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Arlene Smith Remembers Her “English Leather”

Author’s note: After reading Culture Sonar’s profile about her late husband, the legendary Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, Arlene “Charlie” Smith reached out to thank us for “not forgetting one of the kindest and generous men to ever live in this world.” 

 

Soon we got to talking about her experiences with him and the band at the heart of the British Invasion, including her two-chapter love affair with Mike, culminating in their marriage some 34 years after their courting era. Charlie was by Smith’s side after the tragic fall that left him largely paralyzed and found comfort in the generous support she received from high-profile music stars before his death in 2008. On what would have been Mike Smith’s 78th birthday (December 6), Charlie reflects on those days:  

 

Let’s start with asking how and when did you get that nickname “Charlie?”

My first job out of high school was in Chicago in a wholesale jewelry firm. All the men in the office would go together to lunch. When the only other girl in the office and I complained about being ignored, the joke became that we could come along if she became known as “George”, and I was “Charlie”…and the nickname stuck. When I went out to Hollywood, I was told that my real name, Arlene Gorek, was not going to look good on any marquee, and my agent suggested taking the “Charlie” and utilizing it for my ultimate stage name, Arlene Charles.  

 

Mike was already famous with the Dave Clark Five when you met. How did that come about? 

I was crowned Miss Indiana in 1964 and competed in the Miss International Beauty Pageant in Long Beach California, (summer of 1964). After the contest and upon returning to California, a friend arranged a blind date with a publicist thinking it may help further my career. My date asked if I wanted to go to a DC5 concert, an hour away in Anaheim (Melody Land, August of 1964). He was able to get us backstage, and that was when I saw Mike for the very first time.

 

What was your impression of Mike and all that was happening at that moment?

OMG, he was absolutely the most handsome guy I had ever met! We met and said hello, briefly. During the concert, I was in the front row, and Mike and I kept smiling at each other all through the show. Afterward, Mike invited us for a drink back at the hotel where they were staying. There we ended up talking most of the night, and Mike asked me if I wanted to go on a date with him. I said I’d love to and handed him my phone number! 

Mike and Charlie, 1964.

 

So now you are part of the band’s family, so to speak. This is during their most popular period. What did you see?  

The band was awestruck by their fame. They could not believe that all of this was happening. They didn’t have that level of fame before, and thanks to their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and hit records, they were becoming world-famous. They were now in contention with the Beatles (who were friendly with Mike and the band) and knocked them off the charts with Mike’s “Glad All Over.” Although the hysteria around them was absolutely frightening, they were level-headed, taking things as they would come.

 

Did you continue to see each other? 

Yes, but of course, Mike was on several world tours, and I was concentrating on my career, so it was hard. He would call or write to me wherever he was. After several months of dating, I took my mom with me to Chicago when the DC5 were playing at the Aire Crown Theater (circa 1965) to meet Mike and the band. When the house lights went down, the place exploded in a sea of screams and flashbulbs. When I turned to look at my mom she was screaming as well! She met Mike afterward and they got along fine. But on our way home, when things got quiet, my mother said to me, “Are you crazy? Did you see all those kids screaming at the band? What chance do you think you have with this gorgeous man?” I suddenly realized maybe I was out of my league, and she was right. 

 

Was that the end of the relationship at the time? 

With reality setting in, I had to face the fact that Mike was in the absolute glorious time of his life, being able to go on all these tours and play for millions of people. Simultaneously I was concentrating on my career. So, over the next couple of months, we kind of drifted apart, but his dad continued to write to me. I kept all the pictures and letters along with the memories that I tucked away in my heart. One of the things Mike always used to write is “Always remember English Leather.” That was his aftershave at the time (….and who could forget that?). It was the code word we used when I’d call long distance to him, I’d say to the operator, “Please tell him it’s English Leather calling”’, and that is how we got through to each other.  

 

That must have been hard to leave that all behind.

I was always so pleased he made such success. Mike was a bill collector before his fame. He was trained in classical music and was the youngest to ever graduate from the prestigious Trinity Music College in London. His father worked as a house painter, they lived in government-subsidized housing. While growing up, to help the family, Mike would play piano and sing in hotels and pubs when he was a teenager. That’s where he discovered rock and roll. 

