Johnny Smith, who has died at the age of ninety, was a musician for whom the term versatile might have been specially coined. Although best known as a poll-winning jazz guitarist who worked with Stan Getz and Count Basie, Smith also created one of the biggest hits of pop’s surf era, performed Schoenberg, accompanied Bing Crosby and played under demanding conductors Arturo Toscanini and Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Born into a poor family in Birmingham, Alabama, Smith was drawn to music through hearing his foundry worker father, an amateur banjo player, having a tune with his buddies after work. The young Johnny took advantage of these sessions to try out various instruments and after the family moved to Portland, Maine as the Depression closed down Birmingham’s foundries, he taught himself to play guitar with, it seems, typical enterprise.
With no money to buy a guitar, he’d go around the local pawnshops and keep theirs in tune in return for some practice time and by the age of thirteen, he was teaching adults to play, despite still not having a guitar of his own. One of his pupils eventually gave Smith his old guitar when he bought a new one and so began Smith’s startlingly diverse career.
He played with a locally hillbilly band, Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, earning four dollars a night, and quit school to become a professional musician, playing at functions and fairs. Then after hearing jazz on the radio and falling in love with the freedom and spontaneity it offered, he left the Mountain Boys, formed a jazz trio and was soon attracting attention from fellow guitarists for his exceptional technique.
Called for military service in 1941, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, intending to become a pilot. He’d already learned to fly through hanging around the local airport but imperfect eyesight meant that he was given the choice between becoming a mechanic and joining the band. He chose the latter, accepted the challenge of learning to play cornet to sight-reading level within two weeks, and practised in the latrines to meet the required standard.
Having played marching band music, added violin and viola to his repertoire with the concert band, led a jazz combo and narrowly missed being poached by Glenn Miller while in the Air Corps, Smith returned to Portland after the war and took a job as a staff musician with the local radio station, playing theme tunes and jingles by day and guitar and trumpet in clubs by night. His boss alerted NBC HQ to his talents and Smith was offered a job in New York. Engagements with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia and NBC Symphonies followed, as did the chance to play jazz on 52nd Street.
Soon he was leading a quintet that included Stan Getz on saxophone. Their 1952 recording of Moonlight in Vermont became an instant classic and marked the beginning of a ten year association between Smith and Roost Records. Smith joined Stan Kenton and Count Basie on the road but the schedule of one-nighters – he once played a run of seventy-one consecutively with Basie – palled and he switched to playing sessions. For one of these in 1955 he composed a tune called Walk Don’t Run. Country guitar legend Chet Atkins heard it and recorded it and in the early sixties, surf group the Ventures happened across Atkins’ version and took it into the pop charts. It went on to achieve over two million broadcasts.
In 1958 Smith’s second wife, Ann, died, leaving the guitarist with a young daughter. He retreated to Colorado Springs to live mostly a quiet family life. He kept playing locally and emerged only infrequently, touring Europe with Bing Crosby in the 1970s. His reputation as an extraordinarily articulate guitarist, however, ensured that his peers continued to refer to him with awe and both Gibson and Guild guitars made models named after him. His third wife, Sandy, predeceased him and he is survived by sons John and David and daughter Kim.
Johnny Smith, musician, born June 25, 1922; died June 11, 2013.