Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Today’s generation may never hear of Rex Smith. But during the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he was a popular teen idol (featured regularly in 16 Magazine and Teen Beat), a singer with several top hit songs, an award-winning stage actor, and has appeared in several Hollywood movies and television series.
Now 65 (born on September 19, 1955, in Jacksonville, Florida), he is still doing what he loves most – singing. “Yes, I love singing,” he says. He is the voice behind those hit songs like “You Take My Breath Away,” “Simple Jesse,” “Forever,” “Let’s Make a Memory,” “Everlasting Love,” and “Where Do We Go from Here.”
Smith started his singing career as a lead singer for the band Phaedra in the early 1970s. In 1976, he formed his own band and called it Rex. By 1979, he had a hit single entitled “You Take My Breath Away,” which hit #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He also scored a top 40 hit with “Everlasting Love” in 1981, a duet with Rachel Sweet. All in all, he has released a total of 11 studio albums.
But success didn’t come overnight. He had been working since he was 17, although he professionally started at age 15. “By the time I was 17, I was in Atlanta (Georgia), with the most successful local band, and all my bandmates were around 28 years old, and I had a fake identification card so I could work in the club,” he told Cebu News Daily (CDN) in an interview. “I spent thousands and thousands of hours singing, working my way up through clubs, where you go and get paid.”
Smith persevered in order for him to make it to New York and get signed. Until finally, Columbia Records signed him up and gave him the chance to do some albums: “Rex” in 1976 and “Where Do We Go from Here” in 1977.
In 1979, he made his first movie appearance for television entitled Sooner or Later. He also recorded the film soundtrack entitled “You Take My Breath Away.” When it was released, it was not only in the Billboard Hot 100 but also spent two weeks at No. 7 on the Cash Box Top 100.
“After filming, I went directly to record, and I did that track in one take,” Smith recalled. “My producer said, ‘We got it!’ He told me that it’s all we need. When I listened to it halfway through, I ran and locked myself in the bathroom, and really broke down in the most wonderful way. I just made a record hit. I could tell by the way my producer was looking at me, by the way I sounded, by what was happening. Suddenly, all the stars have aligned. I just knew it would be a tremendous hit.”
It was. And he became the toast of New York, Hollywood, in all places he went to. It was mind-boggling. He was at the height of his career when he realized that it was indeed lonely up there.
“I was sort of the tail end of what would be an overnight sensation,” CDN quoted him as saying. “Aside from the fact that my first movie was shown in four different channels, there was a screening of it before it came out in New York City in a 2,000-seat theater. And I’m just the guy sitting down with my brother, and when the lights went out, and I stood up, 1,999 people looked at me in a way that they would never look at me. They looked at me in a different way, and that they never looked at me differently again.
It was really odd. “I can still remember that Saturday night in New York,” he told CDN. “It felt like I was on the top of the world, at my penthouse, 33rd floor looking at Manhattan. I was sitting on my dining table with my head in my hands. I was at that point that I couldn’t meet a girl, that after the second and third time of seeing her, she’s gone. Can anybody just get real with me? Because I became an artificial icon and for some people, it’s the worst addition in the world – fame. It’s a dangerous drug. I was fortunate enough to live through that thing.”
Good thing there was Broadway. At the height of his popularity, he made his Broadway debut in 1978 as Danny Zuko in the original production of Grease (although John Travolta starred in the film version).
“I think (doing the Broadway thing) has been a very healthy thing for me, and it’s not something that gets reruns on TV,” Smith recalled. “It’s just a point of pride. Sometimes, when I’m turning the lights out before I go upstairs, I take a look. I may have got the best posters that are nine feet tall, and some would tell me to put those things up because here are Broadway antiques… they have withstood winter and they are huge. But I am so grateful. In my in this treacherous business, I did not end up needing drugs and those things to survive. It’s all been a very healthy life.”
For his memorable performance as Frederick in 1981’s The Pirates of Penzance, he won the Theater World Award. Other starring roles on Broadway include Grand Hotel, West Side Story, The Human Comedy, Grand Hotel, Sunset Boulevard, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Smith did US National Tour for the following: Anything Goes, Grease, Annie Get Your Gun, and Kiss Me, Kate.
In television, Smith is best known for his role as motorcycle officer Jesse Mach in the short-running TV series Street Hawk. He also did guest appearances in The Love Boat, Baywatch, Caroline in the City, Silk Stalkings, Cobra, Pacific Blue, Malibu, CA, The Norm Show, JAG, and City Girls.
He also did three more made-for-TV movies: Shades of Love: The Ballerina and the Blues (1987), The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989), and Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990).
From 1990 to 1992, he was Darryl Crawford in the CBS daytime drama, As the World Turns. He received a nomination for a Soap Opera Award for Outstanding Male Newcomer for his performance.
In between those TV appearances, he reprised the role of Frederick in the film adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. When it was again staged on Broadway, he was again in the cast – like the Pirate King (for which he earned a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle nomination).
Aside from The Pirates of Penzance, Smith also appeared in the following movies: 1980’s Headin’ for Broadway, 1988’s Transformations, 1994’s A Passion to Kill, 1998’s Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish, 2006’s Pope Dreams, 2006’s Collier & Co., 2015’s Cats Dancing on Jupiter, and 2016’s Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel.
In 2018, Smith played Billy Mack, an aging rock star, in the world-premiere production of Love Actually Live. It was “a one-of-a-kind stage production performed live with an all-star cast and 15-piece orchestra immersing the singers and musicians in a cinematic spectacle at The Wallis in Beverly Hills.”
Smith has been married four times and has four children. His first wife was Lois Smith, a Playboy bunny, whom he married in 1978 but divorced in 1983. He had two daughters (Meagan Elizabeth and Madison Marie) with his second wife, Jamie Buell. They tied the nuptial knot in 1987, but the marriage went kaput in 1995.
Smith has a son (Gatsby Richard) and daughter (Savannah) with his third wife, Courtney Schrage. They were married in 1998, but like his first three marriages, it ended up in a divorce years later.
His fourth wife is Dr. Tracy Lin described as “of Taiwanese heritage but born and bred in Los Angeles.” They exchanged vows in September 2009. “Tracy has been his constant companion in all his Philippine tours and is always mistaken for a Filipina because she looks very Filipina,” wrote Danee Samonte for Philippine Star.
Smith also had a son, Brandon, by Karen Lakey, a record-company representative with whom he had a one-night stand. He never knew he fathered a son until Brandon attended a performance of Sunset Boulevard in Vancouver in 1997. When the performance ended, Smith went to the lobby to sign autographs for those who had just seen the musical. Brandon, then 16, stood in line, waiting for his turn to meet.
When his turn came, he had a close encounter with Smith, who looked at him and was totally shocked as the boy was a dead ringer of him. “I knew I was looking into the eyes of my firstborn son,” Smith was quoted as saying. “I almost fainted.” A DNA test proved that he is indeed his son.
Smith has done three concerts in the Philippines; his most recent was in 2017.
As a performer, Smith is totally in control. This statement from scottstander.com is apt: “Rex is unique because few entertainers have covered every aspect of show business. Referring to himself as a ‘Stand-Up Vocalist,’ Rex blends tales of his career with the music that made him famous. His on-stage presence radiates his gregarious nature and bright sense of humor. Rex’s distinctively charismatic personality captivates and enthrals his audience.”
To end, the words from goodyguides.com summed up Smith’s enduring career: “Rex Smith has done it all. From teen idol pop star to Broadway, from television to feature films, Smith has had a career that many in the business would envy. He has not lost his boyish good looks and southern charm, and for that reason, he continues to take the breath away from women around the world.”