Jazz guitarist Johnny Smith died at his home June 11, 2013, two weeks shy of his 91st birthday. Arguably the most respected and revered guitarist of the modern era (1950 to present), Smith was sincerely humble and reserved about his extraordinary talent.
In 1999, his peers and friends celebrated his career with a gala at Hunter College where virtually every big-name jazz guitarist honored him, and he graciously endured the tribute’s speeches, performances, and testimonials. Typical of his sincere modesty, Smith’s reaction to the affair was, “I wish there had been a big rock onstage so I could have crawled under it.”
One endorsement of his artistic gravitas was the bestowal of the Smithsonian Institution’s James Smithson Bicentennial Award, “…in grateful recognition for your contributions to American music.”
Smith was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1922. The Great Depression forced his family to Portland, Maine, and, by age 13 he had struck a deal with a local pawnshop whereby he kept the store’s guitars in tune as he used them to teach himself to play. Soon, he was giving lessons and playing hillbilly music with Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, a group that traveled the state and paid the youngster $4 per night. He heard his first Django Reinhardt record as a pre-teen and saved his nickels so he could buy every Django 78-rpm recording that was released. His folks had a Victrola which afforded only three or four plays before it wore out a disc. Still, that was enough for the talented youngster to memorize Django’s licks.
“I drove my folks crazy because I liked to listen to big-band music on the radio,” he said. “That was my best teacher – learning to coordinate harmonies with the big bands. And I got to where I could out-guess their modulations.”
Soon, he was in the Army Air Corps in hopes of realizing his dream of becoming a pilot. But because of a vision flaw in his left eye, he was given the choice of becoming a flight mechanic or joining the marching band. He opted for the band and was given a cornet and an instruction book. His intrinsic talent and dedication (hours of practice in the latrine) saw him conquer the horn and the Arban method in a couple of weeks.
Smith also used his time in the service to develop his guitar skills.
“From having to read on the trumpet, I learned what the notes were and was able to transfer them to the guitar,” he said. “I’d read everything from Kreutzer violin books, second and third trumpet books, and whatever I could find.
“Before the war, I met Charlie Christian when he came to Portland, and later I heard that great record he made with Benny [Goodman], “Airmail Special.” It was such an inspiration.
“Years later, after I’d gotten established, I remember when Django came to New York and was appearing at Café Society. Les Paul was at the Paramount. So I’d pick up Django, who was staying at the Great Northern Hotel, and take him to the Paramount. Then I’d take him back to Café Society, where he’d go to work. I’m so privileged that I got to meet him.”
Smith’s involvement in guitar construction began in 1946, shortly after his arrival in New York. He entered an arrangement with Epiphone to use its Emperor model as his regular instrument, and designed the Emperor Concert – a purely acoustic instrument easily identified by its trapezoidal sound hole. Smith widened the parallel bracing and had the top carved to reduce thickness around the sound hole. The guitar was intended for production, but his own was the only one completed.
Smith had mixed feelings about his first attempts at guitar design. The features he helped devise improved the instrument’s ability to project melodies, but he found the size of its body cumbersome.
In 1950, he began a legendary relationship with John D’Angelico, who at the time produced the New Yorker and Excel. Smith’s first D’Angelico was an Excel-sized instrument with the more-ornate features of the New Yorker, and a floating DeArmond pickup. Unfortunately, it was lost in a house fire the following year, after which he used a ’30s D’Angelico lent to him by John Collins. The guitar had a notably wider fingerboard, which Smith initially found unwieldy but then came to appreciate.
In 1955, Smith took delivery of his third D’Angelico, commissioned to unique specs including a 20-fret fingerboard on a shorter 25″ scale neck that continued under the length of the fingerboard into the cross bracing. The shorter scale length facilitated his trademark stretch chords without loss of tone, while the extended neck and cross-bracing resulted in a better balance of tone and volume. Many of New York’s jazz guitarists were so enamored of this guitar that they placed orders for identical instruments.
The following year, Smith began an endorsement deal with Guild, which resulted in the Johnny Smith Award. Most of its design features appeared on his ’55 D’Angelico. The scale-length, however, was 1/4″ shorter, as he continued to search for an equilibrium that would accommodate his stretches without significant loss of tone. Famously, Smith disagreed with the factory foreman regarding the carving process, though years later he graciously admitted he had been wrong and that the Guild was a fine instrument.
In 1961, Gibson began producing its own Johnny Smith model, which manifested the results of Smith’s years of research and was, in effect, the production version of the ’55 D’Angelico with its specs, including a return to the 25″ scale length and a nut width of 1 3/4″. The cross-bracing was a return to old methods for Gibson, but it was the first guitar in the company’s line to use the PU-120 floating pickup, which permitted the instrument’s top to vibrate unhindered.
Luthier Bob Benedetto has no reservations about Smith’s influence on his own development through the Gibson.
