Kate Smith's ringing rendition of "God Bless America" cheered her countrymen through the darkest days of World War II — and transformed her from a popular singer to a national symbol of joyful patriotism.
Smith had no formal music training ("The voice is a God-given gift. I don't question it and I don't train it. I just use it as I think the Lord intended," she said) and her personal appearance (early Broadway roles were in comic fat-girl parts) was never a particular asset.
But those who heard her rich, contralto voice were not likely to forget it. More than 700 of her songs made the Hit Parade (a yardstick of popular musical success for the era), including "The Music Goes Round and Round," "The Last Time I Saw Paris," "White Cliffs of Dover" and her theme song, "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain."
That last song, which she helped write, was for years her best-known effort and accounted for more than 2 million of the 19 million records she sold.
The theme song was eclipsed, though, by the phenomenal public reaction to "God Bless America," which became for several years a virtual second national anthem and inspired a public relations man to christen the singer "radio's own Statue of Liberty."
At 17, she set out to seek her fortune in New York and, after a few months of predictable disappointments, began to find work filling in for ailing performers at second-rate vaudeville houses.
By 1933, she was the highest paid woman in network radio (at $3,000 a week) and played herself in a motion picture called "Hello, Everybody." She also went on nationwide vaudeville tours that increased personal contact with her fans and, in 1938, began a second daily radio program called "Kate Smith Speaks," during which she presented homespun philosophy on current events and on matters concerning women, their homes and families.
During World War II, she traveled nearly 520,000 miles to entertain troops and sold a record $600 million in war bonds in a series of round-the-clock radio appeals. One of these, a 24-hour marathon on Feb. 1, 1944, raised a record $110 million in pledges.
After the war, her radio show, "Kate Smith Speaks" moved from CBS to the Mutual Broadcasting System when she accused CBS of "restrictions and censorship" (the network said her sponsor had declined to renew her contract) and in 1950 she made her debut on television with "The Kate Smith Hour," which was called the first major daytime TV program.
It ran four years while she continued to make radio and television appearances, and in January 1960 (after losing 90 pounds), she unveiled a prime-time variety show, "The Kate Smith Show," which ran for six months.
She appeared in other movies, TV shows and specials over the years and in 1963 sang before a packed Carnegie Hall, her first full-length concert in front of a paying audience. She also wrote two books — both autobiographies — "Living in a Great Big Way," and "Upon My Lips a Song."
In the 1960s, she gradually slipped into semi-retirement at her home in Lake Placid, N.Y.