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Fri, 02.23.1923

Muriel Burrell Smith, Singer born

Muriel Burrell Smith

*Muriel Burrell Smith was born on this date in 1923. She was a Black singer.

Smith was born in New York City. Her early life remains obscure. She appeared on the popular radio series Major Bowes' Amateur Hour in 1937. After singing at a cocktail party in 1939, one of the guests, Elizabeth Westmoreland, arranged a scholarship for her at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She was the first African-American to study at Curtis. She worked in a factory, earning $15 per week, to support herself during her studies. She graduated in 1946 in the same class as Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern.

She made her début on Broadway in December 1943, taking the title role in Carmen Jones, an updated version with a Black cast. At that time, U.S. opera companies were segregated; in the cast of 115, only one had previous Broadway experience. Carmen Jones received a positive critical reception and ran on Broadway for 14 months. Smith toured with the production until 1947, with two further Broadway revivals. 1947, she starred as Delphine in Our Lan at the Royal Theatre. Smith later performed with the American Negro Theatre in 1948.

She moved to London in 1949. After appearing in two revues at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End — Sauce Tartare in 1949 and Sauce Piquante in 1950 — Smith then performed in the London productions at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in South Pacific in 1951, and in The King and I in 1953-1955. She gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1955 before returning to the U.S. to appear in a revival of Carmen Jones at the New York City Center. On December 17, 1956, she made her poignant début in opera, starring as Carmen in a production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on December 27, 1956, broadcast live on BBC radio.

In cinema, she was the uncredited ghost singer for Zsa Zsa Gabor in the 1952 movie Moulin Rouge. She was a ghost singer in two songs for the 1958 Hollywood film version of South Pacific, providing the voice for actress Juanita Hall. She turned down an on-screen part in the 1959 film version of George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, saying, "It doesn't do the right thing for my people." She is perhaps best known in the U.K. for her 1953 #3 hit single, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me." In the late 1950s, she starred in the stage musical "The Crowning Experience," inspired by the life of Mary McLeod Bethune, which was later made into a film of the same name.

She worked as a voice teacher at Virginia Union University, moving to the state in 1974. She received an arts award from the National Council of Negro Women in 1984. She appeared in several regional theatrical productions in Richmond, Virginia, and the première of Jeraldine Herbison's Sojourner Truth, Ain't I a Woman?, at Hampton University in 1985. Later that year, Muriel Smith died on September 13, 1985, aged 62, in Richmond, Virginia.

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