Johnny Smith, Venerable Jazz Guitarist, Dies at 90
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: June 18, 2013
Johnny Smith, a jazz guitarist who was considered one of the emerging greats of his generation when he left the limelight in 1958 to move to Colorado, open a record store and become a full-time parent, died on June 11 at his home in Colorado Springs. He was 90.
His daughter, Kim Smith Stewart, confirmed his death.
Mr. Smith was revered by guitarists for his pure tone and flawless technique, which gave his most complex improvisations an effortless, almost weightless quality. His dreamy rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont,”recorded in 1952 with a group that included Stan Getz on tenor saxophone, was one of the best-selling jazz records of all time.
But it was another song, the gentle, fugue-like “Walk, Don’t Run,” which he wrote in 1954, that became Mr. Smith’s biggest hit. While his own recording of the piece received little attention, the Ventures had a Top 10 hit with their instrumental rock ’n’ roll version of it in 1960, and again in 1964 with the updated “Walk Don’t Run ’64.”
The Ventures’ stripped-down, hard-driving interpretation was a far cry from Mr. Smith’s concept. (A more faithful version was recorded in 1957 by his friend and fellow guitarist Chet Atkins, whose recording inspired the Ventures’ effort.) But Mr. Smith didn’t mind. The royalties he received from the Ventures’ cover — and from covers of the song by others, including Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass — enabled him to quit the punishing jazz life.
The quitting began in 1957, when his wife, Ann Marguerite, died giving birth to their second child, who was stillborn. Living in Manhattan, Mr. Smith sent his daughter, Kim, to live with his mother in Colorado Springs, and for a time returned to his work.
With a quartet that included Mr. Getz and sometimes Zoot Sims on saxophone, he performed regularly at the Manhattan jazz club Birdland, and was one of New York’s busiest session musicians, working with Benny Goodman and others.
While making several of the dozen albums under his own name that helped establish his reputation as “a demigod of guitar technique,” as The New York Times described him in 1999, Mr. Smith recalled a blurry stretch of “71 one-nighters in a row.”
On a visit to see his daughter in Colorado Springs in 1958, he decided he had had enough. “In the end, everything came down to the fact that I loved my daughter too much to let my career put her at risk,” he told The Colorado Springs Independent in 2001. “But there were other factors, too. I loved New York musically, but I hated living there.”
He bought a music store, renamed it Johnny Smith Music and settled into a life of fatherhood, trout fishing, music tutoring and neighborly anonymity. Asked if he ever regretted the decision, Mr. Smith told The Independent, giving each word emphasis: “Not. One. Minute.”
John Henry Smith II was born on June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Ala., one of six sons of John and Kathleen Smith. His father, an accomplished banjo player, was a sharecropper and welder who eventually moved the family to Portland, Me., where he worked for many years at a shipyard.
Mr. Smith picked up the guitar and other instruments, beginning at age 3, and started playing professionally at 13. He learned to read music in an Army Air Corps band during World War II, which helped him land a job after the war in the orchestra of the NBC radio affiliate in Portland.
He arrived in New York in the late 1940s, not as a jazz musician but to play guitar and trumpet (which he had learned in the Army) in the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He formed his first jazz quartet in 1951 with Mr. Getz, a fellow NBC staff musician.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Smith is survived by two sons from a previous marriage, John III and David; a brother, Benjamin; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Smith continued to record, and sometimes performed in Colorado nightclubs, but declined almost all invitations to tour. One exception was for Bing Crosby, whom he accompanied on a tour of England in 1977 that ended shortly before Mr. Crosby’s death.
“He accomplished everything he ever wanted,” his daughter said. “He played with the best musicians in the world, he went deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, he was a great father.”