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Johnny Smith, Revered Guitar Player, Has Died

Jun 13, 2013
Originally published on June 14, 2013 6:12 pm

The man who wrote the surf guitar anthem "Walk, Don't Run" has died. Guitarist Johnny Smith died Tuesday night at his Colorado home of natural causes. He would have been 91 years old on June 25.

Smith's tune was a Top 10 hit for The Ventures — twice. The group's 1960 recording hit No. 2. They re-recorded it in '64 and that version got up to No. 8 — at that time, the first occurrence of the same song by the same group cracking the Top 10 twice. The Ventures never heard the songwriter's '54 recording of "Walk, Don't Run." Instead, they took their version from a '57 Chet Atkins record. Chet, being the Southern gentleman that he was, asked Smith's permission after one of Smith's shows at the celebrated jazz venue Birdland in New York City. Smith readily agreed but Atkins insisted the composer hear his arrangement of it. So he played it on Smith's guitar in his dressing room.

Smith was born in Alabama and grew up in Maine. After WWII, he landed a job as an NBC studio musician. He played on Ed Sullivan and The Arthur Godfrey Show. He played under the batons of such storied conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Dimitri Mitropoulos. He could play it all — and well — but he was first and foremost a jazz guitarist. In 1952, he put together a group that included saxophonist Stan Getz. The album they recorded included blazing bebop and delicate ballads, in particular a version of "Moonlight in Vermont" that became one of the best-selling jazz records of its day.

But Smith's New York experience was not altogether happy. His wife at the time died, and he had a young daughter to take care of. So, in 1958 — at the height of his success — he packed up and moved to Colorado, where he remained the rest of his life. He ran a music store there and returned to New York occasionally to record. Smith made his last recordings — solo guitar — in Colorado Springs in 1976.

Smith was also a licensed pilot, and that brings things back to "Walk, Don't Run." Around the time The Ventures recorded Smith's tune, he was in his plane adjusting the seat when the ring finger on his fretting hand got caught in the track. He lost the tip of the finger and spent a year recovering. But he held the copyright to "Walk, Don't Run," and the royalties helped him and his family get through.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Johnny Smith was revered by guitar players in rock, country and jazz. Jazz is where Smith honed his craft. He had one of the best-selling jazz records of the 1950s. His version of "Moonlight in Vermont."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT IN VERMONT")

BLOCK: Johnny Smith died Tuesday evening at his home in Colorado Springs, just two weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. NPR's Tom Cole tells us about Smith's career and the song that made it possible.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: This is the version of "Walk, Don't Run" you might remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: The Ventures recorded their hit after hearing Chet Atkins play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: Chet heard it on a 1954 Johnny Smith recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: Smith had been in New York about five years when he wrote "Walk, Don't Run." He was one of the most in-demand guitarists in the city, a staff musician at the NBC radio network, playing with orchestras and leading his own bands alongside the beboppers on 52nd Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Here's Smith just two years ago from the Smithsonian oral history interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY SMITH: I'll never forget I was playing in Birdland, and I finished at 4 o'clock in the morning. The following 9 o'clock in the morning, I was sitting in the middle of the New York Philharmonic.

COLE: He was born in Alabama, and his family travelled the South looking for work during the Great Depression. They eventually settled in Portland, Maine, and he set a high bar for what he wanted his guitar to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: I figured if a piano player could go from one end of the keyboard to the other, I ought to be able to do that on my guitar.

COLE: Smith used chords to move with the melody, creating a luxurious liquid sound that's been the envy of guitarists ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Johnny Smith also designed guitars for Guild and Gibson. One of them is at the Smithsonian. But at the height of his career, Smith's wife died, and he couldn't keep up his relentless schedule and care for his 5-year-old daughter. So in 1958, he packed everything up and moved to Colorado, where he opened a music store. In the end, the modest innovator was happy with his life as a family man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: Every dream that I had when I was a young kid came true.

COLE: Tom Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.