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The Smothers Brothers

One of the most popular comedy teams of the 1960s, the Smothers Brothers rose to fame at a time when commercial folk music and comedy albums were both big business, and they were the rare group that enjoyed the best of both worlds. Tom and Dick Smothers were talented singers and instrumentalists with a firm grasp of the folk repertoire, but their greatest success came from the comic routines, that usually appeared midway through their songs, in which impish, childlike Tom would verbally spar with his more sensible brother, Dick. After making a splash in nightclubs and on TV, they released their debut album in 1962, The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers!, that accurately documented the act that made them famous. The Smothers Brothers were popular enough to issue eight more albums between 1962 and 1966, but the 1967 debut of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at once brought them their greatest fame and spelled the end of their recording career. The Smothers Brothers were born and raised in Governors Island, New York, where their father, Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr., was an officer in the United States Army. Tom Smothers was born on February 2, 1937, and Dick Smothers was born on November 20, 1938. Their father served in the 45th Infantry Regiment during World War II, and died while he was being held as a Prisoner of War by Japanese forces. Their mother, Ruth Smothers, moved the family to California, and Tom and Dick attended Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, where they sang in a barbershop quartet. After graduating, both went on to study at San Jose State University, where they were both bitten by the folk music bug. Tom took up the guitar and Dick learned to play upright bass, and the siblings joined a group called the Casual Quintet. In time, the quintet was pared down to a trio, with Bobby Blackmore singing lead; in an early sign of the irreverence that would mark their television show, they dubbed the act the Smothers Brothers and Gawd. While they were skilled musicians and vocalists, they discovered their audiences especially enjoyed their between-song patter, in which Tom took on the persona of the stammering, mischievous younger brother (even though he was Dick's senior) and Dick would lose his patience trying to keep him in line. The comedy soon became part of the songs, as Tom would make a well-rehearsed "mistake" in the midst of a tune and Dick would correct him, leading to a discussion that would descend into sibling rivalry, as Tom delivered his trademark line, "Mom always liked you best!" A one-night booking at the Purple Onion in San Francisco led to a two-week engagement at the club, and soon the Smothers Brothers were frequent guests on TV variety shows and selling out concerts on college campuses. As the Smothers Brothers' star rose, they signed a recording contract with Mercury Records, who issued their debut album, The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers!, in 1962. The album was a commercial success, and before they year was out, Mercury released a follow-up, The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers, with one side devoted to their comic folk songs and the other featuring straight musical performances (in part because they hadn't finetuned enough new gags to fill an entire album). The LP peaked at number 40 on the Top 200 Albums chart, and two more followed in 1963, Think Ethnic! and Curb Your Tongue, Knave!, the latter earning their highest chart placement, topping out at number 13. 1964's It Must Have Been Something I Said! included the song "Jenny Brown," which became the Brothers' only charting single, making it to number 84 on the Pop Hot 100. In 1965, Tom and Dick found time to release two albums, Tour de Farce: American History and Other Unrelated Subjects and Aesop's Fables: The Smothers Brothers Way (the latter intended for children), even as they were working on their first television series, a situation comedy titled The Smothers Brothers Show. On the show, Tom played an angel who had come to Earth to look after wayward womanizer Dick. Curiously, the show featured no music from the Brothers, and only lasted one season. 1966 brought another two albums, Mom Always Liked You Best! and The Smothers Brothers Play It Straight, the latter being their only album without comedy material, featuring a set of straightforward folk and pop tunes. (Dick would release a non-comic solo album, Saturday Night at the World, in 1967.) In 1967, after the negative experience of their failed sitcom, the Smothers Brothers took another chance on television when CBS, looking for something to program opposite longtime ratings winner Bonanza, offered them their own variety show. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour presented Tom and Dick in typical clean-cut form performing their trademark blend of comedy and music. However, Tom was interested in bringing more challenging material to television. Hiring a staff of fresh young writers (including the then-unknown Steve Martin and Rob Reiner) and featuring hip musical guests such as the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and George Harrison, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour often presented sharp social and political comedy in its sketches, and featured occasional references to drugs and sex that led to frequent battles with network censors. The show became a surprise hit in the ratings, and the final Smothers Brothers album, 1968's The Smothers Comedy Brothers Hour (the juggled syntax was deliberate), was devoted to material from the series. However, as the show's humor and themes became bolder, the Brothers and their producers were frequently at odds with CBS executives who were dealing with conservative viewers who were offended by the program (among them Richard Nixon, who was a frequent target of their gags). CBS put pressure on the Smothers Brothers to soften their comedy, and they refused; in 1970, the network used a technicality (a sketch featuring comic David Steinberg was not completed in time for the network to clear it before airing) to declare the Brothers had breached their contract and the show was canceled. It was soon replaced on the CBS schedule by the far less controversial country music series Hee Haw. In the wake of the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, live appearances once again dominated Tom and Dick's schedule, though they would go on to star in subsequent variety shows for ABC and NBC, neither of which matched the success (or controversy) of the CBS series. In 1978, they starred in a Broadway production of the comedy I Love My Wife, and later took the show on tour. They even tried their hand at TV drama, co-starring in the series Fitz & Bones, playing an investigative reporting team at a California television station; the show was canceled after five episodes. Tom and Dick's albums for Mercury had been out of print for years when in 1998 Rhino Records released Sibling Revelry: The Best of the Smothers Brothers, a well curated anthology featuring 18 of their most popular routines. Tom operated a successful winery during his downtime, and with the passage of time, the Brothers came to be seen as free speech heroes for their stand against CBS. The controversy became the subject of a documentary film (2002's Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour) and a book (Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by David Bianculli). In 2010, the Smothers Brothers retired their act, though in 2022 they made a few low-key live appearances and booked a reunion tour for 2023. The tour was canceled in July 2023 after Tom Smothers was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer. He passed away on December 26, 2023, at the age of 86.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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