Forty years ago, a guy named Hurricane Smith briefly became an unlikely pop star when “Oh Babe What Would You Say” became a smash in Britain and America. It’s another one of those oddball 70s hits for which there’s no explanation. I adored it when I was 13, and I still do. As it turns out, however, Smith’s claim to fame is much stronger than a single indelible hit record. He was present at the creation of some of the most important music of the 20th century.
In 1959, Smith became an apprentice engineer and tape operator at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. He was 35 years old at the time. EMI had a rule at the time that no one over age 28 could apply for an apprentice position. To get his, Smith simply lied about his age.
Three years later, Smith was at the controls when a new group made its first recordings at Abbey Road, handling the chores while his boss, producer George Martin, was elsewhere in the building. He thought the musicians looked like “louts” with funny haircuts, but he liked their sound enough to summon Martin to the studio to “see what he thinks of this.” What impressed him would become “Love Me Do,” the first single for the Beatles. Between 1962 and 1965, Smith engineered 150 Beatles recordings, positioning microphones, setting recording levels, and operating the studio equipment. For his low-key manner, he was nicknamed “Normal Norman” by John Lennon.
Smith eventually got promoted to an executive position with EMI, where one night in 1966, his duties took him to London’s famed UFO Club to hear a band called Pink Floyd. After signing them, he intended to produce them, although the band resisted, since they already had a producer they liked. But during the first session at EMI, Paul McCartney stopped by the studio and told the band, “You won’t go wrong with this bloke as your producer.” Smith produced Pink Floyd’s single “See Emily Play” and their first three albums, even though he claimed not to fully understand their psychedelic style. Nevertheless, Roger Waters said, “I liked him enormously.”
In 1971, Smith began his own recording career, adopting the stage name Hurricane Smith and cutting songs inspired by the old-fashioned English music-hall style. The single “Don’t Let It Die” reached #2 in Britain, but “Oh Babe What Would You Say” was a smash in both Britain and the United States in the winter of 1973. He had originally cut “Oh Babe” as a demo to shop around to other artists for them to record, but when a fellow producer told him it sounded like a hit, he put it out on his own. It was the high-water mark of his career as an artist. He would later return to behind-the-scenes roles as producer and engineer.
Smith became a horse breeder in retirement, although he recorded an album of songs and spoken-word reminiscences about his career in 2003, at age 80. Smith died in 2008, just past his 85th birthday.
Because it is awesome, here’s Hurricane Smith on The Tonight Show in 1973 doing “Oh Babe What Would You Say.”
(Expanded from a post in my WNEW.com archives.)