Johnny Smith, who died at age 90 on June 11 at his Colorado Springs, CO, home from complications from a fall, wasn’t the household name his friends and admirers became—musicians on the order of Charlie Parker, Les Paul and Chet Atkins—and that suited the guitar virtuoso just fine. In 1958, by which time he’d spent the decade dazzling fans, critics and fellow musicians in the worlds of jazz, pop and classical (he even sat in with some avant-garde groups now and then) with a style noted for fluid precision, its rich, warm tone and unalloyed emotion—never mind it being technically daunting (some of the chords he plays in his most famous number, “Moonlight in Vermont,” require a seven-fret extension)—he was arguably the foremost jazz guitarist of his time, and considered by many to rank near the top of the greatest ever. He was also deeply unhappy. The pace of his life in New York, where he worked clubs, his own and others’ recording sessions, and also played and on radio and TV, was running him ragged. Then, tragically, his second wife, Ann Margueritte, died during childbirth (the baby was stillborn), leaving Smith as the sole caretaker of their then-four-year-old daughter, Kim. By chance, his brother and his mother had wound up living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a town Smith admitted he had barely heard of before he learned he had family there. He sent Kim to live with his mother while he maintained his New York schedule, but soon packed up and followed her west, determined to get off the fast track and be a full-time father.
“There was no way I could properly care for Kim while working ’round-the-clock like that,” Smith told writer Bob Campbell in a 2001 interview with the Colorado Springs Independent. “I asked a pediatrician if she’d stand a chance of growing up happy and well-adjusted under the care of a nursemaid, and he told me that chances were slim.
“In the end, everything came down to the fact that I loved my daughter too much to let my career put her at risk. But there were other factors, too. I loved New York musically, but I hated living there. You couldn’t be a human being. It was all push and shove, and if you stopped to say ‘Excuse me,’ God forbid, you’d probably get hauled off to Bellevue as a full-blown loony-tune.”
The Johnny Smith Quintet, ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ (1952). Johnny Smith, guitar; Sanford Gold, piano; Eddie Safranski, bass; Don Lamond, drums.
Asked by Campbell if had any regrets about his fateful decision, Smith shook his head and said, “Not…one…minute,” “giving each word emphasis and weight,” wrote Campbell.
Smith and his band—which included, at times, saxophonists Stan Getz and Zoot Sims—recorded 18 albums for various labels including Verve, Prestige, Roost, Roulette and Columbia. Jazz musicians and fans familiar with Smith’s catalogue will cite this and that song as their favorite, but it was his 1952 recording of “Moonlight in Vermont” that became not only his signature hit and sound signature, but one of the best selling jazz singles of all time, along with being the Down Beat Record of the Year, and still ranks in the upper echelon of the greatest jazz recordings ever.
Campbell: It was with “Moonlight in Vermont” that Smith established his trademark style of tasteful, clean sound and complex chordal voicing, interspersed with incredibly fast runs.
The song opens with a virtuosic six-chord sequence that has become the stuff of legend and lore in guitarist circles. In it, Smith voices chord and melody off the same string–a technique that came to him while listening to someone play the Hammond organ.
“The hardest thing to do on the guitar,” he explains, “is to play a melodic chord progression in smooth, even fashion without leaving space between chords. Then one day I noticed how an organist managed to keep a tone going between chords by holding down one of the notes of the chord while he pivoted to the next chord. I picked up on that and applied it to chord progressions on the guitar.”
Smith made his exit to Colorado Springs as rock ‘n’ roll was changing everything in the music world and in popular culture. Though he made few records after leaving New York, his catalogue of original songs included “Walk Don’t Run!”, which became one of greatest of all rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals as recorded by a group that has sold more than 100 million records since its breakout moment with an adrenalized version of the mellow, wistful ballad Smith introduced with his quintet (Smith on lead guitar, Perry Lopez on rhythm, Arnold Fishkin on bass and Don Lamond on drums) on his 1954 album, In a Sentimental Mood.
The Johnny Smith Quartet, ‘Walk Don’t Run!’ (1954). Johnny Smith, guitar; Perry Lopez, rhythm guitar; Arnold Fishkin, bass; Don Lamond, drums.
Chet Atkins, ‘Walk Don’t Run!’ as recorded on his 1958 album, Hi Fi In Focus. Atkins’s version caught the attention of guitarist Bob Bogle in Tacoma, Washington, who assembled his group the Versatones and recorded an adrenalized, self-released rendition of the song that a local TV station used to introduce its newscast. When Bob Reisdorf of Dolton Records heard the song, he signed the newly renamed Ventures to his label and released what became a #2 single in the autumn of 1959 and one of the greatest of all rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals. The Ventures have gone on to sell more than 100 million records and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Ventures, ‘Walk Don’t Run!’ on American Bandstand, ‘the biggest instrumental record of the day,’ as Dick Clark says in his introduction.
Actually, it wasn’t Smith’s cool version of his song “Walk Don’t Run!” (actually a contrafect—a new melody overlaid on an existing harmonic structure–of the bittersweet love ballad “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise,” co-written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1928 operetta The New Moon) that caught the attention of Bob Bogle, founder and lead guitarist for a Tacoma, Washington-based group called the Versatones. Rather, it was a slightly edgier instrumental take on the tune by another precision guitarist, Chet Akins, on his Hi Fi in Focus album, that Bogle saw potential in retrofitting for the rock ‘n’ roll. In 1959 the Versatones, renamed The Ventures, with bassist Nokie Edwards and drummer Skip Moore joining original Versatones Bogle and Don Wilson (rhythm guitar), cut their driving take on “Walk Don’t Run!” and pressed it up on their own Blue Horizon label for local distribution. When a local radio station began playing it as an introduction to its newscasts, fans began calling in requesting more information about the tune. One of those impressed by the recording was Bob Reisdorf, head of Dolton Records, who had passed on the Ventures’ demo recording, but had a change of heart after hearing the band’s new recording. Released on Dolton in the autumn of 1959, “Walk Don’t Run!” peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart and launched the Ventures into an orbit that would find the band pioneering rock ‘n’ roll concept albums and being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 25, 1922, Smith was the son of a blue-collar foundry worker father who was also a skilled five-string banjo player. When the Depression shut down the Birmingham foundries, the family, now destitute, relocated to New Orleans, then to Chattanooga, TN, and finally settled in Portland, Maine, a “wrenching culture shock,” Smith said. Ever enterprising, the young Smith began teaching himself guitar and struck an arrangement with Portland pawn shops to keep their guitars in tune in return for being allowed to hang out at the stores and practice on the instruments. He acquired his first guitar during his sophomore year in high school and began playing six nights a week in a hillbilly band, Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys,” working dances all over Maine and offering a diverse repertoire of polkas, folks songs, pop tunes and country number. Making $4 a night in those desperate years convinced him he had a calling as a musician, so he quit high school to devote his energies to making music full-time.
A brief interview with Johnny Smith in which the guitarist recounts a memorable encounter he had with Django Reinhardt plus several live recordings. Almost 40 minutes of Johnny Smith music here.
During this time, he heard the siren song of jazz calling him. As he told Bill Campbell: “I loved jazz for its freedom, spontaneity and creativity, and I profoundly appreciated the musicianship and improvisational skill it demands. I spent hour after hour listening to the big bands on the radio and on records–playing along, emulating, discovering. That was my music school.”
The artists that held most sway over him—the ones he was playing along with, “emulating and discovering”—were primarily electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt. At age 18 he formed his first jazz combo, The Airport Boys, two guitars and a standup bass, playing popular songs in the style of his chief influences. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping to become a pilot in the war effort, but poor eyesight in his left eye barred him from flight school. Instead, he wound up in the 8th Air Corp in Montgomery, Alabama, assembling a jazz combo—with the unusual lineup of two guitars, a mandolin and a standup bass–for Air Corps musical tours of the southeast
After the war, Smith returned to Portland to work as a staff musician at the city’s NBC radio affiliate, while making some extra change after hours playing guitar in local nightclubs and trumpet in the pit band of a vaudeville theater. His boss at the Portland radio station sent a demo tape of Smith’s playing to Roy Shields, music director of NBC headquarters in New York. Impressed by what he heard, Shields offered Smith a position as staff musician and arranger for NBC headquarters in New York. It was a tremendous challenge, but the demands of it accrued to Smith’s benefit in the long run.
