American jazz guitarist Johnny Smith was born as John Henry Smith, Jr. on June 25, 1922 in Birmingham in Alabama. Although his father played the five-string banjo, Johnny Smith was spellbound with the guitar since the tender age of five. He was such a great influence on the playing of other guitarists from the start of his music career that as a mark of tribute, foremost guitar manufacturers such as Benedetto, Gibson, Guild and the Heritage have all named one their high end models after Johnny Smith.
Initially, Johnny Smith was quite frustrated as he did not find a good teacher to train him to play the guitar. This led Johnny to learn the instrument himself. During the Depression in 1935 his family moved from one city to another during the Depression and finally settled in Portland in Maine. By this time Johnny Smith was 13 and quite competent with playing the instrument, but also started giving lessons to others. Interestingly, all these years Johnny did not own a guitar and got his first guitar only when one of Johnny’s students donated his old instrument to him.
Johnny Smith joined the USAAF in 1942 and ended up joining a band that required a cornet player and not a guitarist. Undaunted by this, Johnny learnt the instrument in six months and ensured that the band promoted him to the position of its first cornet player. In 1946, Johnny was thrown out of the Air Force and he returned to Portland, where he regularly played the guitar and trumpet in the local radio as well as at night clubs. A year later, Johnny shifted to New York and served as an arranger at the NBC. He also associated with the NBC orchestra, where he worked as a guitarist, trumpeter, arranger and composer for eight years.
Although Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian had great influence on Johnny Smith, he never considered himself to be a jazz musician. In 1952, Johnny recorded his first album with Stan Getz, Sanford Gold, Eddie Safranski and Don Lamond. One single from the record ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ proved to be a turning point in Johnny’s career as the Royal Roost company signed him on a long contract. During his association with Royal Roost Records, Johnny Smith produced 20 albums. Johnny’s elegant and melodious treatment of excellent tunes had a great appeal among the masses as well as numerous guitarists.
Johnny Smith’s association with Royal Roost Records proved to be very fruitful as during this period he produced several masterpieces, including works like ‘The Johnny Smith Quartet’, ‘The Sound of the Johnny Smith Guitar’, ‘Man with the Blue Guitar’ as well as the ‘Annotations of the Muses’. In 1960, Johnny Smith withdrew from jazz music and settled in Colorado where he started a music store. However, he continued to play in the local night clubs and musicians. In 1994, Johnny released his last record ‘Legends’ with the Concord Records.
The Johnny Smith Guitars
Johnny Smith designed a guitar in consultation with the Guild Guitar Company in 1995, but the resultant product – Guild Johnny Smith Award – was not liked by the artist as the company’s designers had greatly modified his design. Years later, in 1961, Gibson requested Johnny to design a guitar for the company. He accepted the offer and Gibson produced the guitar designed by Johnny under the brand Guild Artist Award. Even the Heritage Guitars and Fender Musical Instruments Corporation produced guitars designed by Johnny Smith.
Although Johnny Smith has stopped performing long back, his legacy continues to grow. In June 1988, The Smithsonian Institute honored him with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of his illustrious contribution to music and culture.