Reba Jeanette Smith, Corbin KY, 1928. Born with a penchant for singing and acting, she was performing by the age of 4. She continued to follow her passion and her dreams through high school and college when big bands were thriving. Her voice was sweet yet sultry and she possessed an innocent sex appeal. She modeled. She won Miss Plug Horse Derby at the Kentucky State Fair in as well as winning 2nd place in the Miss Louisville and Miss Kentucky beauty pageants in 1948. Reba reveled in the attention and adulation. However it was her singing that motivated her to look beyond her life in Corbin. She changed her name to Debbie Smith and left for Nashville.
Through her own persistence she met and sang with many big band leaders in the forties and fifties. Jim Lounsbury, an up and coming disc jockey and concert promoter was visiting Nashville where Debbie was singing on a radio show. He was smitten by her looks, personality and musical talent. Jim, a pilot, had planned on renting a plane to fly back to his radio show in Chicago. As she was heading to Chicago to get some publicity photos taken, they decided to share the costs of the flight and a friendship began. A short while later they began to date and then marry in 1950.
He was moving along quickly in his career. She realized she had met a man with as much drive and passion as her. Spending time with Jim at his radio station was a thrill. She met many performers who came to Jim’s show to promote their shows and tours and play their songs. Jim encouraged her to sing with the artists who came to perform and of course she was ecstatic. As they were primarily big bands in the early 50’s her sultry voice melded with their sound. She began touring the US with some of the bands.
The young rock and roll sound was becoming popular and with so many teens hungry for new music he began to produced dances shows and sock hops for them. Jim created “Bandstand Matinee” a television show out of Chicago featuring performers and teens dancing to the hits. Debbie was a regular feature and performed on the show.
In 1951 she had her first child, Steve and one year later they had their 2nd child, Debbie. While Debbie spent a lot of time caring for the children, she was not happy in the stay-at-home mom role. She wanted to pursue her passion to sing and perform. She also modeled and acted. She worked on perfecting her craft and image.
As the kids grew Jim and Debbie decided that a stable and nurturing environment was important for the children. As they were both so driven to pursue their dreams, they had to find a compromise. They found a loving and skilled caregiver to take care of the children while they both were performing and touring. Debbie toured with big band artists and early rock’n’roll artists but life on the road was always difficult. As often the only woman on the tour, she felt both nurtured and taken care of by the men and yet very alone.
One the most difficult tours Debbie participated in was the infamous “Winter Party Dance Tour”, billed with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Big Bopper, Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Sardo. She was thrilled to perform with such talent. In turn both the other performers and fans enjoyed her performances. This tour entailed over 20 shows in 14 days, two shows a day, covering the Midwest in the midst of a cold winter. The performers traveled all night on a cramped bus after each show to arrive at the next venue in the morning. The bus was cold and cramped and no one got the rest they needed. Debbie knew this would continue for several more weeks.
One night Buddy Holly had grown tired of the bus travel and decided he would hire a plane and fly to the next location far away in Minnesota. Buddy, J. Richardson aka The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens boarded the small private plane for Minnesota. The plane crashed somewhere over Idaho, killing all its passengers. Debbie and the rest of the tour were devastated at the loss of her friends. The press would call it “The Day The Music Died.”
The tour could not stop as they had committed to many more performances. They continued on the tour and new acts were hired to replace the talented artists who were tragically killed. It seemed like it would never end. She was missing Jim, her home and yearned to see her kids. She finally returned home with great relief.
Rock ‘n’ Roll was a huge sensation and records labels were appearing left and right as the 45rpm single became the staple of teens all over America. Debbiehad began cutting records. Her first, as Penny Smith, was written by Bill Haley, released on Kahill, a small label out of Chicago in 1958. She recorded a single as Penny Smith backed by the Deltones on Roulette Records that same year. Paramount Records ABC released another of her singles the following year. She signed to Chess Records in 1958 It was created by one of the Big Bands leaders she had performed with, Ralph Marterie. Debbie, now Penny enjoyed the studio work which required her technical skills and offered the intimacy of performing as a group. Recording sessions at that time required a band to perform a song from start to finish. It required an almost symbiotic relationship between the performers to successfully record a song in one take.
Berry Gordy, then a writer at Chess Records met Penny. Berry was smitten with Penny’s talent and charm. He wrote songs for her, released later that year. As Berry was looking to move onto greater challenges, he began to form record labels. He went back to Detroit and started Tamla records.
