Lester Smith

Lester Smith • Written April 2013 • Died October 2012

By Alex Smith

Born in New York City on October 20, 1919 to Sadie and Alexander Smith, Les Smith grew up in Manhattan and then the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn with two younger brothers, Howard and Daniel. Graduating from James Madison Highschool at the age of sixteen, Les gained some leadership skills as a camp counselor during summers in upstate New York. His father worked as a general contractor specializing in building restaurants while employing several hundred laborers in his wood working and metal shops. Once the depression hit, most of the firm’s customers went out of business and the elder Smith went bankrupt. Hence the origin of a favorite Lesterism: nothing to do with eating, drinking or sleeping. In other words never invest in restaurants, bars or hotels.

Les enrolled in New York University in 1936. While in school he worked part-time at The New York Daily News and WOR AM. Upon graduation there weren’t many jobs available but NBC was hiring where he became a page, guide and general assistant working on live radio broadcasts such as The Steve Allen Show.

Near the end of 1941 Les received his draft notice from the U.S. Army and was to report for duty on December 8th. Because of the Japanese attack on December 7th, he was told to go home until he was to report for duty in January 1942. Since he had a college degree and deemed capable to become an officer he was sent to Officers Candidate School in Louisiana. After serving in North Africa under Patton and later invading Italy and France, Les was discharged from the Army in 1946 with the rank of Major and was awarded the Bronze Star. He often reflects that serving in the armed forces taught him much about working with people and adapting to change.

After arriving stateside, Les moved to San Francisco at the invitation of his uncle Sam Smith. There he pursued a career in radio sales at KYA AM and later as a broker of media properties at Blackburn Hamilton. While in California he met his first radio partner Lincoln Dellar. During the years as a broker he called on eleven western states including Washington and Oregon. One of the key relationships developed in this era was Elroy McCaw, who Les credits with providing him the opportunity to buy KJR AM in 1954. KJR chose a newly emerged rock-n-roll top 40 format originated in San Antonio.

The partnership went on to buy KXL AM in Portland, OR. and KJRB (originally KNEW) in Spokane, WA. Personal situations required the partners to sell their interests to two entertainers, whose tax attorneys advised them to invest in radio. Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra were now the owners of the three station group, but Les continued to operate the business. Soon circumstances required that Frank Sinatra sell his interests and Les became an owner again of the three stations with Danny Kaye as the remaining partner. Kaye-Smith Enterprises was founded.

In 1959 he relocated to Portland, OR. and began dating his future wife Bernice. In 1962 they were married and he adopted his wife’s three daughters June, Laura and Kim. Their son Alexander was born in 1963.

The late sixties signaled Kaye-Smith’s foray into FM radio for the three Pacific Northwest markets including KISW as well as KCKN AM-FM in Kansas City, KS. and WUBE AM-FM in Cincinnati, OH.

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By fellow IMMORTAL Pat O'Day

Lester M. Smith once told me, “we’re offered a chance to leave a footprint on this earth.” He left a size 15!

Les Smith never put himself in the foreground. I was associated with him as far back as 1960. We enjoyed years of success that would exceed the impossible.

It all worked due to a unique, humble and brilliant characteristic of Les Smith. He surrounded himself with talented people, then unleashed that most powerful of words. That word was YES!

Les and some partners purchased KJR Radio in the mid-’50s, later adding KXL Portland and KNEW Spokane. They sold to a combine of Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye in 1958.

Les stayed on as the CEO of the stations until 1964 when Sinatra was in need of money. He sold out to Danny Kaye and Lester, thus creating Kaye-Smith Enterprises. Later, KISW-FM, WUBE Cincinnati and KCKN Kansas City were added to the organization.

Les appointed me as national program director in 1965, which found me putting the Cincinnati air staff and programming together. Les simply said, “Pat, you know what to do, go do it!” Typical of Lester, I didn’t have to get approval of my hires. If he gave someone authority, he trusted them.

In the meantime, KJR was rising to record heights of ratings and success. He never questioned my decisions for a moment. He would only say, “Pat, don’t get us in trouble! If anything worries you, run it by me.” With that freedom and support offered by Les, KJR often would hold more than 30% of all radio listening in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties. Then came the concert business.

I was under great pressure as I had founded Concerts West and opened an office in Dallas, in additional to other duties including my daily air show. Adding to the pressure, my concert company was running off of a mortgage on my house. So, broken hearted, I sent Les my resignation from the company.

He called me and said, “Pat, I refuse to accept your resignation and I want you to fly to Los Angeles in the morning to meet with me and Danny.” I flew back from LA the next evening as the new general manager of KJR/KISW and the new partners in my concert company were Les and Danny!

Their excitement over our little Seattle concert enterprise was great. Lester fed in the necessary capital, enabling Concerts West to become the world’s largest concert company at the time. Now, get this!

We were becoming nationally acknowledged as the most efficient and trusted firm in presenting artists’ tours. Thus, in association with Jerry Weintraub, an LA movie producer and entrepreneur, Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, asked if we would like to handle Elvis’s tours exclusively.

We said yes, and then he threw a curve. The Colonel said, “I’ll consider you guys but only if you bring me a cashier’s check for a million dollars to show your sincerity. No guarantees, no assurances, nothing in writing—just “gimme a million bucks!”

Now, Lester M. Smith was a very conservative businessman. But he went to his bank, got the cashier’s check for a million dollars and had it delivered to Parker. We did every Elvis date from 1969 until his death.

The “rest of the story” is that Concerts West, thanks to that wise gamble by Les, also did all the dates for Jimi Hendrix, Three Dog Night, Led Zepplin, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Beach Boys, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, closed circuit for all Mohammed Ali fights and more. A total of 780 different performances in 1977 alone.

In the meantime, Les and Danny were moving to create the Seattle Mariners, which they did, along with building a recording studio in Seattle, where Heart and Bachman Turner Overdrive recorded their big hits. Lester also was turning his attention to his new printing and direct-mail business in Renton, currently operated with great success by his son, Alex.

All this was possible because this true one-of-a-kind man—loyal, honest and brilliant in every sense of the word—would say to his people, “Yes!”

His widow Bernice, daughters June, Laura and Kim and son Alex can be so proud. Their Dad was as close to perfect as a human being can achieve. Thousands—like me—have been enriched monetarily and morally because Les Smith walked our way.

At 93, he sat with me several weeks ago, talking old times. His recall was perfect. His enthusiasm never faltered, always with a big cigar and that unfailing humility and appreciation of others.

Lester M. Smith was a remarkable jewel of a man.