From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Smith, William Russell

(born: June 12, 1890  -  died: July 17, 1969) 

Ragtime composer William Russell Smith was born in Versailles, KY, June 12, 1890 and grew up in Indianapolis, IN. Under the name Russell Smith he was a contract musician when he was 20 years old. He played the piano and lived at home with his parents, according to the 1910 U.S. Census.

In 1911, he formed a dance orchestra that was the first African American band to play at the Severin Hotel in Indianapolis [source: "Lost Legends of Indiana Jazz," by David Johnson, June 5, 2008, online]. Noble Sissle was a member of the band, and Russell Smith would later join the orchestra that played for the road company of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along [BlackPast.Org] and Chocolate Dandies [].

In 1917, when Russell Smith registered for the draft, he was a musician at the Murat Theatre [Wikipedia] in Indianapolis [source: World War I draft registration card]. At that time he was the husband of Leona Singleton; the couple had married in Indianapolis on June 6, 1917 [source: Indiana Marriages Index, File Film No. 413547].

A few years later, Russell Smith was working as a laborer with a piano company in Indianapolis [source: 1920 U.S. Census]; he would move on to Manhattan, NY, where he worked as a piano player on the *Keith Circuit [source: 1930 U.S. Census].

By 1940, Russell Smith was again living in Indiana as a single man and still a musician, living with his older sister Ana and her husband William Walker on Capital Avenue in Indianapolis [source: U.S. Census]. In 1942, he registered for the draft; at that time, he was employed at a brewery [source: World War II draft registration card].

William Russell Smith spent his final days working as a janitor in a bookstore during the day and playing at a local tavern in the evenings. He was a widow when he died July 17, 1969 in Indianapolis; he is buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery there  [source: Indiana Death Certificate State No. 69-026923].

Russell Smith was the son of Frances Brown and Albert Smith [source: Indiana Marriages Index, File Film No. 413547]. Two of his hits were Princess Rag and That Demon Rag in 1912. For more see "Russell Smith" in The Jazz State of Indiana, by Duncan P. Schiedt.

*For more on the Keith Circuit see Benjamin Franklin Keith at

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Woodford County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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Read about Versailles, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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NKAA Source: The Jazz state of Indiana

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“Smith, William Russell,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed March 4, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-01-05 17:21:56