Her singles continue to receive some airplay and many were enchanted by her style and voice. A short time later she saw Berry again. He was looking to sign young artists to his new label Motown. As her voice had that deep, sultry yet playful bluesy sound with a twinge of a southern accent brought her distinction. Berry felt she had the perfect Motown sound and he offered her a contract. Berry had already signed a few artists but Penny was the first white artist to be signed as well as the first female artist.
Smokey Robinson and Gordy wrote her first songs for her. Marvin Gaye and the Miracles performed with her on some of her singles. Her big hit was an answer song to the Miracles “Shop Around.” entitled “Don’t Let Him Shop Around”, written by The Miracles’ Smokey Robinson. Many feel it surpassed it’s predecessor, “You Better Shop Around”. It went to number 39 on the radio charts. She enjoyed the special treatment and respect. Debbie Dean, her new name chosen by Berry, was treated like a part of the Motown family.
She continued to make good singles penned by talented writers. Some say that if Berry had turned her over to Smokey Robinson to produce, she may have been as great a star as Mary Wells. Motown began to focus on black female girl groups, grooming and training them. Berry had begun releasing many singles from the many bands from his stable of artists. Berry had become smitten, some would say obsessed, with Diana Ross. He began to focus all his attention on her, pushing many, often more talented musicians into the background. This made it hard for Debbie to succeed and many others as well.
In addition the music and the times were changing. Politically the world of black artists was changing. These artists finally had a chance in the limelight. These artists had been embraced in Europe as the racial barriers in music were long gone. Though Debbie possessed the vocal style and sound of the era, she had one major deficit – she was not black. Naturally as the American public embraced the “black” sound they wanted to see black faces.
She was scheduled to tour with the Miracles, Mary Wells, and Little Stevie Wonder on the first “Motortown Revue” across America and to Europe. She was thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to perform for some of her greatest fans. She was pulled at the last minute, some say because she was white. In fact though Motown had white artists on the label, none went on this tour. This dealt Debbie a tremendous blow. As one of the first Motown artists whose sound helped define the “Motown” sound she felt betrayed at being left behind.
She moved to LA while stilled signed with Motown and began performing in small clubs and showcases. A few years after the race riots in Detroit, Berry moved the Motown offices to LA where the core of the music industry was. The Motown sound was changing too and coming into a new era. Her departure to LA ended her marriage and allowed Debbie a fresh start. When her contract with Motown was not renewed she continued singing and performing. She was aware that as a woman in her mid thirties she needed to remain young to compete. In order to help create her young image she didn’t talk about her history with Motown. She felt she had to hide her success as a performer in order to portray herself as a much younger woman.
From 1963 through 1965 she recorded with Sue Records where she cut a single as Debra Dion and continued to perform in clubs. In 1965 Debbie met Dennis Lussier, aka Deke Richards, at a concert where his band, Deke and the Deakons was opening for Ike & Tina Turner. Deke and Debbie felt an immediate attraction. They became enthralled with each other, each one’s personality, passion and talent. She told him that very night that she felt he would succeed beyond his wildest dreams. He began to produce records and gave her the opportunity to record a single written by Ike and Tina Turner and produced by Deke.
In late 1966 she went to see Berry Gordy who was producing a concert in LA in hopes of introducing Deke to him. She introduced him to Berry Gordy who promptly signed both of them to write for Motown. Debbie was thrilled to be considered a writer and began a new career.
She released one single of her own, produced by Deke in 1966 on VIP Records, one of Berry Gordy’s many labels. Deke became part of the Corporation, a writing team consisting of Deke, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy and a few others. Deke, with Debbie at his side were responsible for writing hits for The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Temptations and the Jackson 5.
During this time she co-wrote hits “Honey Bee (Keep on Stingin’ Me) and “I’m Gonna Make It” for The Supremes. She also wrote “I Can’t Dance To That Music Your Playing” for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Edwin Starr’s “Sweet Joy of Life” She collaborated on songs for The Four Tops, Temptations, Jackson 5, and her old friends the Miracles and Smokey Robinson.
Concurrently she pursued her acting career and met a director, Arthur Dreiffus who was making teen pictures at the time. She became a featured player in several movies including pictures “Hold On”, “Hot Rods to Hell” and “The Fastest Guitar Alive” featuring Roy Orbison, directed by a young Michael Moore. She was also featured in “The Love-Ins” & “A Time to Sing” for MGM.
