Sykes Ballew, better known as Smith Ballew, singer, actor, and bandleader, the son of May and William Y. Ballew, was born in Palestine, Texas, on January 21, 1902. After attending Sherman High School in Sherman, Ballew attended Austin College and the University of Texas from 1920 to 1922. At the University of Texas he organized a jazz combo, Jimmie's Joys, in which he first played banjo and later became the vocalist. He left the university after the fall 1922 semester and continued with the combo until forming the Texajazzers in March 1925.
By then primarily a vocalist, Ballew accepted work with a number of noted bandleaders, including Ted Weems, Hal Kemp, and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1929 he organized the Smith Ballew Orchestra, which highlighted his singing and which included associations with jazzmen such as Glenn Miller and Bunny Berigan. In the same year he signed his first recording contract, with OKeh Records of Chicago. Ballew's recording career as vocalist and bandleader spanned some twenty years, during which he cut records for more than thirty labels, including OKeh, Victor, Brunswick, Columbia, and Decca.
From 1936 to 1950 he mixed an acting career with singing. In 1936, after moving his family to Hollywood and landing a contract with Paramount Pictures, Ballew made his acting debut in the motion picture Palm Springs. He appeared in twenty-four films, primarily Westerns. Among his pictures were Western Gold (1937), Roll Along Cowboy (1937), Under Arizona Skies (1946), Panamint's Bad Man (1938), Hawaiian Buckeroos (1938), and The Red Badge of Courage (1951). During World War II, as his singing and film career waned, and until his retirement in 1967, Ballew worked in the aircraft industry, including stints at Northrup and at Convair (which later became part of General Dynamics). In 1952, after living in California and Arizona, Ballew settled in Fort Worth. He was married twice, first in 1924 to Justine Vera, with whom he had a daughter. Justine died in 1960, and that same year Ballew married Mary Ruth Clark, who died in 1972. Ballew died in Longview, Texas, on May 2, 1984, and was buried in Fort Worth in Laurel Land Memorial Park.
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Geoffery J. Orr, Texas Troubador: A Bio-Discography of the Life and Times of Smith Ballew, 1902–1984 (Melbourne: Exact Science Press, 1985).
Stage and Film
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
John H. Slate,
“Ballew, Sykes [Smith],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 21, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
August 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 25, 2015
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: