Russell Smith was born on April 23, 1927 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and grew up near Washington D. C. At Columbia University in New York, he studied piano, composition, and music theory ( B.S. and M. A ). Private lessons with the composers Aaron Copland and Edgard Varese completed his training.

In the course of his career he received numerous scholarships, prizes and awards, including grants from the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1953 he won the George Gershwin Special Award and in 1963 the honorary prize of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (in connection with the recording of his Second Piano Concerto). He was commissioned to write a piece for th 50th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra (1967) and in 1981 he was awarded Munich's "Förderpreis für Musik".

From 1960 to 1975 Russell Smith was a lecturer of musicology, later a professor for composition and music theory at various American universities. These activities were interrupted from 1966 to 1967 when he was composer-in-residence with the Cleveland Orchestra and from 1969 to 1971 with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. He also wrote numerous contributions on music for Harper's Magazine, the New York Times, the United States Information Agency, Stereo Review, and other publications. After 1975 he lived as a free-lance composer in Munich.  

In addition to numerous songs and chamber music for various instruments, Russell Smith's catalogue of works includes large orchestral pieces and some sacred compositions, for example, a Gloria for mixed Choir, a Mass in G Major, and a Magnificat (commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra ) . His manifold musical oeuvre comprises the symphonies in C Major (commissioned by Bavarian Radio) and in G Major, a Symphony for Alto and Orchestra, a Sinfonia Concertante, a Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, "Tetrameron" for orchestra, two piano concertos, a Divertimento for a small orchestra, variations on "When the Saints go Marching In" for orchestra and a Dixieland jazz group (commissioned by the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra), as well as stage, film, and ballet music.

Renowned orchestras and outstanding conductors and soloists have performed or recorded his music, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt.

His comic opera, "The Unicorn in the Garden", after James Thurber's story in "Fables for Our Time", was performed more than one hundred times in various productions in the United States.

In Russell Smith's last decade he wrote, in addition to works of chamber music, a string quartet that was premiered by the Henschel Quartett, the symphony in G Major and several songs. His last work, a violin sonata was never completed.

Russell Smith died on September 25, 1998 in Munich.

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