 

Mike then goes on to have a stunning career and marries and has a family. What happens to you in the succeeding years? 

After being set up on another blind date in 1972, I ended up marrying heavyweight boxer, Jerry Quarry. This was another whole world I did not know before my relationship with Jerry. He was rated #1 in the world at the time and, as you may know, he fought Muhammad Ali, Joe Frasier, and Ernie Shavers. I was married to him for 7 years.  

 

Sorry, I think we skipped over your movie career, you worked with the King of Rock and Roll, didn’t you? 

The single-acting dream I had was to work with Elvis Presley. I didn’t care what kind of part I would have in his pictures; I was such a big fan. I started as one of the dancers in Elvis’s pictures. He eventually asked me out, but I turned him down. He asked, “Why?” I said because girls are coming and going like they are all in a revolving door!” He laughed about that but agreed, and so we remained friends until his passing. I went on to do a lot of TV shows, commercials, films and even went on a USO tour of Vietnam. 

 

Let’s talk about Chapter Two in your romance with Mike Smith. Your relationship comes around again in the late 90s?

I moved away, tired of California by then, and I returned home to Indiana. I had not kept in touch with Mike for over 30 years. On a lark, a girlfriend of mine found an agent who was still in touch with Mike. When Mike heard Arlene Charles was reaching out to him, he immediately got in contact with me. We exchanged a couple of emails and then he called me directly. I’m thinking, “This can’t be real, someone is playing a prank.” But when he references “English Leather,” I knew it was him! Soon, I was visiting him in England, as both of us were between marriages. Every time we got together; we had a great time. With the miles between England and Indiana, we started talking about living together in early 2000 and picked a neutral ground we both loved, and that was Spain. We bought a home together and then we got married in Gibraltar in October 2001.

 

How was Mike making a living at that time? Was it in the music business?  

All the band members had to go back to work and find “regular jobs” after they disbanded in 1970. Some of the boys took careers outside of the music and entertainment world, while others stayed in the arts. Mike made his money doing jingles for commercials. When he was asked to do two charity gigs in Spain, I saw that spark for live performance in his eyes again. I encouraged him to contact agents in the USA to promote the band beyond those two charity shows as he had put together a band at that point. He called it Mike Smith’s Rock Engine.  

 

Yes, I was living in England at that point, and I remember hearing about the buzz of his limited US tour in 2003.

Right, he would get standing ovations every night. When the tour started in America, he asked me, “Do you really think the people will remember me?” I said, “Yes, of course!” He was always so humble. Eventually, he saw that this was true. He was stunned how many would bring Dave Clark Five albums to the show for him to sign. He couldn’t believe they kept them after all those years. 

Mike signing autographs.

 

In September 2003, Mike was injured in an accident in your home in Spain, leaving him permanently paralyzed. Needless to say, your world changed in an instant.

Yes, we needed a lot of help after that. Mike was paralyzed from his upper waist down. His lungs were compromised but he was still very coherent. He was not able to feed himself or ever walk again, and even though he was subject to a wheelchair, he was able to talk and laugh. There were times I thought he would never make it, so I reached out to his friends and fans to pray for him. 

 

Our relationships with Mike’s friends were the most beautiful thing at this point. After the accident, Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen bought Mike his motorized top-end wheelchair. This made such a difference for Mike, to be able to get around. They were always there for us. Additionally, Peter Noone and his fans helped us tremendously during this time. Eventually, Paul Shaffer, (who always said he began playing keys while standing because of Mike), did a huge charity concert in New York to raise funds to help with our daily living expenses. I cannot thank everyone enough for their wonderful hard work and supportive love.

 

Initially, we had to transfer Mike back to England from Spain, and the Queen allowed us to use her private airport for landing, so we didn’t have to navigate the elements of the commercial airports. We were not sure he would make it through such a trip, and this made all the difference. 

 

 

In December of 2007, Mike found out that the Dave Clark Five was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What was his reaction?

