Derek Smith began his career in his native England, playing his first job for pay when he was fourteen. Someone rolled a piano out into the street, and he played for VE Day celebrations. Over his parents' protestations, he joined John Dankworth's band, when Cleo Laine was the female vocalist. Smith also began performing and recording for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), but soon realized the place for him, professionally, was America.
Smith came to the United States with no job awaiting him. Fourteen days after arriving in New York, he recorded with the Modern Jazz Quartet. One of his first engagements was working with his trio opposite Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald at Basin Street East in New York. He joined Benny Goodman's band in 1961 and was pianist on Benny Goodman - The Swing Era, released by Time/Life Records.
Derek Smith met Doc Severinsen when both were contracted to play a society gig. Later, when Severinsen was named leader of the NBC Orchestra, the "Tonight Show" Band, he called Smith to be the pianist. Smith played with the band for seven years while continuing to record daily in New York studios and work with Benny Goodman. When the "Tonight Show" moved to the West Coast, Smith opted to stay in New York and continue his career as a 'first call' studio musician.
Smith led his own band on NBC's "Musical Chairs" game show after he left the "Tonight Show." After "Musical Chairs" was cancelled, he began concentrating on jazz concert performances while continuing to record. Smith's trio album, Love for Sale, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1989. Smith has 20 albums as leader to his credit in the United States and Japan. Described by critics as "fiery," "passionate," and having "an evil left hand," he is a frequent headliner at jazz festivals around the world.
Probably the world's most recorded commercial/jazz pianist, Smith may be heard on recordings ranging from the popular Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick and Steve Lawrence/Eydie Gorme tracks, recorded in the 1960s, to jazz albums with Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy deFranco, Louis Bellson, Milt Hinton and Clark Terry. The material Smith has recorded also includes movie sound tracks, among them Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.
The roster of notables with whom Derek Smith has performed includes a "Who's Who" of show business, from Frank Sinatra to Luciano Pavarotti, from Placido Domingo to Robert Palmer. Lyricist Sammy Cahn, a good friend until his death, comedian Steve Allen, and many other performers have frequently called upon his accompanying and conducting skills.