Smalls, a musical prodigy, began playing piano at age three. After graduating from The Juilliard School in 1961, he began a varied performing and composing career. He was a pianist with the New York Jazz Repertory Company and toured with Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masekela and others. Smalls began working on The Wiz in 1970, dedicating three years to completing the score. The Wiz opened on Broadway in 1975 and Smalls won two Tonys for music and lyrics. He died at 43 during emergency surgery.