ELAINE C. Smith is normally enthusiastic about her work, whether with television commitments such as the BBC’s Two Doors Down or the upcoming panto season at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow.

Today however the actor is reaching celestial heights of exuberance as she speaks of the new work she’s performing in converted church Oran Mor, in Glasgow’s West End.

Smith is starring in The Sweetest Growl, a bio-play based on the life of Glasgow jazz singer Mary McGowan.

McGowan led the band, the Clyde Valley Stompers and had a series of hits in the 1950s such as Open Up Them) Pearly Gates, which pushed Bill Haley & His Comets and Doris Day down the charts.

Yet, McGowan, who was lauded by the likes of Louis Armstrong, walked away from fame and into a life of quiet domesticity. “At the height of her success Mary couldn’t walk down Argyle Street,” says Smith. “Then in 1958 she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. She got married and had three kids and lived in Chryston (North Lanarkshire) in a nice house.”

Why? What prompted McGowan, who died four years ago, to walk away at a time when her celebrity was fast rising? Was she pressured by her partner? Did she make the choice to step out of the spotlight?

“That’s what the story of this play is all about,” says Smith in ebullient voice. “We’re examining why this could have come about. We can’t simply say she feared failure, because the band had enjoyed such success. We can’t be so trite as to say her husband didn’t want her to do it anymore.

“But perhaps she looked at the broken marriages around her and didn’t want to go in that direction. Or perhaps part of her believed she may not hit the dizzy heights of a Peggy Lee or an Ella Fitzgerald.”

The idea of the play is to stimulate thought; what did it mean for a woman in 1958 to make such a choice? What does it mean now? “We’ve met Mary’s family but we still don’t know. Although her husband worked in the Merchant Navy, and he had a high powered job so perhaps Mary didn’t see a future for a family with both parents working away so much.”

Mary McGowan did make one comeback appearance and the play, by Claire Nicol, is set on the night of the return. “What’s fascinating about this night is her children had, until then, no idea their mother had been a professional singer.”

Smith loves the curiosity the Mary McGowan story invokes. “It’s a story of hard choices, it’s a tale of a society that didn’t allow for women to go off and work in such a world. But you have to consider that Mary McGowan was in many ways a trailblazer for the likes of Lulu.”

Yet, women performers at this time were swimming with sharks, admits director Lesley Hart agrees. “This could have been a reason why Mary walked away.”

Smith offers another reason why McGowan (billed as ‘The Pocket Rocket’) left showbiz. “She wasn’t playing the London Palladium every night. She was playing working men’s clubs, “some really sh**** dives.”

Smith has been part of that man’s world. She has also toured the country, the only woman in a band in a beat up van. She has survived in a world of cold, shabby boarding houses and lukewarm fish suppers. “Yes, and it’s a tough existence. And while it may have been a laugh at times you were never one of the boys.”

She adds of personal sacrifice; “If I hadn’t been successful in what I’m doing I don’t think I love this business enough to be doing an Inspector Calls in rep theatre. And perhaps if I’d married a rich man maybe I’d have made different choices.”

Could Smith have walked away from showbiz however when her fame/success was fast rising, when Rab C. Nesbitt was hitting huge peaks? She pauses for a moment; “There was a point I thought I might have to, when I had kids. But I was so lucky in that I had a different type of husband who was prepared to give up his own career to look after them.

“And that was in the Nineties. Back in 1958 that wouldn’t have been the case with most men. It was also difficult for women to build careers. My mother worked for the Clydesdale Bank and she had to give up the job because married women weren’t allowed to carry on working for the bank. That was the era Mary McGowan lived in.”

Smith smiles; “Yet, if must have been difficult for Mary. If singing makes you feel alive, how does your heart feel when you walk away?”

The Sweetest Growl also stars George Drennan and Hilary Lyon, Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.