At Warner Bros. under contract she appeared in “An American Dream” and “Hotel”, and in “For Singles Only” with Screen Gems. She never got any major roles but enjoyed the work, the people and the lifestyle. The process reinventing herself with each new role paralleled her life as she moved and created new personas as she traveled from Kentucky to Chicago to Detroit and to LA.
She continued to write with Deke through 1969. She became ill with several illnesses. One was undiagnosed, which was similar to Epstein Barr or chronic fatigue syndrome. The other was a psychotic illness that manifested itself in what she called a “possession.” She was tormented within and without. Her relationship with Deke was a tumultuous one that often led to arguments. These may have exacerbated her illnesses. Emotionally she began to breakdown, seeking help and falling victim to unscrupulous doctors who fed her drugs which did her great harm. With no means of support, without her partner and unable to work she headed into poverty.
Because of her tenacity, even at this point in her life, she realized she had to take care of herself and make things right. She called her old friend Berry. They had developed a strong relationship through the years. Berry had recognized her talent, helped nurture her and felt strongly about the important role she played in the birth of Motown. Emotionally she had become so disheartened that she had lost her will to write and sing.
Through her music and her path in life she had always searched for a strong spiritual foundation. Once again she needed to find that help in hopes of regaining some self-esteem to follow her heart and passion. As loving trusting person, she was once again taken advantage of and gave away much of her money to soothsayers.
She did continue to act through 1970’s on such films as including Hotel and Death By Invitation. She continued to nurture her friendships with artist such as Waylon Jennings, a member of Buddy Holly’s band,who escaped disaster and death by staying on bus with Debbie while on the Winter Party Dance Tour. She still saw Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson who had so long ago wrote and performed with her.
By now she was 40 years old. She still retained her youthfulness and worked hard to keep herself young in mind and spirit even after years of illness. As she continued her healing process she began to write songs, many about her life, both good and bad. Her writing was filled with stories to tell, of her illness, her emotional breakdown, the violence and pain and of the joy; the talented friends she worked with, her writing, her painting, even her exploration of Astrology and other mind expanding journeys so prevalent in the 60’sand 70’s.
Working with writers from Los Angeles on her story, she went back and forth from Nashville to LA. In Nashville she tried her hand at writing country songs. Her life was very full as she worked to exorcise the challenges and pain of her past. While in Nashville she composed a ballad called Cumberland Gap or My Soul is Free, which chronicled her life. It was recorded by a small label, never released and went missing when the label folded.
As she was driven to reinvent herself with every life transition, she created a new persona. She was now Krisha Electra Rigel and wrote a self-published book, “New Names for the Age of Aquarius.”
In the late 70’s as she continued to grow older on the outside, now almost 50 years old, she began to pursue health treatments in her quest to keep herself young and vital. She became a strict vegan. Unfortunately the vegan way of life had the opposite effect she wanted. She became weak and sickly. Yet in her passion and perhaps obsession she continued on this path until her illness overtook her.
By the time the 80’s arrived she had fallen gravely ill. She found a partner who nursed her back to life and began to share in her joy of the world. They traveled. They walked, hiked and read. She painted and sang. She shared her story of the ups and downs of her life. She had wished that her success had been greater and that her talent could have been nurtured to its fullest potential. She knew that no matter what she had to follow her passion and do what you love.
Tragedy stuck on the early 1990’s when her partner came home to find Debbie gone. He waited but she did not return. It was unlike her to disappear for any length of time. He waited and waited. The days passed and she did not return. Hope was lost. It was 30 days later when she arrived back at the apartment, disoriented and ill. Her partner once again nursed her back to health but her kidnapping experience had changed her. She would not talk about what happened during those 30 days but her emotional wellbeing had been greatly damaged. After years of doctors and hospitals she passed away. She still embodied a free spirit and joy of life even until the end. She had always said that her Soul was Free.
Debbie Dean (Rebe Jeanette Smith, Debbie Stevens or Debra Dion) had chosen a challenging career and gave up a stable secure life to pursue her dreams. Even with her tremendous talents, the journey was full of difficulties and of tremendous accomplishments. The world had changed dramatically in her lifetime and she changed with it. It was her creativity to move with the times, creating new personas and developing new talents and passions that allowed her to move gracefully through life. Her soul was open to these new journeys. It was this optimism and her spirit of love and hope that was Debbie Dean.
Today there are many fans of Debbie Dean and all her incarnations. Collectors bid competitively for her singles. Blogs and bulletin boards on the internet write of her, often asking questions about who she was and what her real story is. There are many who don’t yet know that the early voice of Motown was Debbie Dean.