Acclaimed jazz guitarist wrote 'Walk, Don't Run'
By The Washington Post
Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013, 3:24 p.m.
Johnny Smith, a jazz guitarist whose luscious tone, understated versatility and exemplary swinging style brought him a half-century of acclaim and whose composition “Walk, Don't Run” became a surf-rock hit for the Ventures in the 1960s, died on Tuesday in his home in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was 90.
The cause was complications from a fall, his son John Smith III said.
Smith was an eminent, more than a foundational, figure in jazz guitar. But the utter melodic beauty, technical dazzle and remarkable consistency of his playing over the decades brought him countless admirers at the highest levels of his craft. He accompanied Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Bing Crosby, Beverly Kenney and Hank Jones, among others, during his career.
A hallmark of Smith's playing was an intricate but seemingly effortless approach to jazz and bossa nova standards.
“He took very logical solos, like someone had written them all out ahead of time, but that was not the case,” said Vincent Pelote, acting director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “That's how organized a mind he had, and he had the technical ability to pull it all off. And that's what floored a lot of musicians, too.”
Smith, who had a Depression-era upbringing first in Alabama and then in Maine, was largely self-taught as a guitarist and worked his way into the top ranks of New York's music scene. He played on the radio with the NBC studio orchestra, led by conductor Arturo Toscanini, and performed on the concert stage daunting works by Arnold Schoenberg under conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Smith also was immersed in the jazz world, committing himself to a solo career in the early 1950s and becoming a mainstay of the New York nightclub Birdland. His recording breakthrough was the 1952 album “Moonlight in Vermont,” in which he led a quintet that included Getz. The title song became one of the best-selling jazz singles of the era.
His most enduring composition was the jaunty “Walk, Don't Run,” recorded by Smith in the mid-1950s and later covered by guitarist Chet Atkins. The Atkins version inspired the Ventures, whose interpretation became a pop hit in the early 1960s.
Smith abruptly ended his hectic career in New York after the death of his wife during childbirth in 1958.
As the only caregiver for their 4-year-old daughter, he decided to raise her in Colorado Springs, where he had family.
He said he never regretted the decision, telling the Colorado Springs paper, “The greatest view I ever had of New York City was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side and watched the Manhattan skyline recede in my rearview mirror.”
He taught guitar, ran a music store and helped design jazz guitars for companies such as Gibson. The royalties from “Walk, Don't Run” helped him through many lean years.
John Henry Smith II was born June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was a foundry worker and played banjo. When the factory closed during the Depression, the Smiths were uprooted and eventually settled in Portland, Maine.
As a child, he did not have money to buy a guitar so he came to an arrangement with pawnshops in Portland to keep instruments in tune in return for getting to play them.
He was accomplished enough at 13 to turn professional in a country band. He made $4 a night - good enough money during the Depression that he quit high school. He was drawn to the improvisational possibilities of jazz after hearing on radio the guitar innovators Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
During World War II, he learned the cornet to play in an Army Air Forces band. He eventually became a licensed pilot.
His first marriage, to Gertrude Larrivee, ended in divorce. His second wife, Ann Westerstrom, died in childbirth in 1958. His third wife, Sandy Robbins, died in 2006.
Survivors include two children from the first marriage, John Smith III of Houston and David Smith of Colorado Springs; a daughter from his second marriage, Kim Stewart of Centennial, Colo; a brother; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
To critical praise, Mosaic Records reissued in 2002 many of the sides he recorded for the Roost label in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1998, Smith received the Smithsonian Institution's James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to American culture.
Smith once told the jazz critic Leonard Feather that one of his least-heralded contributions to music was trying to teach sophisticated jazz harmonies to teenage rock musicians in Colorado.
“It's wonderful,” he said, “when a youngster will come up and say, ‘Hey, you remember that seventh chord with the flatted fifth that you showed us last week. Well, we used that in one of our songs.' “
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Garden Q&A: Firecracker vine OK for trellis?
- Starkey: Penguins’ arrogance astounding
- Two players ejected after Pirates, Brewers brawl
- Egg decorating turns to fight, charges in Brookline, police say
- Matt Calvert’s goal in double OT evens series for Blue Jackets
- Draftees’ longevity key for NFL success
- Patients nationwide die waiting as 1 in 5 kidneys rejected by doctors
- Worshippers welcome Easter’s dawn in Pittsburgh’s North Side
- Police: McKees Rocks woman had child on board when she crashed after chase
- Man dead in Beaver County brush fire
- Essay for Easter: Fresh start, new life