A STEADY stream of glowing tributes have been flowing following the death of recording artiste and cabaret singer Karen Smith.
Smith — who died in a Montego Bay hospital in the early hours of Saturday morning following a one-year battle with colon cancer — was remembered for her voice, disarming smile, and infectious personality, both on and off the stage.
The nation first got a taste of the charm she exuded in the early 1980s when she was paired with balladeer Mallory Williams for a television advertisement for Grace Cock Soup. This signalled the start of many more memorable performances. Comfortable and adept in jazz, pop, classical and most genres of Jamaican music, she became a popular act for events ranging from national and State occasions, as well as weddings, funerals, and other private affairs.
Many are unaware that Smith started her working life in banking, but the pull to the stage was too strong to resist and, by the mid-1980s, moved into music full time, gracing stages in hotels throughout the country, her cabaret act filled the full spectrum of musical genres. She would later catch the eye of promoters in the world's entertainment capital, Las Vegas, where she captivated audiences as a lounge act in the casinos of the popular United States playground.
In September last year, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She fought valiantly, and was generally upbeat when she shared her experience with the disease. Her fight, however, ended at 3:10 am on Saturday morning at the Baywest Wellness Hospital in St James, where she had been admitted since Tuesday.
Her husband, veteran bass guitarist Jackie Jackson, shared that she underwent surgery in early October last year.
“She did chemo, radiation, and nothing helped. How I see it, the time came... and if the Lord says 'come now', nothing can stop it. I will always remember her. Unforgettable,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
Together with fellow performers Gem Myers and P'Tricia Edwards, Smith was the third member in the trio Pakage, which wooed audience across the island and overseas. Her fellow Pakage mates were among those most who were saddened at the 61-year-old's passing.
In addition to widower Jackie Jackson, she leaves behind daughter Courtni, mother Barbara Smith, former principal of Montego Bay High School; close relatives, friends, and fans.
Edwards was too emotional to speak when the Jamaica Observer caught up with her. In tears, she muttered, “I'm so distraught right now. I can't put the words together to tell you about Karen.”
“I will miss everything, everything about her,” was all she was able to share before being overcome by another wave of tears.
Singer Pam Hall became a stand-in member of Pakage, whenever one of the females was unable to make a performance. For Hall, Smith was a treasure.
“Karen.... super vibrant, oh so polite, and that big smile. Karen was a pro from the word go. So she was always focused and did decent rehearsals. What a treasure, her personality, and musical talent made her so well loved by her audiences and persons in the music industry. It was always so much fun working with them in Pakage. I remember the first time I saw them perform together, it was at Gem's show. I was one of the first to tell them to keep it going. Death is the hardest part of life for those of us left behind... will hold on to the treasured memories,” said Hall.
Smith served as president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians and Affiliates Union (JFMAU) up until her diagnosis. She was hailed for her vision by the organisation.
“Karen was very instrumental in reviving the federation, a few years ago when our industry was hit with a lot of uncertainty especially in the tourism sector. She took up the baton and continued to fight for the rights of entertainers all across the country. She started the process of standardising the music industry and the JFMAU is proud to continue to build on this vision. For many years, her unforgettable beautiful voice, charm, and stalwart stellar performances have given pleasure to millions across the world. Today is a hard day and this is a devastating loss for the music industry. Rest in peace Jamaica's songbird, our silent warrior,” said Omar Lawson, president of the JFMAU, in a release sent to the Observer.
Entertainment and Culture Minister Olivia “Babsy” Grange called Smith one of the queens of stage performance, noting that whether she was performing at national or international events or in little country churches, she was always engaging, entertaining, and charming.
“In her performances and in her leadership role, Karen has left an indelible imprint on the culture, arts and entertainment landscape of Jamaica. She was an active contributor to the cause of industry development. We will always remember Karen's legendary voice, engaging personality, enduring warmth and her advocacy. Jamaica's quintessential songbird now sings in the choirs of New Jerusalem,”said Grange.
Smith was also a member of Government's Entertainment Advisory Board (EAB). President of the EAB, Howard McIntosh, was also among those paying tribute. He lauded her professionalism and noted her immense work in mentoring younger entertainers, as well as her contribution to our local entertainment tapestry.
“We will miss her jovial and encouraging spirit as she fervently spoke about the resilience of Jamaican entertainers. Her contribution over 40 years across the music, tourism and entertainment industries will be greatly missed,” McIntosh shared.
Smith is best remember for the covers Wide Awake In A Dream and Oh Me Oh My.
She was conferred with the Order of Distinction in 2006 by the Government of Jamaica for her contribution to the music industry.