Guitarist Johnny Smith Dead at 90
Writer of ‘Walk, Don’t Run!’ retired from active performing in 1958
Johnny Smith, a guitarist who made his impact in the 1940s and ’50s, then retired from performing to open a music shop, died of natural causes June 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was 90.
Although he was an active player whose greatest successes came in 1952 with the album Moonlight in Vermont (featuring saxophonist Stan Getz) and its title track, Smith is best remembered as the author of the instrumental “Walk, Don’t Run!,” which he wrote in 1954. A rock and roll version, recorded in 1959, became a No. 2 hit for the Ventures the following year. Chet Atkins, Herb Alpert and others also recorded popular versions of the song. Among guitarists his work is highly revered and influential; his cool-toned, technically accomplished attack made Moonlight essential listening for aspiring players.
Born June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Ala., Smith taught himself to play the guitar and by 13, then living in Portland, Maine, he was teaching others. He first played in what would then have been called a hillbilly band, Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, but at 18 he left that band and that genre to switch to jazz, first playing with a trio he formed called the Airport Boys.
Following his discharge from the Army Air Corps and a stint with its military band, he found work with the NBC Radio Orchestra in Portland, which led to a higher profile position in New York with the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. In the early ’50s, the versatile Smith became a regular at Birdland, where he played with Getz and Zoot Sims in a quartet; he also worked during this period with Benny Goodman.
Smith was still working steadily in 1957 when his wife died in childbirth, and he elected to give up playing music, choosing to relocate to Colorado Springs the following year. There he opened the Johnny Smith Music store and raised his surviving daughter while also serving as a music tutor. He later returned to playing music on a part-time basis, performing in Colorado clubs and recording sporadically. He made one tour, with Bing Crosby, in 1977.
The Guild and Gibson guitar companies have both manufactured Johnny Smith models.