TUPELO – If you took one thread and called it “music,” then took another and called it “history,” you’d find both tied around Bruce Smith.
“Those are my two loves,” Smith said
It’s hard to say which thread attached itself first.
Smith was a witness to history when his father, Bobby Smith, served as prosecuting attorney during the Emmett Till case in 1955. Two men were accused of murdering the 14-year-old Till because the black boy committed the “crime” of talking to a white woman.
“The jury, they weren’t going to send two good ol’ boys to jail,” said Smith, adding that his father received numerous notes and letters supporting and condemning the prosecution.
As for music, Smith fell in love with opera and orchestral music about as soon as he heard it. He took piano lessons for years.
After graduating from Tupelo High School in 1963, he studied his two passions at the University of Mississippi. Music took center stage because he earned a bachelor of arts in piano.
“I always loved to play, but I had no ambition to be a performer,” he said. “I wanted to get in the music business somehow. It just really interested me. What goes on behind a performance? How is it organized? How is it financed? That sort of thing.”
With the greats
After graduation, a friend gave him a recommendation for a position with Columbia Artists Management in New York. Anybody who was anybody in classical music was represented by Columbia, Smith said.
With a base in New Orleans, Smith traveled from Lafayette, La., to Lincoln, Neb., to set up shows for the Community Concert Association.
“There was an association in each city,” Smith said. “I would work with them and help to book musicians and do publicity.”
His life intersected with classical music greats like pianist Vladimir Horowitz, soprano Beverly Sills and Mississippi’s own Leontyne Price.
“I remember getting into an elevator with Leontyne at Columbia Artists in New York, and the elevators were like closets,” Smith said. “Leontyne is a mountain of a woman. She’s not fat. She’s just big. You had this feeling if she took a really deep breath, she would inhale all the air in the elevator.”
In the music business, “the show must go on.” Contracts required a genuine act of God to cancel a performance.
“I remember one time, there was a big blizzard in Detroit and the whole town was shut down,” he said. “I finally got the chief of police to declare an emergency, an act of God. That’s what it took.”
Smith spent more than 20 years with Columbia Artists, then he was ready for something else.
He became a computer system administrator for Kraft Foodservice, which became Alliant Foodservice, in Tupelo. He’s since left that position, but still helps customers with computer set-up and training.
Smith joined the board of the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s, so music remains part of his life.
There’s also time to indulge his passion for history. He’s written a “hobby book” called “Madness and the Mississippi Bonds.” It delves into Mississippi’s colorful financial dealings during the 19th century.
“I’m working on two or three other ideas,” he said, “but the main one I’m trying to finish up is a biography of Col. William Falkner.”
That’s William Clark Falkner of Ripley, the great-grandfather of William Cuthbert Falkner. It’s widely acknowledged that Falkner’s literary exploits inspired his great-grandson’s writing.
“Falkner wrote a novel, ‘The White Rose of Memphis,’ that was a best-seller,” Smith said. “It sold something like 350,000 copies in the 19th century. People loved it.”
Another project is closer to home, and it’s based on all those conflicting cards and letters that Smith’s father received during the Till trial.
“It is a world that in a lot of ways has vanished,” Smith said, “but it’s fascinating to look back at people’s attitudes. It’s amazing, really, when you think about that time.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal