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Orriel Smith

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Biography All Music Guide

All Music Guide:

Orriel Smith has led one of the more extraordinary careers of any vocalist since her emergence at the end of the 1950s. By training and inclination, she was an operatic singer, surrounded by the music from her earliest memories and imitating the coloratura arias that she heard -- among the earliest pieces that she mastered, while still a child, was The Bell Song from Lakmé. Her studies, plus the travels of her mother (an established singer), carried her to Italy and the Milan Conservatory, where she took up studying piano and violin, and the La Scala Ballet Company School. Her mother's work at Paramount Pictures later took her to Hollywood, where Smith began an acting career on television. It was after hearing Jean Ritchie perform at the Arrowbear Music Camp that she became enamored of Appalachian folk songs, and took up the guitar so that she could accompany herself in this newly discovered repertory. As a model for her own work, she turned to Joan Baez, who was then a new and emerging star on the folk scene -- by her own account, she learned to play the guitar by slowing Baez's records to 16 rpm and painstakingly capturing every note on her own guitar, tuned down for the purpose.

Smith later moved to New York to study singing and began spending time at the folk clubs that abounded in the early '60s, and was soon singing in them. Her extraordinary range attracted the attention of a manager who, after a meeting in his office, got her booked onto The Tonight Show. This, in turn, led to her being signed to Columbia Records, where she recorded the album A Voice in the Wind in 1963 with producer Bobby Scott. By 1964, she'd appeared on Hootenanny and other television folk venues and was getting major club bookings, albeit mostly as an opening act, around the country. Smith later joined the Jimmy Joyce Singers, who were a fixture on various CBS network variety programs. Since then, Smith has performed solo and worked in film and television, and she also wrote "Lifetime Woman," a song recorded by David Frizzell. She has also been a member of the Ray Conniff Singers and worked with Dolly Parton. She is still recording at the outset of the 21st century, most notably her highly "stylized" operatic showcase for children, Cluckoratura.