On June 11, just two weeks shy of what would have been his 91st birthday, the much-venerated guitarist Johnny Smith passed away, leaving behind a musical legacy that continues to stand the test of time.
Although he'd been hugely successful in New York City, Smith relocated to Colorado Springs 55 years ago in order to raise his daughter following his wife's death.
"I was working day and night, with no one to take care of her except for people hired off the street," Smith told the Independent in an interview four years ago. "And she meant more to me than my whole career in music, so I left New York."
In pop culture, Smith is best known as the composer of "Walk, Don't Run," which would become a Top 10 hit for surf band the Ventures in 1960 and again in 1964. But it was his guitar mastery on signature songs like the languid "Moonlight in Vermont" — the title track from Smith's 1955 quintet album featuring saxophonist Stan Getz — that made Smith the stuff of legend.
"He never considered himself a jazz guitarist like a Barney Kessel or a Wes Montgomery," says UCCS jazz instructor Alan Joseph, who first met Smith after bringing his perfectly good guitar to Johnny's repair shop as a pretext to meet him. "He always just said he was a musician who played guitar."
In fact, as Smith told the Indy in 2009, his style was more influenced by listening to piano players. "They could arpeggiate up and down the keyboard, and I figured if they could do it on piano, I should be able to do it on guitar."
The exceptionally versatile guitarist's career was going full-force by the time he moved west. Smith and Charlie Parker would take turns opening for each other at legendary jazz venues like Birdland, after which the guitarist would leave the club at 4 a.m. and show up at a New York Philharmonic rehearsal five hours later. After relocating to Colorado Springs, Smith opened his music store, gave lessons, and designed archtop guitars for Guild, Gibson and Heritage that today fetch up to $10,000.
Gene Bertoncini, an acclaimed guitarist in his own right, studied with Smith during the musician's New York City days. "Even when he was playing just single lines and linear stuff, it was just so beautiful," the guitarist told the Indy prior to his performance at Smith's 87th birthday tribute. "The warmth, clarity and purity of the sound was something that stuck with me. I was so inspired, and I'm such a lucky guy to have him as an example, both as a human being and as a musician."
A few weeks ago, Joseph saw Smith for the last time, meeting Johnny and his family, as well as biographer Lin Flanagan, at the musician's "favorite haunt," The Point on Eighth Street. "All three kids were in town, and he was really not well at all," says Joseph, recalling how a fall and subsequent hip surgery had taken its toll on the guitarist.
And while Smith continued to perform into the early 1990s, the UCCS instructor says he never got up the nerve to sit in with his hero.
"No, I was too scared to do that," says Joseph with a laugh. "You'll find many guitar players who'll say the same thing. If Johnny Smith showed up, everybody put their guitar down."