Q Magazine

R.I.P., Tom Smothers: Comedian, Musician, and Activist Who Was Half of the Smothers Brothers, Dead at 86

In addition to battling prime-time censorship with his brother Dick, he also played guitar on John Lennon's 'Give Peace a Chance.'

Source: MEGA

Tom Smothers (left) was part of a groundbreaking comic and musical duo with his brother Dick.

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

Tom Smothers, the writer, musician, and comedian who – alongside his younger brother, Dick – came to fame as part of the Smothers Brothers, has died at the age of 86. Smothers, who revealed earlier this year that he had been diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer, succumbed to the disease yesterday at his home in Santa Rosa, California, surrounded by his family.

Smothers’ death was announced in a statement released via the National Comedy Center.

“Tom was not only the loving older brother that everyone would want in their life, he was a one-of-a-kind creative partner,” Dick Smothers said in the statement. “I am forever grateful to have spent a lifetime together with him, on and off the stage, for over 60 years. Our relationship was like a good marriage – the longer we were together, the more we loved and respected one another. We were truly blessed.”

Article continues below advertisement
wills q template
Source: MEGA

Tom and Dick Smothers, brothers from the same mother.

Although he was born on February 2, 1937 in New York City, Thomas Bolyn Smothers III – soon to be known as Tommy – grew up predominantly in California, graduating from Redondo Union High School. He and Dick originally began their music career as members of a folk group called the Casual Quintet, but they officially launched their duo in February 1959 at San Francisco’s famed Purple Union.

Indeed, that very club was where they recorded their debut album, 1961’s The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Union, and it was the first of many albums recorded by the duo during the course of the decade, including such classics as Curb Your Tongue, Knave! (their most successful album on the Billboard 200, hitting #13) and the famously-titled Mom Always Liked You Best!

Article continues below advertisement
Source: Mercury Records

Dick and Tom Smothers, as pictured on the cover of their 'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' album.

Their first foray into television – 1965’s The Smothers Brothers Show, a sitcom where Tom played an angel assigned to oversee his brother Dick – was short-lived, possibly because it bore limited resemblance to the nightclub act that had made the brothers so famous.

On the other hand, their next series, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, changed television in a big way, partly with its musical guests (no other prime-time variety series so unabashedly embraced the politically-conscious side of rock and roll), but even more so with its comedy and satire, which was so pointed at times that it ultimately ended up getting them canceled. Artists like Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger appeared alongside rockers like the Who and the Doors, with both the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix offering exclusive video performances to the show. (Tom was deemed hip enough to introduce some of the acts at the Monterey Pop Festival, which doubtlessly helped the Brothers' cause immeasurably in terms of booking acts for their show.)

Article continues below advertisement
Article continues below advertisement

Smothers reflected on the show's cancellation in an interview with Bullz-Eye.com, tying the Brothers' Nixon-bashing into the then-current controversy with the Dixie Chicks' disparaging comments about George W. Bush.

"When I look at the Dixie Chicks saying one thing, and all of a sudden no one’s playing their records, I said, 'Man, what’s that?'” said Smothers. "And then I’m doing some interviews in advance of some dates, and I asked, 'Do you still play the Dixie Chicks?' And they said, 'No, we’re told not to.' And that’s called economic fascism. Consolidation of the media and economic fascism is what hurt the Dixie Chicks and took a year or two out of their lives, but it took ten years out of ours when we were fired. We ended up doing dinner theater and did a Broadway show for a year, we did a national tour. That was during the ‘70s, which were the dark ages for us. We were blackballed out of Vegas and all that kind of stuff. We never thought we were going to work again."

Article continues below advertisement

Article continues below advertisement

Still, the cancellation didn't stop Smothers from continuing to run in some pretty hip circles: he also ended up playing acoustic guitar on John Lennon's classic single with the Plastic Ono Band, "Give Peace a Chance."

"When he did the Bed-In for Peace and I was playing guitar with him, he stopped me in the middle of the song and said, 'Tom, don’t play that way, play what I’m playing,'" Smothers recalled to Bullz-Eye. "I was playing up the neck, giving it a couple of passing chords and diminished chords, trying to fill it in, and he said, 'I want you to play exactly what I’m doing. I want the sound of two guitars. Double what I’m doing.' It was kind of embarrassing. I was showing all my hot sh*t, and he says that!"

Article continues below advertisement

Smothers also had a later - and decidedly more infamous - encounter with Lennon at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, one which took place during Lennon's famed "Lost Weekend" and also featured his buddy in debauchery, Harry Nilsson. While the story has been oft told at this point, Smothers explained to Bullz-Eye how the Lennon / Nilsson appearance at the Troubadour wasn't exactly as unexpected as it's been painted to be.

"My brother I hadn’t been performing together for a year or so, and we were going to be putting our act together again, but Dickie was working on music, so I went up to the Cellar Door in Georgetown to do a single, by myself," said Smothers. "Harry Nilsson was a good friend of mine, and I told him I was going out there. Harry was afraid of crowds; he never liked to play live. Well, I get there, and they said, 'There’s a guy named Harry Nilsson here who wants a ticket.' He had flown out! So he’s up in the balcony of the Cellar Door, and I did my hour show in 25 minutes. My chops were gone. My timing was off, and it takes awhile to get back into the swing of things, because I’d been doing television rather than live performances. So I said, 'Any questions?' Because we’d just been fired not long before this. And everybody’s asking questions, and all of a sudden Harry’s yelling down, and we were having arguments, and…well, I did an hour show! And he was there for the second show, same thing. We had a good time and hung out.

"And then Dickie and I go to the Troubadour in L.A., and all of Hollywood was there to see what the Smothers Brothers were going to do," continued Smothers. "And Harry comes in with John Lennon. Well, he told John Lennon, 'Tom likes hecklers. It helps him. It gets him through his show.' And every time there was a silence, they were hollering out things like, 'God f*cks pigs!' I mean, it was really filthy! Blows were thrown, and it just got wild. The next day, I got flowers and all kinds of apologies from Lennon and from Harry Nilsson. It just got out of control. But they were pretty ripped when they came. I mean, it was one of those little moments that was kind of fun, but the timing was… It was just so hard to do the show!"

Article continues below advertisement

Smothers continued his political activism into the ‘70s, later admitting that – despite being a professional comedian – he made the mistake of being too serious when broaching such topics, a situation which infamously led to a tense relationship between Smothers and Bill Cosby, one that ultimately led to the latter punching the former during a party at the Playboy Mansion.

Fortunately, Smothers eventually found his funny side again, doing so in front of the camera as an actor in such films as Silver Bears, There Goes the Bride, and Pandemonium, which also starred the late Paul Reubens. Meanwhile, he also continued working with Dick, touring as the Smothers Brothers and even reviving their Comedy Hour in the late ‘80s. And lest we forget, he also had a secondary identity as the Yo-Yo Man.

Article continues below advertisement

As recently as December 2022, the Smothers Brothers were making big plans to do a tour in 2023, as they informed the world at large during an appearance on CBS Sunday Morning. Alas, Tom's cancer diagnosis changed those plans, but even knowing that their planned tour would never come to pass, to see the relationship between Tom and Dick as wonderful as ever after all these years... It still makes watching the clip worthwhile.

wills q template
Source: National Comedy Center

Tom and Dick Smothers in front of the Smothers Brothers' exhibit at the National Comedy Center


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More