If the guy in the long white beard at this year’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival looks familiar, it’s not because he looks like Santa Claus. You may have seen him on “X Factor,” the reality talent show produced and judged by Simon Cowell. He’s also been singing at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival
Denny “Santa Claus” Smith, 73, won gold with a bluesy, a capella version of, “He Keeps Sending Me Angels,” a tribute to his wife of 49 years, who passed away in 2015, and his son, Dennis III, who died suddenly 10 months later.
“They are my angels,” he said. “My wife’s name was Angel, and we were together every day, except for the time I was in basic training and Vietnam.”
Smith has been singing since he can remember, growing up in Burkburnett, Texas, an oil town on the Oklahoma border.
“From the time I could walk, I loved to sing. Start singing at 3 or 4, and then in church at 5. joined the school band. When I was 14, got a set of drums. I joined a group of country singers. They were all adult men in their 20s and we played local nightclubs in the North Texas area.
“We were doing George Jones and Buck Owens and Ray Price. They made me sing backup for two years before they would allow me to sing a song.”
He chose the Jimmy Reed blues number, “Running and Hiding.”
“People thought it was very unusual, a young, white kid, singing black music. They thought it was very unique and asked me to do more,” he said.
When the band broke up four years later, Smith tried college for a year.
“I hated it and got an offer for a traveling band and my mother said, ‘If that’s what you really want to do, go for it.’”
He played around the Midwest and in 1963, met his future wife in a drugstore in Madison, Wisconsin. When he hit the road with another band a few years later, she said she’d go too, but only if they married.
Smith’s career was interrupted by the Army draft in 1966. They sent him to medic school, but when a general heard him sing, he stayed in San Antonio, Texas, for a year to entertain the troops.
“I worked on a local R&B station, too, and they introduced me to James Brown.
“I heard you’re a pretty good singer,” Brown told him. “Sing me a song!”
“I was so nervous, I couldn’t think of anything, so I sang, ‘I Feel Good.’” Smith said.
“You’ve got (guts) singing a James Brown song to James Brown, but I like it,” Brown told him and offered to help Smith after the Army.
Smith was sent to Vietnam and thought he would still entertain. The Army decided otherwise.
“We got people with gold records who want to entertain,” Army brass told him. “You were trained as a medic and we need a medic.”
Smith said the war forever changed him.
“I saw things in Vietnam and did things in Vietnam that changed me. You can’t unsee, un-hear or undo that stuff again.”
He dealt with post-traumatic stress without knowing what it was.
“I didn’t understand any of that. I don’t think they had the term at the time, but oh yeah, I had it big time, and never did look up James Brown again. I started smoking marijuana, like a lot of people in Vietnam, and continued to smoke until 1987. Did some other stuff. I drank too much and didn’t live the best life.”
But Smith had his music and it was his own form of therapy.
He and his wife had two children – Michelle, born in 1967, and Dennis III, in 1970. The family moved to Los Angeles, and he continued to perform. His wife owned a casting agency for television and music videos, and drugs were always around.
“I quit in 1985 and started again. Stopped in 1986 and started again. But then in 1987, something just clicked that I didn’t want to do this anymore.
“I said, ‘Jesus, if you’re real, be real to me. I want to quit using drugs and can’t do it on my own.”
Smith went to Bible school, then became a pastor for 23 years at Solid Rock Fellowship in Torrence, California. Besides singing and pastoring, he spent most Christmases playing Santa Claus at restaurants, shops and malls.
“Only missed one year in 2011 when I had open heart surgery,” he said.
It was 2012 when he first caught “X Factor” on TV.
“You know how you brag about stuff? I was watching shows like that and said, ‘They’re pretty good, but I’m as good as some of them.’ I still didn’t sign up until some friends start filling out the paperwork and recorded me.”
He made it to the first audition in 2013 with thousands of other and got a golden ticket. As he walked away, the crowd chanted, “Santa! Santa! Santa!”
Smith was named an alternate. He waited from 7 a.m. until midnight and was the last audition for Cowell and the others.
He walked on stage in an all-red suit.
“I’m tired. I go out and they start laughing and cheering,” he said.
“Oh, look! It’s Santa Claus!” said Demi Lovato.
Smith told them he would sing, “Stormy Monday Blues.”
“You’d better do a good job,” Cowell said.
“I started singing and they started cheering,” Smith said. “Simon said, ‘I thought this was going to be a joke with the white beard and red suit. I was going to let you sing for a few seconds and buzz you off. But the more I listened, the more I liked it. You are a legitimate good singer.
Simon can be very cruel but he knows what he’s talking about,” Smith added. “So getting his compliment meant a lot to me.”
Smith made it through three rounds on the show, and Cowell tried to convince judges to keep him longer.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “Simon had me convinced I could win the whole thing.”
He still got a tour and a record deal offer out of it, when heartbreak hit again. His wife, Angel, died in March 2015. He and his son decided to go on the road for some shows and a family reunion.
“We were in New Mexico 10 months later and he had a massive stroke.”
Dennis III was 45 years old.
Smith lets out a heavy sigh. Tears puddle in his eyes.
“Losing a wife is hard, but losing a child is like nothing else,” he said. “That just sucks everything out of you.
“I just crawled in a hole and stayed in bed for weeks, and finally, some friends came to my house.”
“We have to play music again,” they told him. “You can’t spend the rest of your life in bed.”
“So we set up some music dates,” Smith said. “We went to rehearsal and start playing music again. That saved me.”
He spotted a flyer for this year’s local talent contest during a doctor’s appointment at the Los Angeles VA Medical Center.
“It’s just awesome to be here and to be singing,” he said. “I didn’t get a solo, but hopefully I’ll be back next year and I’ll try again. I just really appreciate the VA and everything they’ve done for me. And now that I know about their music therapy, I want to be a big part of that. I had been doing it on my own for years without realizing it. But now I want to stay involved with this festival anyway I can.”