Born Jocelyn Bernadette Smith on August 22, 1960, in Queens, NY; daughter of Joan and Kenneth Smith; married and divorced; children: Jonathan Noah and Josephine. Addresses: Record company--Blondell Productions, Marburger Str. 16, D-10789 Berlin, Germany.
For the last 15 years Jocelyn B. Smith has uplifted audiences throughout Germany with her energetic and expressive voice. Born and raised in New York City, after several tours as a back-up singer for other accomplished artists, Smith made her home in Berlin, Germany. The famous Berlin jazz club Quasimodo became her musical home where she performed regularly to packed houses for more than a decade. Her sophisticated vocal ability and broad musical interests have led Smith to experiment with various musical styles, including funk rock, soul ballads, chansons, and big band jazz. She sang "Circle of Life," the title song on the German version of Disney's movie Lion King, whose soundtrack won a gold record in Germany. For her album Blue Lights & Nylons, which blended world-music with interpretations of well-known tunes by George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, Smith was nominated for the German Jazz Award in 2000.
Jocelyn Bernadette Smith was born on August 22, 1960 in Queens, New York City. At a very early age, Smith began showing great interest in music. When she was five, her parents invested $100--a large sum for the Smiths--in an old piano and started paying for Jocelyn's classical piano lessons. Her piano teacher recognized that his pupil was also a talented singer and got her involved in church choirs. Smith attended the same Forest Hills high school as Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Burt Bacharach.
Around age 13 Smith became interested in popular music such as rhythm and blues, soul, funk and jazz, and admired singers like Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. However, while other girls went out dancing, Jocelyn's mother made her practice Chopin and Rachmaninoff; while singing hymns in Latin in her Catholic church choir, her heart was full of the more emotional gospel music.
Called Berlin Home
Smith's growing interest in popular music lead to her first experiences as a singer in several bands. She sang with the band of Lenny White, who had earlier played drums for Miles Davis, and she toured Europe to promote White's first solo album in 1981. One year later, she toured the United States with the band Change, the opening act for Rick James. With ex-Meat Loaf singer Ellen Foley, she toured as the opening act for the Electric Light Orchestra. This was at the peak of ELO's popularity and the band was drawing crowds of 80,000 to their concerts. In 1984 Smith toured Europe again with the Platters. The last show of the tour took place in Berlin. Smith fell in love with the city--and with a man--and decided she wanted to stay there. She liked German food, the clean subway stations and the charm of West Berlin's club scene. "Every night I could go out somewhere with my friends, enjoy good music and perform myself," Smith told Made in Berlin magazine.
Smith started working in Berlin clubs, sometimes active in five bands at the same time. She was determined to make a living from singing alone and performed about 270 days a year. Smith also worked on studio projects for various artists, among them Austrian pop star Falco, German synth pop band Alphaville, and German electronic music formation Tangerine Dream. With the band Frumpy, she took part in concerts at Potsdamer Platz that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Together with Maceo Parker, Eddie Harris and Candy Dulfer, Smith performed as the "Quasimodo Allstars" in the jazz club, Quasimodo. The club became something like her musical home since she performed there once a week, year after year. Looking back at her journey in her seventh year in Berlin she described herself as an "American-Berliner-European ball of confusion."
Are You With Me?
After seven years of being part of someone else's projects, Smith decided to pursue her own solo career. The singer seemed to have tried everything. She sang disco as "Bernadette" and funk-rock as "Jocelyn Bernadette Smith." Smith was ready for success, and her band, The Married Men, was too. But all efforts to attract the attention of major labels failed. Nothing about their music seemed to be mainstream enough to be easily sold to a broader German or European audience. An adventure with a small independent label from Vienna, Austria, came to a sudden halt when the company ran out of money after two years of work in recording studios. After six years of success as a live band, The Married Men were still without a record.
One morning in January of 1991 Smith decided to take her future in her own hands instead of banking on a miracle. The singer founded her own record label, Blondell Productions--named after her mother--and financed, recorded, and produced her first album. Planning to record five songs, the band managed to do twice as many. "I cried and I prayed," Smith recalled, "but nobody lost their patience, everyone gave their best." The final result was far from perfect, though. "After we had finished mixing we realized we had done everything wrong and we had to go back and remix it," Smith told Ed Meza of Metropolismagazine.
Finally, Smith's first album, River, was released in 1991, and she promoted the CD with a tour of Germany. Smith's second album, Born of Music, was released on her label one year later. It contained contemporary jazz tunes interpreted by Smith and accompanied by a 38-piece orchestra. The album drew the attention of German music critics, but flopped again commercially. Fans of Smith's jazz singing were disappointed when presented with her guitar-based live program that she preferred to present in the Quasimodo. Always working to engage the audience at her concerts, one of her standard questions on stage was: "Are you with me?"
