Remembering Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith, the guitarist whose legato phrases became hallmarks of 1950s cool jazz, died of natural causes on June 11 in his home in Colorado. He was 90 years old.

Smith, born June 25 in Birmingham, Alabama, taught himself to play guitar at the age of 13. After a brief stint in the Air Force band, where he learned to play trumpet in addition to guitar, he found work as a session musician at NBC Radio in Portland, Oregon. His talents as a guitar player quickly earned him a reputation as a bright and versatile musician, and in the 1950s he was offered a spot in the NBC Orchestra in New York, then under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. In New York Smith recorded a number of records as both a sideman and leader, but is perhaps best remembered for his 1954 song “Walk, Don’t Run,” a melody he wrote over the chord changes of the jazz standard “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.”

In 1959 the song was covered by the Seattle-based surf-rock outfit The Ventures. Released as a single, this new version attracted national and worldwide popularity, peaking as high as #2 on the Billboard 100 charts.

When listening to these two versions, it’s striking to note how different they sound, despite sharing the same melody. Smith’s version is considerably more fugue-like. His lines are smoother, and the overall mood is more relaxed. The Venture’s version is charged with energy, accomplished in part by ratcheting up the tempo and positioning the melody against a driving back beat. Though the songs differ stylistically, perhaps now, after Smith’s passing, they will both serve to commemorate a man whose passion for music was surpassed only by his dedication to his family.

Thanks, Johnny.

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