a hint of Buffy Sainte-Marie running through the arrangements and vocal styles on the album. She was an early contemporary of yours, having played Greenwich Village in the early 60’s and releasing her debut a year after yours. Were you familiar with her work – had you ever run into her when you worked the Village – and was she an inspiration to you?
I didn’t hear Buffy when I was in the Village. I think she was around there a bit before I was. I enjoyed her recordings. I liked most of the solo female folk singers who sang with sensitivity.
You’re very brave to tackle the blues on ‘Been On This Train.’ Your voice seems a little too high and angelic for the blues – not that gruff, down-in-the-gutter, dirty, muddy sound we usually associate with the blues. Do you enjoy singing the blues and would you liked to have tried it more often in your career?
I’m still very interested in “angelic blues”. I think there was an innovation there and wished we had pursued it further.
Was this your first time in a recording studio, and was this a rather overwhelming experience for someone so young at the time? Your vocals seem so relaxed, yet confident.
This was my first time in a large recording studio with a major company. I wasn’t concerned with the recording studio, except that I loved being in one, and still do! It’s its own time-warped environment and I’ve always felt very comfortable in a recording studio.
Were there any other recordings from these sessions, or is everything on the released album?
Everything is on the album.
How/when did you meet composer Philip Lambro? Can you also tell us a bit about his label Tudor Records and the release of your 'Tiffany Glass'/'Winds of Space' single.
When I was studio singing, I heard that an innovative classical composer was looking for a soprano with good high notes. I met Phillip Lambro, auditioned, and was chosen out of 50 who auditioned. He later hired me to sing for the background of ‘Crypt of the Living Dead,’ which I also found fascinating.
Did you work with a regular band on the records or was it recorded with session players? and how did it feel singing lyrics written by others - Janice Hill and Sonia Brown / Philip Lambro respectively.
We recorded it live with the studio musicians in the room. I loved the challenge of ‘Winds of Space’ and the spooky childishness of ‘Tiffany Glass’. Keeping concentration with all the music around me was a great puzzle. He used chimes and they were unique arrangements.
I’ve heard that you worked with Mr. Lambro on additional tracks and there are rumours that an unreleased album was prepared but never released. Can you tell us about that.
No, there's no unrecorded album... although it gives me an idea. Maybe Mr. Lambro and I should record something now, put some scratches on it and say we found (the long lost album) in a dusty storage bin somewhere! Very romantique, oui?
In 1977, David Frizzell recorded your song, ‘Lifetime Woman,’ that was released (twice!) by MCA as both an A-side (c/w ‘Oleander’) and two moths later as the flip to ‘Why You Been Gone So Long.’ Was either version successful and do you still see the occasional royalty?
‘Lifetime Woman’ did pretty well. I was just thrilled to have a song I’d written recorded by David. I had written the song to be more of a ballad, because that was my style.
How was your time spent in the years after your involvement with the "Crypt" sessions and before re-discovery by the good Jonny Trunk (M.D. of Trunk Records). Is that when you returned to school to get your psychology degree and real estate license?
I was working in a film production company in Seattle. While I was there, I got a call to audition in Los Angeles for the Japan tour of the Ray Conniff Singers. The company was being sold, so I decided to give it a try. After the Conniff tour I sang with the Dolly Parton US/Canada tour and then sang in Las Vegas with the Charo Show. I had never actually finished my Psychology Degree from UCLA [University of California at Irvine], so finished it in the 80’s at UCI and continued for a while at Pepperdine University. My mother and I worked as a team in Real Estate, and I was also doing Presentation Skills Seminars - I found that I loved coaching adults one on one and seeing tremendous progress in a short time. My Mother became ill, and I scaled down, happily, to care for her.
How did Mr. Trunk initially get in touch with you with regard to including 'Tiffany' and 'W.O.S.' on the 'Fuzzy Felt Folk' album, and what was your reaction to this?
I heard about the ‘Fuzzy Felt Folk’ CD from Phillip who had been contacted by Mr. Trunk. I think it’s great! Especially for Phillip, who did such an interesting job on the two cuts.
How do you think your tracks fit in with the general concept of 'Fuzzy Felt Folk' and what feedback has there been from your appearance on that compilation?
Most of the feedback I’ve received is that my two tracks (especially ‘Winds of Space’) “stand out from the crowd”. I’m thrilled to be in the compilation. I think it’s adorable. Especially the ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ is one of my favourites. People have told them the whole CD makes them happy.
Tell us a little about these new haunting, ethereal, yet uplifting tracks that you’ve recently recorded. Are these a teaser for a full length, ‘Ghosts of The Alhambra,’ perhaps?
The two guitar tracks with voice ‘Ghosts of the Alhambra’ are a trial. I’m hoping to make a full CD with the idea. I’ve always liked singing as an instrument, and have several piano and other guitar pieces in mind.
Are you familiar with the work of Edda Dell’Orso or any of the other stratospheric sopranos that Ennio Morricone used on his film soundtracks – I’m particularly thinking of her shattering work on ‘Once Upon A Time In The West.’ Would you be interested in returning to the film soundtrack world if asked?
I’d love to do soundtracks! Maybe some of my eerie ideas will inspire someone in the film industry.
Do you ever see yourself venturing back into the folk vein, or do you intend to stick to the classical realm for the forseeable future?
I’m absolutely transported to another time when I sing ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘Endearing Young Charms’ so I hope to at least record some of the old songs I especially have a fondness for. Sort of like a female Irish Tenor. I’m very influenced by John McCormack. I also have some favourite “murder ballads” that I found when I was singing in clubs. With my high soprano and innocent look, I thought it would be surprising to the audience to sing some murder songs. I tried it at the Hungry I and it went over well. Most are silly story songs and a few are serious. I’d like to record those too.
What can your fans, both old and new, look forward to in the immediate future?
I’ve found that a cat makes a very good flute. The last cut on my ‘Cluckoratura’ CD, ‘The Shadow Song’, the cat meows the flute part with the chicken. Lots of cat owners have told me how much they love the idea, so I’m close to finishing a new CD with more classical cat and chicken duets as well as some cat solos. My other CD will be “human” with instrumental voice arrangements. There are a few pre-samples on my website. I’m hoping to make some appearances this year as well.
Written and directed by Jeff Penczak. Editing & Production: Phil McMullen. Additional questions were suggested by Steve Pescott and Keith Ostler. © Terrascope Online, May 2007