A Johnny Smith classic, ‘Cherokee,’ with the Quintet (Smith, guitar: Paul Quinichette, tenor sax; Arnold Fishkin, bass; Don Lamond, drums; Sanford Gold, piano.
“Back then,” Smith said, “radio music was entirely live, right on down to the commercials. NBC, CBS and ABC each carried a staff of over a hundred musicians who were expected to play on sight anything thrown at them–classical, popular, jazz, polkas, theater scores, you name it. It could be nerve-wracking, but it was a dream come true to be in the company of the best musicians in the world, which is what they were.”
In addition to playing in as many as 35 radio (and later television) shows a week for NBC–including Highways in Melody, The Arthur Godfrey Ford Road Show, Star Time with Benny Goodman and Frances Langsford, The Patrice Munsel Show, The Dave Garroway Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC Fireside Theater–Smith played engagements with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, with the Philadelphia Symphony under Ormandy and with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and did increasing numbers of gigs on the side in Manhattan’s world-class nightclubs.
“Toscanini was a genius, but he was a tyrant with a nasty temper,” Smith recalled of his time with the legendarily temperamental conductor. “He’d fly into towering rages. One time in rehearsal he jerked his beautiful gold watch from out of his vest pocket and slammed it down on the podium, sending parts spraying all over the stage. I walked on eggshells playing under his direction. I was very, very careful not to set him off.”
Johnny Smith, ‘Stranger in Paradise,’ the pop classic from the 1953 musical Kismet, written by Robert Wright and George Forrest, using a melody from Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, composed for his 1890 opera Prince Igor. Personnel: Johnny Smith (guitar), Perry Lopez (rhythm guitar), Arnold Fishkin (bass), Don Lamond (drums).
After recording with Benny Goodman in 1951, he formed his own combo—bringing along a fellow NBC staff musician, saxophonist Stan Getz for the ride (and sometimes Zoot Sims), plus Sanford Gold on piano, Eddie Safranski on bass and Don Lamond on drums–and his reputation on the jazz scene soared. In great demand for sessions and a top draw at the clubs, his band became a regular attraction at Birdland, in midtown on 7th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets, where it often played as many as 22 week-long engagements a year. Customers waiting to get in would form a line that sometimes stretched all the way around 7th Avenue, up 52nd Street and around the corner on 6th Avenue.
“That was a frantic, happy scene,” Smith told Campbell while reminiscing about his Birdland days. “We shared the bill with greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Charles Mingus. It was the realization of a lifelong ambition to play jazz to appreciative crowds among the foremost jazz musicians of the era.”
From the 1952 Moonlight in Vermont album, the Johnny Smith Quintet offers ‘Where or When.’ Stan Getz is on tenor sax.
He launched his recording career with Roost Records in 1952, in a session that resulted in “Moonlight in Vermont.” In 1956 Smith, on guitar, along with Bob Pencoast on piano, Knobby Totah on bass and Moosie Alexander on drums accompanied the gifted but tragic young vocalist Beverly Kenney on the first of the six albums she recorded before committing suicide, at age 28. Playing in a decidedly King Cole Trio mode, Smith and his mates play with subtlety and simmering passion to match Ms. Kenney’s alternately torchy and flirty vocal style, which over the years has been favorably compared to that of Billie Holiday. The band was so integral to what Ms. Kenney was after that it merited co-billing in the album title, Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith. (For more on Beverly Kenney, go to the definitive feature published in TheBluegrassSpecial.com of April 2011, “The Cry of Anguished Protest, The First of Many Wrought from Me.”)
From Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith (1956), Ms. Kenney performs ‘There Will Never Be Another You.’ The band features Johnny Smith on guitar, Bob Pencoast on piano, Knobby Totah on bass and Moosie Alexander on drums.
From Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith (1956), a lovely take on ‘This Little Town is Paris’
From Beverly Kenny Sings for Johnny Smith (1956), ‘Ball and Chain’
Great work by Johnny Smith on ‘Looking for a Boy,’ from Beverly Kenney Sings for Johnny Smith
Being as gifted as Johnny Smith was can be both blessing and curse. Eventually, he came to see it as the latter. His life was a 24/7 hamster wheel of appearances on radio and TV, in recording studios and nightclubs. He scaled back his NBC work from full-time to freelancer and toured as a featured artist with the bands of Stan Kenton and Count Basie. The road provided little solace—at one point, Smith claimed, he played 71 one-nighters in a row. “There’s really not a whole lot that’s glamorous about that lifestyle,” he said.
Then came the disaster of losing his wife in 1958, and the life altering decision to get out of the rat race in New York and raise his daughter in the healthier, more sedate climes of Colorado Springs. “The greatest view I ever had of New York City,” he said, “was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side and watched the Manhattan skyline recede in my rearview mirror.”
Johnny Smith, ‘Misty,’ from his 1961 album, The Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar. Personnel: Johnny Smith, guitar; Hank Jones, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Ed Shaughnessy, drums.
Occasionally he would return to the city for a recording session or to do a Birdland gig, but after remarrying in 1960, he largely confined his public performances to the few venues available to him in Denver and Colorado Springs, although he did return to play in his native Alabama, in Mobile, in, if the YouTube attributions are correct, 1984 and 1985 (see the clips embedded on this page). He also joined his friend Bing Crosby on a tour of England in 1977; Crosby died shortly after the tour’s end. The royalty checks from the Ventures’ hit with “Walk Don’t Run!” and various cover versions enabled him to adopt a more sedate lifestyle, off the road, and pick his moments to play live music.
He bought a music store and renamed it Johnny Smith Music, but his main focus in life was caring for his daughter, and apart from that, music tutoring and trout fishing. At the time of his 2001 interview with Bill Campbell, Smith was not only eight years down the road from his last live performance (“I miss playing for people, but I don’t miss the music business, and above all, I don’t miss the travel.”) but had quit playing his instrument at all. “It’s discouraging to sit around and plunk,” he said. “It takes constant public performing to keep up to speed, and that means travel. To me, there’s no in-between, so I don’t play any more, period–not even by myself in my own home.”
Johnny Smith performing live in Mobile, AL, in 1984, ‘What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?’
Two guitar titans, Mundell Lowe and Johnny Smith, perform the Benny Goodman Band’s ‘Seven Come Eleven’ at the 1985 W.C. Handy Festival in Florence, AL
Perfectly content, he expressed appreciation for the world he had been able to see as a touring musician but was adamant about the joys of Colorado Springs. “There’s no place I’d rather permanently live than right here,” he said. “I have wonderful neighbors. I have all I need.
“One of the best things about Colorado Springs is that it locates you as far away from New York as you can be without getting too close to L.A.”
In June 1998, Smith was awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, an honor bestowed annually by The Smithsonian Institute to an individual or organization that has made distinguished cultural contributions in the area of public service, the arts, science or history. Previous Smithson recipients have included Helen Hayes, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Richard Leakey, Walter Cronkite, Jacques Cousteau, Pete Seeger, Sir Edmund Hillary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, The Emerson String Quartet and others.
In his History of the Guitar in Jazz, Norman Morgan lauds Smith as “the first of the modern guitarists to treat the guitar almost as a piano and thus re-popularize the accompaniment function of the instrument, abandoned since Charlie Christian’s concern with linearity. Johnny’s impeccable artistry has become a reference point for guitarists concerned with technique and precision.”
Barney Kessel, a fellow legendary guitarist, called Smith “an extraordinary virtuoso. As far as I’m concerned, no one in the world plays the guitar better than he. They might play it differently, but nobody plays better. Johnny could easily overplay because he’s got chops unlimited, but his musical taste would not allow him to make an overstatement. As a result, he makes beautiful music.”
Smith is survived by his daughter Kim. “He accomplished everything he ever wanted,” she said. “He played with the best musicians in the world, he went deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, he was a great father.”