“Johnny’s input had a profound influence on my guitar-making career,” he said. “The Gibson Johnny Smith was, in my opinion, the most-refined model in Gibson’s lineup of archtop jazz guitars. It was perfection, across the board.”
By 1989, Smith had become frustrated with certain methods at Gibson, particularly its refusal to produce consistent necks, and he awarded his endorsement to Heritage, which manufactured the Johnny Smith Rose per his original Gibson design.
Johnny also played a significant part in the development of dedicated amplification for the instrument. In the late ’40s, amplifiers were unreliable and intended for general purpose rather than specifically for electric guitars. In the early ’50s, Smith was one of a handful of test pilots for Everett Hull’s Ampeg company. Their work together resulted in the production of some of the first dedicated and respectable guitar amps.
However, Smith was never happy to rest on his laurels. He wanted an amplifier with flat frequency response, which would amplify his archtop without boosting its treble or bass frequencies. In 1955, the first Ampeg Johnny Smith model went into production. Two years later, the grandly titled Ampeg Fountain of Sound became available. The Fountain of Sound was, in effect, the Johnny Smith model fitted with four legs and turned on its back so the speaker faced upward. Virtually every studio guitarist in New York used it.
When Smith’s Gibson endorsement began in ’61, the company was eager to have him using one of its amps. Johnny was reluctant because Gibson didn’t produce a unit with a flat frequency response. So, in ’64 the manufacturer agreed to produce what would become the GA-75L Recording model, which can be heard on Smith’s three albums for Verve in ’67 and ’68.
In the late ’60s, Smith sought to re-create the tube-driven Gibson amplifier in solidstate form with the EMRAD Johnny Smith model, which he used on his tour with Bing Crosby in 1976-’77.
Smith’s prescient concept for the amplification of acoustic guitars with onboard electronics was 60 years ahead of its time, and his archtop guitar designs have remained influential since their inception. – Len Flanagan
Big-Time In The Big Apple
“After the war, I was back in Portland, working three gigs – at WCSH doing a daily show, playing trumpet in a pit band, and playing nights at a nightclub. The director at the affiliate, Arthur Owens, took a couple of air-checks to NBC in New York, and that’s how I got the call to become a staff member.”
But he still had to sweat out a Local 802 union card. “I’d work at NBC on a freelance basis because I didn’t have to have a card. I survived on baloney and stale bread for six months, but still, I was at the apex of live music in New York – not just 52nd Street, but everything. The three networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS, each had over 100 musicians on full-time staff. Everything was live music, right down to the commercials, and it was wonderful. And, of course, 52nd Street was door-to-door-to-door jazz. Then there was Birdland. I feel fortunate and grateful to have been there.”
Moonlight In Vermont
Along with Les Paul and Mary Ford, Smith’s 1952 hit, “Moonlight in Vermont” (with Stan Getz on sax), was a harbinger for the burgeoning popularity of guitar recordings. “I met Stan at a party and he mentioned wanting to get off the road,” said Smith. “I got him an appointment at NBC; at that time, there was one show with a big orchestra. The conductor, Roy Shields, asked if I could write an arrangement and form a combo for a once-a-week spot. The piano player, Sanford Gold, was a good friend of Teddy Reig, who owned Roulette Records. He took an air-check to Teddy, who said, ‘I’ll take a chance.’ So we recorded ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and ‘Tabu.’
“Then, because I hadn’t had any time off since 1946, I headed to Florida for a few weeks. When I returned, ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ started happening – no promotion, no nothing, but disc jockeys were using it as background.”
Most of Smith’s albums were on the Royal Roost label, which in 1958 was absorbed by Roulette, which was owned by the notorious Morris Levy. “I don’t know who bought my records – jazz fans, guitar players, or perhaps sophisticated New York types – but most of them were panned by the ‘experts’ like Leonard Feather,” Smith said. “Of course, a lot of them, I hoped, would remain buried (laughs)! I did two albums with big string sections for Roost. Arranging and writing for strings was my biggest thrill – my great love. After that, I made three albums for Verve.
“The best recording group I ever had was George Roumanis on bass, Mousey Alexander on drums, and the extraordinary Bob Pancoast on piano, who had a completely different style and approach. On one of my albums, I featured Bob on Duke Ellington’s ‘Prelude to a Kiss.’ It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.”
Smith was known for not being happy with his recordings. “The truth is, the minute you record something, you look back and realize you could have done it better,” he said. “Regardless of the many gracious compliments I’ve received, mostly from guitar players, I’m truthful and honest with myself, and sometimes feel like they could have put me and my guitar in the men’s room.”
The vast majority of jazz guitarists disagree vehemently with Smith’s assessment of his playing.
