Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Johnny Smith Guitars

Walk, Don't Run was among the first songs that I learned to play on guitar.  At that time, 1964, The Ventures had released an updated version of their 1960 original, which they called Walk, Don't Run '64.  I was not aware of the composer of the song or even listened to him play it until many years later.

Johnny Smith was born in the South in Birmingham Alabama to be precise.  Due to economic conditions, his family relocated to Maine when he was a young boy.  It was during this time Johnny got the itch to play guitar. He could not afford one, so he would hang out in pawnshops playing guitar in exchange for tuning the owner's guitars.

Eventually he was given a guitar and like most of us, he joined a band.  During his era hillbilly bands were popular, so Johnny became a Country entertainer and traveled around Maine earning four or five dollars per gig.

By his 18th birthday, he discovered jazz. This changed his musical direction. It was not before long that Smith put together a jazz trio.

Johnny's other goal was to become an aircraft pilot.  He was already licensed to fly small aircraft. In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps with hopes of going to pilot school.  Due to vision problems he was not accepted, but was offered a position in the military band on the condition he learned to play cornet. He learned in two weeks.

After receiving his discharge in 1946, he moved back to his hometown of Portland Maine and took jobs playing guitar and trumpet with the local radio station orchestra and in nightclubs.  To earn more income he packed his bags, headed to New York City, and took a job with the NBC orchestra as guitarist, trumpet player, and musical arranger.  He quickly built up a reputation for his chordal voicing style. 

Known for being a very diverse player, he could sight read music and was able to play in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He was also a regular at the Birdland Jazz Club.  Johnny was also popular among the jazz crowd as a recording artist.

His most famous composition is Walk, Don't Run.  He had other hits and his album Moonlight in Vermont is named one of the top two jazz albums of all time, by Downbeat magazine.

Given his reputation, Gibson Guitars came out with the Johnny Smith model.  Ted McCarty, Gibson's head at the time visited Smith in 1961 at his home to discuss producing a Johnny Smith model.  Smith provided McCarty the desired specifications.  Gibson made some modifications which were acceptable to Smith and production began.

John D'Angelico created an Excel model for Johnny Smith.  Smith had visited the D'Angelico shop many times and watched the master at work. He learned a lot
about the art of creating a guitar just by observing Mr. D'Angelico.

Guild Guitars also named a guitar in his honor, the Guild Johnny Smith model.

This was actually the first guitar produced with his name on it.  In 1955 Alfred Dronge, Guild's founder and CEO approached him to design a guitar.  Smith came up with a concept, but was unhappy with the Guild modifications.  The guitar had a DeArmond floating pickup, with the control on the scratchplate.  The guitar was named the Johnny Smith Award model.

Former Kalamazoo Gibson plant workers founded Heritage Guitars back in 1989 when Gibson moved its manufacturing to Nashville and Bozeman.  Heritage came out with a Johnny Smith model.  Given the choice between Gibson continuing to produce the model at the Nashville facility or stay with the luthiers in Kalamazoo, Smith elected to allow Heritage produce the instrument. This model was dubbed the Johnny Smith LeGrand.

Bill Schultz, Fender's CEO had facilitated the purchase of Guild Guitars.  He approached Johnny Smith and asked if he would reconsider attaching his name to a Guild.  The guitar would be a Guild instrument, but it would be designed and production supervised by Robert Benedetto. Smith accepted the offer.

These guitars are all high quality instruments that all reflective of the style, reputation, and changes that Johnny Smith has brought to the world of Jazz Guitar.

1 comment:

Nick Rossi said...

Nice blog. I just discovered it and am catching up on your old posts. Interestingly, the great Johnny Smith also worked with Epiphone and Gretsch on custom guitars in the 1940s. Neither went into full production, but both guitars were made and are interesting contrasts to his official signature models of the 50s and beyond.