Guitarist Johnny Smith Dies at 90


Johnny Smith (Photo: William “Popsie” Randolph)

(Photo: )

Jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, whose recording of the standard “Moonlight In Vermont” with saxophonist Stan Getz was a major hit in 1952, died on June 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was 90.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Smith spent much of his youth in Portland, Maine, and became drawn to jazz as a teenager listening to guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian on the radio. He taught himself guitar and was known to practice in local pawnshops, where he was allowed to play if he kept the instruments tuned.

During World War II, Smith played cornet in an Air Corps band. After the war he became a staff musician at the NBC studio in Portland and later worked as a player and arranger at NBC in New York.

A highly accomplished guitarist who was known for his ability to play virtually anything—from studio music to classical to jazz—Smith pursued a solo career as a bandleader starting in the early ’50s. He recorded the quintet album Moonlight In Vermont (Roost) in 1952 and became a true jazz star: The album’s title track was voted #2 Jazz Record of the Year in the DownBeat Readers Poll. It highlighted Smith’s block-chord chops, whereby melody and harmony are rendered at the same time, as noted in a July 16, 1952, DownBeat review:

“A timely and long due reminder—you can play chords on a guitar as well as single notes! Johnny establishes the mood this way, Stan Getz eases in very gently, then on the second chorus invents his own ideas on this lovely standard with its six-bar phrases. … This is completely charming music, a delightful change from run-of-the-mill jazz offerings.”

Smith was voted New Star–Guitar in the 1953 DownBeat Critics Poll, and in 1954 he topped the Guitar category in DownBeat’s Readers Poll.

Smith was a frequent performer at the New York club Birdland, and he toured with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Count Basie. In 1954, he recorded the original composition “Walk, Don’t Run,” based on the changes to the standard “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise.” The song was covered by Chet Atkins and later by the Ventures, whose version reached No. 2 on the BIllboard pop chart in 1960.

In 1958, after the death of his second wife, Ann, Smith moved to Colorado Springs to raise his daughter and be with family. He traveled and toured less, preferring to play locally, run a music shop and fly airplanes. In 1980 he published an instructional book, The Complete Johnny Smith Approach to Guitar (Mel Bay). The Smithsonian Institution awarded Smith the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to American music in 1998.

Late in life, Smith stopped performing and preferred to keep a low profile. “I retired,” he said in a 2004 DownBeat article on the occasion of Guild issuing a limited-edition Johnny Smith signature model guitar. “I did everything I could on the guitar, and I couldn’t stand the idea of sliding backward.”

Smith’s classic recordings can be heard on the eight-CD box set The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions, released by Mosaic in 2002.

Survivors include three children, a brother, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Ed Enright

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