“Johnny was simply pristine in his melodic attack,” said Sheryl Bailey. “He could play three-octave arpeggios with joyous ease and create the most gorgeous closed-position chord voicings that even the best of us develop a sweat over. But he played with a warmth and ease that was spellbinding to musicians of all instruments and styles. He transcended the guitar, and his pure and beautiful lines and harmonies were stunning. His influence will live on because it was honest and from the heart in its precision and perfection.”
“Johnny was so very important,” added Larry Coryell. “His playing was melodic, romantic, and economical, and his chord concept was unique. He played chords that were like piano voicings, with such close intervals. And his career as a studio musician in New York City is legendary. He loved classical music and incorporated it into his overall attitude. When I visited him once in Colorado Springs, he taught me a section of Ravel’s ‘Mother Goose Suite’ that was a real finger-stretcher. I mean a real stretcher – and painful! But I loved him. He was a gentleman and an enlightened soul. Plus, his version of ‘What’s New’ – those chords again – is unsurpassed.”
Smith said many times he never considered himself a jazz guitarist. “Let’s start with a category like Segovia,” he said. “Segovia was a dedicated classical guitarist. That was his whole life. The great jazz musicians I know have jazz as their only life. So that lets me out because I was involved with and loved so many different kinds of music that I couldn’t stay focused on one.”
Asked if he considered himself a commercial artist, he responded with, “No, I didn’t think in [those] terms. I could be commercial with the rest to a point, but I couldn’t go and play bad just for the sake of making a few dollars.”
All of the players queried concede Smith was a comprehensive player capable of delivering whatever a session needed, and was indeed a jazz guitarist of the first magnitude.
Hank Garland, the great Nashville session guitarist, played the lick on Elvis’ “Little Sister”– hardly a jazz song – though he also recorded the landmark Jazz Winds From a New Direction. It inspired a young George Benson, another noted player among many, such as Lee Ritenour and Earl Klugh, who can play superb jazz but produce music consumers desire. In fact, most any jazz-oriented session players, from Howard Roberts to Dennis Budimir to Bucky Pizzarelli, have recorded everything from klezmer to doo-wop. Carlos Barbosa-Lima, one of the world’s most-revered classical guitarists, said, “I admire Johnny immensely. He could play very difficult classical pieces with a pick, which was seemingly impossible. I think he could play anything on the guitar. His innate facility and plectrum technique was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Guitars, Amps, Strings – and Attitude
For someone so identified with archtop guitars, Smith had a checkered, often unfortunate, history with his instruments. When he got the letter in Portland to report to NBC, his Gibson L-5 had been stolen from a check room. So he arrived in New York with no guitar. He met Harry Volpe, a guitarist on staff at Radio City Music Hall who also owned a music store.
“Volpe had Gretsch make me a guitar, but within a couple weeks, the neck was a roller coaster,” recalled Smith. “Then, Volpe went to Epiphone and they made me a guitar. After that, I went from unconscious ignorance to conscious ignorance (laughs) when I heard about John D’Angelico. He made me a guitar that was absolutely beautiful. But the house I was renting on Long Island burned down and, unfortunately, took my guitar and my dog.”
The predicament led to a series of Smith-designed instruments – all indicative of the guitarist’s rigid standards. “Johnny created a genre of guitars,” said studio guitarist and guitar historian Mitch Holder. “I’ve read his correspondence with Gibson’s Ted McCarty, and Johnny accepted the contract but refused the JS prototype because it had 22 frets. Just like with his D’Angelicos, he wanted only 20 frets so it would facilitate his playing style, which employed long stretches and created a mellower sound.” (Ed. Note: See sidebar for Smith biographer Lin Flanagan’s overview of his impact on guitar design.)
“John Collins had a D’Angelico that he let me use while (D’Angelico) was building me another guitar,” Smith added. “It had a neck like a plow handle, but I fell in love with it. So I had D’Angelico build him another guitar.”
By this time, Smith was a recognized guitar figure. When Gibson approached him to design and endorse a guitar, he sought advice from John D’Angelico. “He said, ‘I think you should, because I can only make so many guitars in a year.’ So I did, and Gibson released the Smith model. But I became disenchanted because they weren’t doing it right.”
Heritage, a group of builders who took over the former Gibson plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, had Smith design a guitar. “It was fine, but they lost some of their key people and the guitars just weren’t right,” Smith said. “Then, around that time, Bill Schultz, the head guy for Fender, which had acquired the Guild Company said, ‘We’ve got this Artist Award. If you’re not happy with Heritage, would you consider endorsing this guitar?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if it’s made right.’ There was dead silence until he told me that Bob Benedetto was taking over the product and moving his operation to California. So, my thanks to Bob Benedetto, whom I consider the greatest guitar builder on the planet today. He took the reins, and the guitar is really, really lovely.”
