Johnny Henry Smith

Born: June 25, 1922 Birmingham, AL

Jazz Guitar

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

Johnny Smith

Photo and info: Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith (born John Henry Smith on June 25, 1922 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American cool jazz and mainstream jazz guitarist.

During the Depression, Smith's family moved from Birmingham through several cities, ending up in Portland, Maine. [1]

Smith taught himself to play guitar in pawnshops, which let him play in exchange for keeping the guitars in tune. At thirteen years of age he was teaching others to play the guitar. One of Smith's students bought a new guitar and gave him his old guitar, which became the first guitar Smith owned.[1]


Smith joined Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, a local hillbilly band. The band travelling around Maine, performing at dances, fairs, and similar venues. Smith earned four dollars a night. He dropped out of high school to accommodate this enterprise.[1]

After becoming interested in the jazz bands he heard on the radio, Smith practiced playing jazz. He left The Mountain Boys when he was eighteen years old to found a jazz trio called The Airport Boys.[1]

Having learned to fly from pilots he befriended, Smith enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in the hopes of becoming a military pilot.[1] He was invalidated from the flight programme because of imperfect vision in his left eye.[1][2] Given a choice between joining the military band and being sent to mechanic's school, Smith opted to join the military band. Smith claims that they gave him a cornet, an Arban's instructional book and two weeks to meet the standard, which included being able to read music.[1][2] Determined not to go to mechanic's school, Smith spent the two weeks practicing the cornet in the latrine, as recommended by the bandleader, and passed the examination.[1][2]


An extremely diverse musician, Johnny Smith was equally at home playing in the famous Birdland jazz club or sight reading scores in the orchestral pit of the New York Philharmonic. From Schoenberg to Gershwin to originals, Smith was one of the most versatile guitarists of the 1950s.

Smith's playing is characterized by closed-position chord voicings and rapidly ascending lines (reminiscent of Django, but more diatonic than chromatically-based). From those famous 1952 sides and in to the 1960s he recorded for the Roost label, on whose releases his reputation mainly rests. Mosaic Records has issued the majority of them in an 8CD set.[3]

His most critically acclaimed album was Moonlight in Vermont (one of Down Beat magazine's top two jazz records for 1952, featuring saxophonists Stan Getz and Zoot Sims).

His most famous musical composition is the tune "Walk Don't Run", written for a 1955 recording session as counter-melody to the chord changes of "Softly, As in the Morning Sunrise". Another guitarist, Chet Atkins, covered the song. Some musicians who became The Ventures heard the Atkins version, simplified it and sped it up, and recorded it in 1960. The Ventures' version went to #2 on the Billboard Top 100 for a week in September 1960.

Johnny Smith stepped out of the public eye/ear in the 1960s, having moved to Colorado in 1958 to teach and run a music store and to raise his daughter after the death of his second wife.


Partial discography

Johnny Smith Quintet

Roost 410

The Johnny Smith Quintet


In A Mellow Mood


In a Sentimental Mood

Johnny Smith Plays Jimmy Van Heusen

The Johnny Smith Quartet


Guild, Gibson, and Heritage have all made guitar models designed and endorsed by Johnny Smith. In each case, the guitar was designed wholly or in part by Smith. Each design was a full-bodied archtop guitar with a top carved from solid spruce and a back and sides made of solid maple. All the on-board electronics for each guitar, from the small pickup in the neck position through the volume knob to the output jack, were mounted on the pickguard.

Smith claims to have learned about guitar design by observing master luthier John D'Angelico, who was his friend and guitar supplier when he lived in New York.[2]

In 1955, after discussions with Alfred Dronge, chairman and founder of Guild Guitar Company, Smith designed a guitar and sent the drawings and specifications to Dronge. The Guild designers modified it (to Smith's dissatisfaction), and manufactured the resulting guitar as the Guild Johnny Smith Award.[2][4]

In 1961, Ted McCarty, then president of Gibson, went to meet the retired Smith at his home in Colorado Springs. McCarty spent several days with Smith, during which time Smith designed the guitar he wanted built. The design was accepted by Gibson with a few minor cosmetic changes which were acceptable to Smith.[2] Gibson began production of the resulting Gibson Johnny Smith model that year.[5] Guild continued to produce their Johnny Smith guitar under the model name Guild Artist Award.[4]

When Gibson moved its manufacturing facilities from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee, several of their managers and artisans chose to stay behind. Many of these ex-employees formed Heritage Guitars and bought the old Kalamazoo factory from Gibson. Given a choice between Gibson and Heritage building the guitar that bore his name, Smith chose to stay with the old artisans at the old location under new ownership. The Heritage Johnny Smith model was introduced in 1989.[6] Like Guild before them, Gibson continued to manufacture their version of the Johnny Smith design with a new name: the Gibson LeGrand.[7]

William Schultz, chairman of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, of which Guild Guitars was a subsidiary, asked Smith if he would be willing to return his endorsement to the Guild Artist Award. Familiar with Schultz's management, and knowing that the construction would be supervised by master luthier Bob Benedetto, Smith agreed.[2] The Guild Johnny Smith Award by Benedetto was available through Guild dealers until early 2006 when Benedetto left Fender.[8][9] Unlike Guild and Gibson, Heritage Guitars discontinued manufacture of their Smith-designed guitar after Smith withdrew his endorsement.



1^ a b c d e f g h "Guitar Legend Johnny Smith — Alive and Well in Colorado Springs" by Bob Campbell

2^ a b c d e f g "Johnny Smith Goes Full Circle" Interview with Charles H. Chapman

3^ Mosaic Records - The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions (#216)

4^ a b Bacon, T. "The Ultimate Guitar Book" p. 143 Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1991 ISBN 0-86318-640-8

5^ Bacon, T. "The Ultimate Guitar Book" p. 135 Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1991 ISBN 0-86318-640-8

6^ Heritage Guitar Inc., Model History

7^ Gibson LeGrand Specification Page

8^ Benedetto Guitars

9^ Benedetto Guitars: Note regarding Fender parting

Source: Johnny Smith - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

More info: Mel Bay presents Interviews with the ... - Google Books


Jazz at N.B.C. Series, Johnny Smith QuintetMoonlight in Vermont, Johnny Smith QuintetThe Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar, Johnny SmithWalk, Don't Run, Johnny Smith


Listen: The Johnny Smith Quintet: MP3 Downloads

Listen: Jazz at N.B.C. Series by Johnny Smith Quintet & Stan Getz - Download Jazz at N.B.C. Series on iTunes

Listen: Johnny Smith - Download Johnny Smith Music on iTunes

Listen: Johnny Smith: Songs, Albums, Pictures, Bios













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