Karen Smith, a popular and acclaimed Jamaican recording artiste and cabaret singer known as “the songbird of Jamaica,” died on September 11, 2021, at Baywest Hospital in Montego Bay, St. James, just six days after celebrating her birthday. Smith had been diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer. Her death came as a shock to many Jamaicans, who paid tribute and expressed their sorrow at the death of Smith who was known for her voice, smile, and charm.
Karen Smith was a former president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians and Affiliates Union (JFMAU) and a member of the group “Pakage,” which also included Patricia Edwards and Gem Myers. She was recognized with many awards for her musical talent and won the Jamaica Music Industry Award (JAM) for Jazz and Cabaret nine times. Smith received the Order of Distinction in the rank of Officer Class from the Government of Jamaica in 2006 for her contributions to music. She was also on the Government’s Entertainment Advisory Board (EAB), and the president of the board Howard McIntosh, who praised her professionalism and her work as a mentor to young entertainers.
Jamaica had its first glimpse of Karen Smith in the early 1980s when she and balladeer Mallory Williams performed an ad for Grace Cock Soup. The performance was the first of many memorable ones, as Smith was comfortable performing jazz, pop, classical, and most other genres of Jamaican music. She was a popular choice to perform at national and state events, as well as at weddings, funerals, and other private gatherings.
Smith began her work life in the banking industry, but found she was strongly attracted to performing and ultimately moved into music full time, providing musical entertainment in hotels throughout Jamaica with a cabaret show that included the whole spectrum of musical genres. She performed in Las Vegas, the acknowledged capital of the entertainment world, and gained many fans as a casino lounge act.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said he was “so deeply saddened” by Smith’s passing, adding that he “enjoyed her spirit and warmth, not to mention her tremendous talent. It was always a pleasure to interact with her; she truly captured the essence of what it means to light up a room.” Holness sent his condolences to Smith’s husband, the rock steady bassist Jackie Jackson; her daughter Courtni, and Her mother Barbara Smith.
Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, mourned Smith’s death, saying that he was proud to have been her friend and that the entire tourism sector joined him in mourning her passing, noting that she had performed for many years as a cabaret singer in Jamaica’s resort areas. He said, “Karen became a household name in tourism and the wider Jamaica with her bubbly persona and distinct voice.”
Donovan White, Jamaica’s Director of Tourism, noted that Smith “became synonymous with entertainment in tourism and was a go to performer for many events in the sector. You knew that once Karen was booked, the performance would be seamless and engaging.”
Yendi Philips, the winner of the 2007 Miss Jamaica World title as well as the Miss Jamaica Universe title in 2010, wrote, “Fly high amazing songbird Karen Smith…you beautiful soul.” Singer Nadine Sutherland shared similar thoughts, describing Smith as “real, sweet, almost angelic sometimes” and said she would always treasure the times she and Smith shared a stage.
Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Entertainment and Culture Minister, described Smith as “one of the queens of stage performance” and noted she was “always engaging, entertaining, and charming.” Grange said that Smith had left her imprint on the culture and arts of Jamaica and actively contributed to the industry’s development. She added, “We will always remember Karen’s legendary voice, engaging personality, enduring warmth and her advocacy. Jamaica’s quintessential songbird now sings in the choirs of New Jerusalem.”
Karen Lee Murphy, a former president of St. Hugh’s Alumnae Association of Florida, provided a heartfelt sentiment at Smith’s passing, writing, “Friends, the last few days have been filled with prayers for my sister, Karen Smith. And, with this morning’s news my heart has been aching. The Lord took her pain away, gave her her wings, and welcomed her sweet serenade in Heaven. Those who met her knew she was one of the most selfless, down to earth, genuinely loving persons you could ever meet. I was so blessed to have had over 2 decades with Karen, from her performing at our Fidelitas Jazz to our fabulous Swansation Tea Parties. No matter the mood, she was doing what she loved best … singing. Her audience gave her life. Imagine my excitement when she chose to launch her album at our St. Hugh’s Alumnae Association of S. Florida’s Swansation Tea party, not too long ago. It hurts that I won’t get her calls anymore with the usual greeting, “Kar Kar my darling… How are you?” but, her music will continue to bring joy on this side of Heaven. Allow me to share one of those memories, a fitting farewell: Well KK, you’ve taken your last bow but your singing lives on! Walk good! -Fidelitas in Florida!
Photo by Adrienne Addy Chin-Ogilvie