Ask Ferdinand Jay Smith III to sit down at a piano and play a song and you’ll hear silence. An Eastman School of Music graduate he is not.
But ask him to compose the music for a television series or an ad campaign and he’ll leave you awestruck with an orchestral or melodic masterpiece.
Musical notes may not flow off his fingertips, yet they sure do dance freely from his mind — and then onto the airwaves. His creation of the musical score for “HBO in Space” remains the longest running theme song on television.
“It’s amazing, the mind of a gifted artist like Ferd,” said Ross Greenburg, the former executive producer and later president of HBO Sports who commissioned Smith for an endless array of musical work on network documentaries.
“James Earl Jones is the voice of CNN; Ferdinand’s music is the voice of HBO,” Greenburg said.
It’s how his music becomes a finished composition that’s perhaps a little unique. “He doesn’t write music,” said Anthony Lover, the creative genius behind HBO’s rise to prominence around 1980. “What he can do is hum and sing and tap things, and people can take his hums and la-las and turn them into notes.”
What the typewriter and paper were to Earnest Hemingway, a tape recorder was, and now the cellphone voice memo is, to Smith.
“I just hear the melody in my head,” he said, “and then I put it down (by voice).”
Like several years back, when he attended an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome. While speaking, the Pope asked the diverse audience, “Children of many colors, what brings you here?”
The “amen” following the Our Father prayer was still echoing through Audience Hall when Smith went scooting to the car for his recorder. He immediately hummed the tune in his head. “Children of Many Colors” later became the theme song for the New York State Special Olympics.
Where or when inspiration would strike, Smith never knew. He often would drive along Lake Road in Webster to ignite the creative flame.
“A lot of HBO stuff was written in the middle of the night,” he said. “You wake up and put it on a recorder.”
Which is why Greenburg never asked Smith how, just how much.
Indeed, Smith, who got his start as a disc jockey at WSAY in Rochester at age 15, was pretty much the Music Man for HBO.
He created the musical scores for HBO documentaries such as “When It Was a Game,” “Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World,” and “Boxing’s Little Giants.” He wrote the themes for HBO Sports, Inside The NFL, and Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, as well as one of his most famous compositions, the HBO main theme music.
“I’d rely on the music to bring out the emotion of the story; to make the viewers cry, to make them laugh,” said Greenburg, the HBO Sports president from 2000 to 2011. “We’d describe the kind of documentary it was, the mood we were looking for, and then he’d go off and think of it musically. That’s just how his brain worked.
“He could take the concept and turn it into a musical score. I don’t know what planet that talent comes from, but he’s got it.”
This weekend he’ll be recognized for it. Smith will be inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame on Sunday evening April 22 along with John Beck, The Campbell Brothers, Steve Gadd and Tony Levin. Ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.
Someone once told Smith, “You’re our new Beethoven.” “I said, ‘No, I’m a DJ who hears melodies in my head.’ ”
And now he’s being honored for so many of those melodies, which his imagination would create and others, quite often arranger Casey Filiaci, or Rochester music icon Jeff Tyzik, would transform into a composition.
“It’s very flattering,” Smith, a 1963 graduate of McQuaid Jesuit High School, said of the Hall of Fame honor. “But the theme of the evening is going to be the people I collaborated with all these years, because that’s what I do. Everything’s a collaboration.”
Including his “day” job. Smith is chairman and executive creative director at Jay Advertising, the full-service, brand-strategies agency in Rochester. Brother Gregory is the president and CEO. They co-founded the company in 1973 and their longtime clients include Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Raymour & Flanigan and Chevrolet.
The voice in every TV ad for Wegmans? That’s Ferdinand. He narrates the Raymour & Flanigan ads, too. He has one of the most well-known voices in Rochester.
“People go to Florida and here they think they’re getting away from this town and there’s Ferdie’s voice on their TV in the hotel,” his brother, Gregory, said.
Jay Advertising has been working with Wegmans since 1985. That’s amazing longevity.
“Every piece of music Ferdie produced for Wegmans captured where our company was at that moment in time,” chairman Danny Wegman said. “He’s incredibly talented and has contributed so much to this community.”
Indeed, Jay Advertising has been a staple on the advertising landscape in Rochester for five decades, but Ferdinand still hasn’t forgotten the words of the security guard 45 years ago in the Sibley’s Building.
He and Gregory were carrying a desk — one of two hand-me-downs their mother scooped up from her boss — to the elevator one weekend. The desks would be the first furnishings for the agency office.
“The desks were pretty beat up,” Ferdinand said, “and I remember the guard looking at the desks and saying to himself, ‘Those guys aren’t going to last.’ ”
The Smith brothers obviously proved it’s not the desk you sit at, but what you produce from behind the desk.
And, in Ferdinand’s case, what you produce in the studio.
He first transformed his career as a DJ into promotions director when then-pop station WBBF was king in Rochester. Not long after, he and Gregory managed groups like The Rustix and Skylark, and promoted George Carlin, in the 1970s.
Now imagine if all had gone according to his real original plan. There would have been no Emmy nominations, no music hall of fame. He instead would have been Ferdinand Jay Smith III, Esq.
Back in the 1960s, the University of Dayton was all set for his enrollment in law school. Except Smith never showed up. He loved spinning records and the music industry too much to leave Rochester.
So just what would the law school class on copyright laws say about pirating theme songs as ring tones? Then again, when you write the song, you’re probably allowed to let it blare freely from your phone, as the HBO Feature Presentation music does when anyone calls Smith.
The song became the HBO theme in 1983, and a version still plays today on television’s most famous pay channel. In 2009 Smith received a BMI Award for the longest running theme on television.
“It’s the signature music of the network,” Greenburg said.
Who doesn’t know that sound?
“I was checking into a hotel and my phone rang,” Smith recalled. “The person at the desk said, ‘Hey, that’s the HBO song.’ ”
Good luck getting the melody out of your head.
The theme turned out to be everything HBO sought. After being commissioned by Lover, it was Smith’s job to create “the biggest, most exciting sound on television,” he said in the network’s 1989 behind-the-scenes mini-documentary.
“They wanted all the music to reflect how big and enormous a project this is—24 hours a day of programming that interests people,” he said.
Smith recruited a 65-piece orchestra to record the song he created.
“He hauled some of the best musicians in the world into the studio and they would play the vision in his mind,” Greenburg said.
A massive orchestral production was not exactly what Lover envisioned. He initially set a limit of 11 instruments.
“But Ferd was right,” Lover said of the grandness Smith sought in the theme. “This was a very frightening time for Home Box Office. They hadn’t made any money and the plug was about to be pulled. But we gave them the biggest thing that ever came out for television.”
Years ago, Smith composed a song for his own family reunion. But along the way, he played “We Are a Family” for Wegmans chairman Danny Wegman, who, of course, liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, it ended up being the focal point of a Wegmans ad campaign.
Of all the work the agency did for the grocery giant, Wegman said the song “will always be my favorite.”
Recalled Smith: “My son (Ferdinand IV) heard it on TV and said, ‘You sold the family song?!’ I said, no, I didn’t sell it.”
You see, after all these years, the client still comes first. And the songs prove it.
Ferdinand Jay Smith III
Title: Chairman and executive creative director at Jay Advertising
Education: Studied political science at St. John Fisher College
Family: Wife Elaine; they will celebrate their 50th anniversary on June 8. Daughter Brooke, son Ferdinand IV
Hobbies: Golf, movies, a little swimming
Quote: “I just hear the melody in my head, and then I put it down.”