Today’s post was inspired by an event today. I heard the 1973 hit “Oh Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith while listening to an oldies station and it made me think of Norman “Hurricane” Smith and his great contribution to the Beatles’ early success. Unfortunately, when critics talk about the people around the Beatles who aided their success, especially after last month’s 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to the U.S. and generating Beatlemania, Smith’s name is not on the list. It most certainly should be.
A failed jazz musician who entered the recording industry at the late age of 36, Norman Smith was the sound engineer on duty at EMI records when the Beatles came in for their first sound test. He would be the recording engineer on every Beatles recording through 1965. Later, as a producer, he helped usher in an era of psychedelic rock when he discovered the band Pink Floyd; he would produce the group’s first, second and fourth studio albums.
The Beatles took an instant liking to Smith. While every EMI employee had to wear a jacket and tie, the Beatles liked his button-downed style and gave him the nickname “Normal”. Under the producer George Martin, it was Mr. Smith’s role to choose the equipment and techniques used to capture individual sounds in the studio and then to weave them into a finished recording. In the Beatles’ case, he favored sounds that were more stark than those typically heard in the ornamented and reverberation-drenched songs on popular radio.
In the last full album he worked on with the Beatles, Rubber Soul, in 1965, Smith helped the band members lay the groundwork for the increasingly radical studio performances they would feature on later albums like Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).
Norman Smith almost convinced John and Paul to record one of his own songs during the beginning of Beatlemania. In 2007 he published his memoirs, which was entitled John Lennon Called Me Normal. In later years, Smith enjoyed the limelight as an honored and revered guest at many Beatles conventions around the world.
While the Fab Four never actually did record one of their beloved sound engineer’s songs, the sound engineer was encouraged to record and release some of his own songs. One of them, released under the name Hurricane Smith, was a transatlantic hit, reaching # 5 on the Billboard charts in the U.S. We all remember “Oh Babe, What Would You Say”. While critics who have anointed people who helped the Beatles have left Norman Smith off their list of noteworthy people, Norman Smith, who passed away in 2008, will live on forever on the airwaves, not only in his own recordings but also the countless Beatles hits to which he is credited for giving a sharper edge. May he rest in peace.
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