Gayle McCormick, a big-voiced singer who scored a top five hit in the late 1960s with the soul/psych rock band Smith before going solo, died this week following a lengthy battle with cancer. She was 67. McCormick passed away on Tuesday (March 1) in suburban St. Louis, where she grew up and got her start before venturing West, her friend and radio veteran Jonnie King has announced. Reached by Billboard on Friday, King said McCormick had lung cancer that spread to other parts of her body.
McCormick began her career in the mid-1960s in St. Louis as the featured singer in a well-known local band called Steve Cummings and The Klassmen. By 1969 she had moved to Los Angeles and joined a group that had recently changed their name from The Smiths to simply Smith. Before long, the band and its striking frontwoman caught the eye of “Runaway” singer Del Shannon, who helped them get signed to Dunhill Records.
In July 1969, the band released A Group Called Smith, a tight-knit set of mostly rock covers that peaked at No. 17 on the Top LPs chart (later renamed the Billboard 200). Their biggest hit was Burt Bacharach’s “Baby, It’s You,” previously recorded by The Shirelles and The Beatles, which rose to No. 5 on the Hot 100. While riding the wave of that hit, McCormick and the band made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand and elsewhere.
Hollywood also took notice. In the summer of 1969, the group’s cover of The Band’s “The Weight” was included in the soundtrack album for Easy Rider — the original was heard in the actual film — and in 2007, “Baby, It’s You” got renewed attention when Quentin Tarantino featured it in his film, Death Proof.
Despite the group’s early burst of success, Smith disbanded following the release of their sophomore album, 1970’s Minus-Plus. Not wanting to lose the dynamic singer to another label, Dunhill signed McCormick to a solo deal which led to her self-titled debut in 1971. Though unable to match the early success of Smith, the set’s standout single, the dance-ready “It’s a Cryin’ Shame,” did reach No. 44 on the Hot 100. Two more solo albums followed: Flesh & Blood on Decca/MCA in 1972 and One More Hour on Fantasy in 1974. After that, as her friend King writes, “Gayle had lost some interest in the music business, married a carpenter and moved to Hawaii” before ending up back in St. Louis a few years later.
“The ‘Hometown Girl’ had made good, had national & international success, had been heard on radio, seen on TV, had given 150% to every concert audience she played, and sold millions of records,” he writes. “She had already done it all and, eventually, just wanted to come home, and she did just that.”
King told Billboard that McCormick wasn’t married and had no children. Funeral services will be held Tuesday (March 8) at the White Mullen Funeral Home in St. Ann, Missouri.