Lost and Found
In 1993 Smith had a local radio hit with "Life's a Beat" by Berlin's cult band Plan B where she sang background. In the same year, the maxi-single "Kind of Feeling" was released by her label. Smith decided to look for new management and signed up with Sony/Columbia in 1994. During the next few months, she produced four maxi-singles, among them a cover version of Leo Sayer's "When I Need You." Smith loved singing mid-tempo ballads, but producers had warned her that Germany was not the right place for that. With her new producer Reinhold Heil, who had previously worked with successful German artist Nina Hagen, Smith recorded "Give Me a Man," an upbeat dance tune. When the new maxi-single was released in August 1995, Sony threw a surprise party for Smith to celebrate her tenth anniversary in Berlin.
Although Smith had realized that narrowing her profile and defining what she stood for would help her move ahead, she couldn't quite stick with the strategy. In 1995, she sang "Circle of Life," the German version of the title track to Disney movie Lion King. The original soundtrack featured Elton John doing the title song. Her version was well received in Germany and one of the main German news TV shows heute-Journal called her "probably the most powerful voice of Germany." She appeared in many German TV shows and the soundtrack reached gold status. In 1996 Smith produced the single "Never Give Up" with German star Udo Jürgens whom she admired. However, Jürgens' hallmark was German pop songs which attracted a completely different audience from Smith's. The duet debuted at the beginning of a boxing match which was broadcast live from the Spanish island Mallorca. In the same year she sang at several classic open air venues in Berlin. Her first live album--called Live In Berlin and recorded at the Quasimodo--was released in 1997. In the same year she gave birth to her son Jonathan Noah.
Smith's next adventure was Blue Light and Nylons,an album of George Gershwin and Kurt Weill interpretations. Accompanied by German arranger and pianist Henning Schmiedt, soprano saxophonist Volker Schlott, and Argentinean percussionist Daniel Gioa, Smith's interpretations gave standards such as Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So" and Weill's "Mack The Knife" new soul. In Weill's "Sing Me Not A Ballad" Smith recreated the great voice of Louis Armstrong, while in Gershwin's "My Ship" the singer released her powerful vibrato like an opera diva. An a cappella version of "Amazing Grace" not only closed this chapter in her musical career, but also one in Smith's life: "I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see."
One of Germany's most reputable national newspapers commented on the promotion tour for the CD. "How can this volcano from New York be grasped and described?" the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote. "The singer is a world unto herself, a total work of art. And no one saw her coming." In the aftermath of her most successful album to date, Smith appeared in a documentary about Kurt Weill which was nominated for the German Jazz Award in the year 2000. That same year Smith gave birth to her daughter Josephine and produced Margarita, her album of love songs by Greek songwriter Mikis Theodorakis. Annibale Picicci of Léonce magazine asked Smith what she wanted for the future. "Not to fall down. This business will make or break you," the singer replied. "You have to be careful how much you compromise yourself.... Not to fall down means not to just play the rebel. Anybody can be a rebel. No, it's about understanding the game and knowing how much of it you want to play and how much of your personality you can give away without losing."
by Evelyn Hauser
Jocelyn B. Smith's Career
Toured Europe with Lenny White, 1981; sang with Change, the opening act for Rick James, 1982; toured with the Platters through Europe and stayed in Berlin, 1984; played in Berlin's club scene, 1984-1991; produced and published first album River with her band Married Men on her own label, 1991; second album Born of Music drew attention of music critics in Germany, 1992; maxi-single "Kind of Feeling," 1993; signed with Sony/Columbia and produced four maxi singles, 1994; sang title track "Circle Of Life" for German version of Walt Disney's movie Lion King, 1995; produced single "Never Give Up" with German pop star Udo Jürgens, several appearances on German TV, 1996; first live album released, 1997; album Blue Light and Nylons with Gershwin/Weill interpretations released, promotion tour through Germany, 1998; toured with German entertainer Harald Juhnke, 1999; appeared in a documentary produced in New York about Kurt Weill, 2000; started working on her album Margarita with love songs of Greek songwriter Mikis Theodorakis, 2000.
Jocelyn B. Smith's Awards
Gold record for German soundtrack album of Walt Disney's movie Lion King on which she sang the title track, 1995; album Blue Lights & Nylons nominated for German Jazz Award, 2000.
- Selected discography
- "Kind Of Feeling," Blondell Productions, 1993.
- "Children Eyes," SONY/Columbia, 1994.
- "Back In My Life," SONY/Columbia, 1994.
- "Give Me A Man," SONY/Columbia, 1994.
- "When I Need You," SONY/Columbia, 1994.
- River , Blondell Productions, 1991.
- Born Of Music , Blondell Productions, 1992.
- Jocelyn B. Smith Live In Berlin , Blondell Productions, 1997.
- Blue Light And Nylons (includes "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Mack The Knife," "Sing Me Not A Ballad," "My Ship," "Amazing Grace"), Blondell Productions, 1998.
- Margarita - Love Songs Von Mikis Theodorakis , Blondell Productions, 2000.
- Berliner Zeitung, October 29, 1992.
- Elle Plus, December 1996.
- Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, March 11, 1999.
- Frankfurter Rundschau, November 6, 1999.
- Made In Berlin, November 1996.
- Metropolis, October 1995.
- New York Voice, March 1993.
- Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 17, 1998.
- Tagesspiegel, June 20, 1997.
- "Jocelyn B. Smith," http://www.jocelyn.de (October 2000).