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Jazz Guitar Great Johnny Smith Dies

Michael Leonard
|
06.20.2013

Guitar star Johnny Smith has died, aged 90. A legend in the jazz world, Smith’s unique interpretation of “Moonlight in Vermont” was voted 1952’s “jazz record of the year”. Also, outside of his normal jazz muse, he wrote “Walk, Don’t Run,” an early surf-rock hit in the hands of the Ventures in 1959.

Smith was a guitarist’s guitarist. He had a unique style -  fluid melody played almost entirely from chord voicings, alt tunings, and an almost piano-sense of harmony. Barney Kessel and Bill Frisell are among his ardent fans.

Smith picked up the guitar via his banjo-playing father. By 13 he was giving guitar lessons, fuelled by his love of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian on the radio. Glenn Miller later tried to hire him, but was overruled by U.S. Army officials (Smith was then in the Air Corps.)

Smith played Ed Sullivan’s and Benny Goodman’s shows and for the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Symphony and NBC Symphony Orchestras. He recorded with Benny Goodman in 1951 and then formed his own jazz group – playing regularly at the famous Birdland club, where Charlie Parker became a keen admirer. His “Walk, Don’t Run” was first covered by Chet Atkins before The Ventures made it a smash-hit.

In 1980, he published a guitar tutor, The Complete Johnny Smith Approach to Guitar, and in 1986 the University of Colorado awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Listen to the great Johnny Smith.

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