Johnny Smith

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Johnny Smith

John Henry Smith II (born June 25, 1922 in Birmingham; died June 11, 2013 in Colorado Springs, Colorado) was a jazz guitarist best known for his 1954 composition "Walk, Don't Run", a cover version of which reached #2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1960.

Smith was born in Birmingham and learned to play 5-string banjo from his father, a foundry worker. During the Great Depression, the family moved from Birmingham through several cities, ending up in Portland, Maine. Smith taught himself to play guitar in pawnshops. The owners let him play in exchange for keeping the guitars in tune. At thirteen he was teaching others to play the guitar. One of Smith's students bought a new guitar and gave Smith his old guitar, the first he ever owned.

Smith joined "Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys", a local hillbilly band that traveled around Maine, performing at dances, fairs and similar venues. Smith dropped out of high school to tour with that group and with the Fenton Brothers, earning four dollars a night. Smith also became interested in aviation and was taught how to fly by a group of pilots whom he befriended in Boston, Massachusetts. Influenced by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, whom he heard on the radio there, Smith formed his own trio, the "Airport Boys", when he was eighteen.

Smith enlisted in the Army Air Corps for World War II and was stationed to Macon, Georgia, but poor vision in one eye kept him from training as a military pilot. He was offered the choice of learning cornet to play in a military band or reporting to mechanic's school in Biloxi. He spent two weeks practicing the cornet and passed the examination to be in the band.

After the war, Smith settled in New York City and made a name for himself as an extremely versatile musician, able to sit in with jazz bands as well as sight read complex orchestral scores. He was the guitarist for Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra for seven years before leaving to form his own quintet that played regularly at Birdland. Smith's playing was characterized by closed-position chord voicings and rapidly ascending lines. He recorded a series of landmark albums for Roost Records during the next decade, the most well-known of which, "Moonlight in Vermont" (1952) featured Stan Getz on saxophone, and was named one of the top two jazz records for the year.

Beginning in the 1950s, three separate guitar makers issued licensed "Johnny Smith" signature guitars. Smith, who had learned about guitar construction from master luthier John D'Angelico in New York, contributed design sketches for the Guild model, produced in 1955. He provided more detailed designs for a Gibson-produced model which debuted in 1961. When Gibson relocated its manufacturing facility to Nashville, Tennessee in 1989, Heritage Guitars purchased the older Kalamazoo, Michigan factory and continued making their own "Heritage Johnny Smith" model. Gibson renamed their version as the "Gibson LeGrand". In 1995 Smith accepted Guild's invitation to return his endorsement to a new Bob Benedetto-built design, which was produced until 2006.

His signature composition, "Walk Don't Run", was written for a 1954 recording session as a counter-melody to the chord changes of "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise". Another guitarist, Chet Atkins, covered the song. Surf band The Ventures heard the Atkins version, simplified it, sped it up, and recorded it in 1960. That version went to #2 on the Billboard Top 100 for the week of September 1960. By that time, Smith had effectively retired from recording.

He and his 4-year-old daughter moved to Colorado in 1958, after the death of his second wife, Ann, during childbirth. He remarried, ran a music store and worked as a flight instructor.

Smith was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1998 the Smithsonian Institute awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to American culture.

Discography

  • Johnny Smith Quintet - Roost 410
  • JS Johnny Smith - Roost 413
  • In a Mellow Mood - Roost 421
  • In a Sentimental Mood - Roost 424
  • Johnny Smith Plays Jimmy Van Heusen- Roost 2201
  • The Johnny Smith Quartet - Roost 2203
  • Beverly Kenny Sings for Johnny Smith - Roost 2206
  • Moods with Johnny Smith, Guitar- Roost 2215
  • The New Johnny Smith Quartet- Roost 2216
  • Ruth Price Sings with the Johnny Smith Quartet - Roost 2217
  • The Johnny Smith Foursome - Roost 2223
  • The Johnny Smith Foursome Volume II - Roost 2228
  • Jeri Southern Meets Johnny Smith - Roulette R-52016
  • Flowerdrum Song - Roost 2231
  • Easy Listening - Roost 2233
  • A Perfect Match/The Art Van Damme Quintet with Johnny Smith - Columbia 8813
  • Designed for You - Roost 2238
  • My Little Sweetheart - Roost 2239
  • Johnny Smith Plus the Trio - Roost 2243
  • Johnny Smith Guitar and Strings - Roost 2242
  • The Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar - Roost 2246
  • Johnny Smith/The Man with the Blue Guitar - Roost 2248
  • Johnny Smith and Stan Getz/Moonlight in Vermont * Roulette CDP 7977472
  • The Guitar World of Johnny Smith - Roost 2254
  • Johnny Smith Reminiscing - Roost 2259
  • Johnny Smith - Verve 8692
  • Johnny Smith Kaleidoscope -Verve 8737
  • Johnny Smith, Phase II - Verve 8767
  • Legends, Johnny Smith/George van Eps - Concord 4616

References