Johnny Smith Goes Full Circle
(21 Oct 02)
About Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 25, 1922 and his initial interest in music came from his father who played 5-string banjo. His major influences were Django Reinhardt and Andres Segovia-as is very evident in his incredibly precise chord voicings and at times machine gun-like 16th note solo phrasing. He gained his first musical experience playing in a country group called the "Fenton Brothers" in 1939.
In 1940 he moved to Boston to perform in the burgeoning jazz scene and stayed there until he was drafted into the air force. After his discharge in 1947, the NBC network in New York City hired him as their staff guitarist, and during the next seven years he honed his craft playing in multitudes of venues from small settings to full orchestras.
He also achieved legendary stature during this time for his ability to sight-read virtually anything and to perform burning improvisational solos over any type of chord progression (still a rare commodity in 2002).
In the 1950's Johnny achieved critical acclaim for his newly formed quintet with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. The quintet went on to record the number-one jazz album of 1952, Moonlight in Vermont.
During this period, Johnny won every jazz award possible, including: Downbeat Magazine's Best Jazz Guitarist, Best Jazz Record, the Jazz Critic's Award, the Metronome Poll, etc.
Johnny semi-retired from the rigors of a performance career in 1960 and moved to Colorado. There he owned and managed his own music store/studio, only surfacing occasionally to conduct jazz seminars and make a few rare appearances with the late Bing Crosby.
When I was growing up in the 1960's most of my guitar-playing friends' idolized Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. My guitar heros were Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts and, most especially, Johnny Smith.
I never dreamed I would ever meet any of these guitar icons and Johnny is the only one that I actually have met. I had the distinct honor of interviewing him in 1995 and to my delight have been able to meet him a few times since then.
When I heard that he had gone full circle and once again would be placing his moniker on a Guild guitar, I took the opportunity to give him a call. As always, Johnny was a gentleman; he took me on his lifetime journey with guitar manufacturers and also shed some light on other aspects of his life besides music that makes him the man is.
Charles Chapman and Johnny Smith 1995 at the Smithsonian Institution