In the 1930s, Zeke Clements came to the Grand Ole Opry, as one of the first western singers to be welcomed to the show. Suited up in flashy cowboy outfits, he was a crowd favorite but in spite of this, nor did any of his recordings ever take a spot on the national pop or country charts. Despite that fact, of all the country music old-timers, he was the performer whose voice has been heard by more children than any other. In the 1937 Disney classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Clements supplied the voice of Bashful. Zeke also wrote several hits for a host of artists. Eddy Arnold scored big in 1948 with Clements’ “Just A Little Lovin’ (Will Go A Long Way). “Smoke On The Water,” a 1943 Clements composition, would not only launch the career of one of Country, gospel and pop music’s most beloved stars, it would also become one of World War II’s most important songs.
The ongoing war became a unique time in history for American music. With soldiers stationed all over the globe, and with so many people from different culture thrown together in a random fashion, our nation was in the midst of a massive and very direct information exchange. People from the Deep South were swapping stories and songs with guys from New York City. Chicago boys were trading guitar licks with Texans. Now, with the war going on, hillbilly music was being taken around the world, and for that reason, its influence was spreading faster than ever before.
Sharing the same view with others, Zeke was deeply concerned by the deaths, which were part of the worldwide conflict. It became a test of faith during that time. In 1943, when the horrors of war seemed so very close, a haunting vision hit the songwriter and would not let him go. With the image of World War II setting the world on fire fresh in his mind, Clements asked his friend Earl Nunn for assistance in writing a song about it. The two men composed words that were meant only for this one moment in the grand scale of time, they called their new song “Smoke On The Water.” After Clements performed the number, several artists piled up to record their own version of it. A thirty-three-year-old Kentucky native, named Red Foley, was the first singer to enter the charts.
Three years later, Decca matched Foley with “Smoke On The Water.” The release debuted August 26, 1944, on Billboard’s new country chart and made Billboard’s pop listings the following month, eventually peaking at #7. However, its major impact was on the country chart, where it spent an impressive thirteen weeks at #1, making Red Foley’s “Smoke On The Water” the twenty-seventh biggest country record of all time.
Around the world, “Smoke On The Water” became a password for certain Marine groups, as well as the inspiration for many soldiers caught in the midst of kamikaze raids and close fighting. For years, after the war finally came to an end, Clements received letters from war veterans telling him how his song had inspired them to continue fighting when they were convinced that they could take no more. It was an occasion when a nation bonded together to contribute to paying freedom’s high price. The war was long over, but “Smoke On The Water” remains as an evidence to how much so many gave to make the song’s message ring true.