Smith was just as candid about amplifiers and what he required. He worked with Everett Hull to design Ampeg’s Fountain of Sound amp, which was subsequently used by virtually every studio (and studio guitarist) in New York, including Art Ryerson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Don Arnone, Tony Mottola, George Barnes, and Joe Cinderella. Its speakers were aimed upward, inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s horn, with its bent bell. “It kept the sound out of people’s ears, because in those days, people complained when things were too loud,” recalled Smith. “Today’s amps look like coke machines. So I had the speakers pointing straight up.”
Smith’s model was the JS-35, available as a 20- or 30-watt amp with a 15″ JBL speaker that sat on short legs. Smith was ahead of his time, as many guitarists today use PA or piano/accordion amps because they provide a broader palette without the heavy midrange sound of guitar amps. And many players employ amp stands that aim speakers upward. “I wrote something for a guitar magazine and they wouldn’t publish it… I said the amplifier I had made, with the Bass control full on, had less bass than a Fender amp with the Bass control full off. That’s the difference.”
Smith’s strings were unique, as well. The Gibson Sonomatic JS set came with a flatwound low E because he so often used a drop-D tuning.
“A round-wound string that heavy would chew up guitar picks something terrible.” Surprisingly, he later used Black Diamond strings. “They had this hand-burnished set – the 100s… [they were] wonderful. They stopped making them, so I sent correspondence to about every music store in the U.S. and bought every set I could find. I’ve never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse, but if there ever is such a thing, it’ll be me and my Black Diamonds (laughs)! In the old days, flatwounds were terrible; I’d prop a pencil under the strings by the nut to raise them, then take a water glass, because in those days they were so susceptible to squeaks, and just take the edge off. It got me by, but you still had to play like you were walking on eggshells.”
Chet, The Ventures, and an accident in Colorado
In addition to “Moonlight in Vermont,” Smith’s other big hit was composed while he was trying to find a counterpoint melody for the jazz standard “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” This time, his hit was an original, and the manifestation of his counterpoint search was “Walk, Don’t Run,” which reached the Top 10 on Billboard twice in the early ’60s. The story behind the tune has its moments.
“Chet had an arrangement of ‘Walk, Don’t Run.’ He came to me at Birdland one night and asked if he could record it. I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not gonna do it unless I can show you how I’m going to do it in my style.’
“So, we went back to a little dressing room at Birdland, and he played his version. I thought it was terrific. So he recorded it, and the Ventures heard his, and that’s how they came to record it. It become a big hit just when I’d had an accident in an airplane and lost the tip of my ring finger, which put me out of commission for about a year. We had a music store, but we were still building inventory and it wasn’t making any money. Without the Ventures’ recording, I don’t know if I could have survived.”
But there’s more! Jim Stafford, who charted a couple of pop hits in the ’70s, was a close friend of Atkins, and he told Stafford that while playing his version of “Walk, Don’t Run” at the Birdland that night, Smith corrected him on a few notes.
“When Chet shared that story, he had a hint of rancor in his voice because he wasn’t used to being corrected, even by the great Johnny Smith,” recalled Stafford.
Today, Stafford, a superb guitar soloist who appeared onstage with both Atkins and Smith, still incorporates passages in his arrangements as a result of studying Smith’s book, Aids to Technique. “I spent hours with that book as a teenager, and its exercises have informed my playing to the extent of their truly becoming ingrained,” he said.
Open Letter to John Williams
Another interesting controversy in Smith’s career was a letter he wrote to classical guitarist John Williams.
“I had these students at my store – the very best of our guitar students. And nearby, a theater was showing film of John Williams. I insisted the students see it, and paid their way. But in the middle came this electric-guitar putdown. I was so disappointed my students saw it, and I was so upset that I wrote a letter to John. I don’t know if he ever saw it, but I got a reply back from some company in England saying John couldn’t care less about my comments. In the letter I said that were it not for amplification, we would not be privileged to hear great artists like him and Segovia.”
Of course the irony is that later in Williams’ career, he experimented with electric guitar and sound processors as a member of the rock-fusion group Skye, and with Pete Townshend – with whom he recorded a version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for Amnesty International’s benefit show The Secret Policeman’s Ball. A press releases from the time said Williams wanted the broader attention of the rock audience.
Smith’s final tour was with Bing Crosby in 1977.
“I hated the travel and trauma of trying to get on airplanes with a guitar and amplifier,” he said of attitude by that point. “Bing died a few days after the tour finished, and I decided then that I didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I can’t think of anybody more fortunate than I am. Every dream I’ve ever had has come true. When I was young, I dreamed of playing with great musicians, and that came true. I dreamed of being able to fly my own airplane, and fishing for marlin on my own boat, and that came true. I always dreamed of living in a beautiful part of the country, and that came true. I never dreamed of getting rich, so I didn’t have to worry about that (laughs)!”
Special thanks to Lin Flanagan and Mitch Holder for their invaluable contributions to this profile.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.