He was soooo happy! By then, again thanks to Paul Shaffer, after almost 5 years in the hospital, I was able to bring Mike home in December of 2007. Soon a gentleman from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came to see him and tells him that he and the rest of the DC5 would be inducted. He was so thrilled, and soon we were arranging for him to travel to New York, (along with his two nurses) for the ceremony. Although Mike was on a ventilator and required oxygen at the time, he wanted a brand-new outfit because he wanted to look smashing

 

Soon after, on the morning of February 27, 2008, one of his caregivers informed me that Mike was having problems with his oxygen flow. We immediately rushed him to the hospital where he spent the day in the ICU. At 6 am that next morning I was awoken by a call from the hospital. Mike had become unconscious, and I needed to come immediately. The doctor told me pneumonia and septicemia had set in, and his organs had begun to shut down. Sadly, Mike passed by 4 pm that day, February 28, 2008. That was 11 days before the Hall of Fame ceremony. 

 

Last question: is there a song that makes you connect with Mike’s memory when you hear it today? 

Yes, I like “Because.” Paul Shaffer told us that “Because” is the song he and his wife got married to.

 

 

The second song that I connect with the most is called “I Really Don’t Know You.” Mike put so much into writing that song, and I remember we worked on it together in Mike’s music studio at our home in Spain before the accident. He sang it on his Rock Engine tours and the fans loved it. To that point, I’d like to thank all the fans for their loyal support of my wonderful husband Mike. I know he is watching down from heaven and is still amazed we all love him still. 

 

-Steven Valvano

 

Photos courtesy of Arlene “Charlie” Smith

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13 comments on “Arlene Smith Remembers Her “English Leather”

  1. Bill Courtright

    This article was a pleasure and a joy to read. The questions presented by Steven were the same ones most of us would ask. The answers given by Arlene Smith provided a history of Mike that only she would know. To the music world, Mike is sorely missed.
    Thank you very much for the article!

  2. Ed Beesley

    Steve what a great article/interview. I was previously unaware of Mike and Charlie and their great love story. Well done!

  3. Ken Peterson

    Steve, what a heartwarming lifelong love story, bittersweet as it is. Charlie seems to have great, positive perspective. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Steven Valvano

    Thanks for the kind words, Ken. -SV

  5. Thank you Steve…and a personal hi to Charlie. It’s been many years since we met during Mike’s MSRE tour and later at the hospital. I treasure meeting and staying in touch with Mike and Charlie then, and seeing their story re-told here today. Wishing love and all the best to you, Charlie!

    • charlie smith

      Hi Doug
      of course I remember you and the wonderful photos you shared with Mike and I of the trip you and your family took down Rt. 66. So nice hearing from you and hope your well during this crazy time in all of our lives. Wishing you a very Merry and Blessed Christmas.
      Charlie

  6. Rob Bolton

    Absolutely Excellent interview! I was in touch with the Smiths during Mike’s final years. When Mike was hospitalized, Charlie’s loving care for him was exemplary. Their lives had enjoyed glamourous moments, but during these difficult times, they really displayed sacrificial love for each other. A pleasure to have known them. God bless you both!

  7. Hi Rob,
    Fond memories of connecting with Mike, Charlie, Peter Noone, and you through your fan website…all those years ago!
    All the best, Doug

  8. Wonderful interview with a charming and fascinating woman. The love story of Charlie and Mike is certainly both beautiful and tragic. Mike’s powerful voice and talent should have taken him to solo superstardom after the demise of the DC5. Charlie’s eventful life surrounded by famous entertainment icons and athletes is a motion picture begging to be made.

  9. My friend Charlie just told me about this piece, and it was a joy to read. Thanks so much for doing such a great job. I’m in the soundtrack business, but if I could only listen to one type of music for the rest of my life, it would be Mike Smith and the DC5. Charlie co-starred in one of my favorite comedies of all-time: I SAILED TO TAHITI WITH AN ALL GIRL CREW (you’re laughing, but it’s a REALLY fun and clever movie, and I’m actually friends with TWO of the CREW members — LOL!). I have been close friends with THREE Elvis ladies, and they all raved about what a class act Elvis was when they were filming. A “wonderful Southern gentleman” as Julie Adams called him.

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