Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Johnny Smith: Walk Don't Run

Johnny Smith died on June 11 and not much fanfare occurred with is passing at nearly 91 years of age. I heard about it a week later and intended on doing a tribute for him, but failed to make this happen until now. Smith was a jazz guitarist whose most notable contribution to the music scene was the composition “Walk Don’t Run.” It will be the song for which he will always be remembered.

He recorded “Walk Don’t Run.” in 1954 which was five years prior to The Ventures’ having a #2 hit with their version. Five years later, The Ventures re-recorded the tune as Walk Don’t Run ’64 and it too was a Top 10 hit charting at #8. Smith’s version appeared on his “In A Sentimental Mood” album and featured Smith and Perry Lopez on guitars, Arnold Fishkin on bass, and Don Lamond on drums.

Growing up, I had heard The Ventures’ version of this classic and always thought it was their original song – not so – but sadly, they were not directly influenced by Smith’s recording. The Ventures heard Chet Atkins’ cover of the song and based their rendition on his arrangement.

I first learned about Johnny Smith during the spring of 1977. My Uncle Walt had moved back to Pennsylvania that year and I saw him a number of times when I was home on break from college. He was very generous to me giving me books for school, a camera, and two multi-disc jazz compilation albums.

He was aware that I was doing a jazz program every week at WKCC radio and he helped it along by giving me these albums that chronicled the history of jazz from the 20s to the 60s. One of the album sets had the Johnny Smith Quartet’s version of “Walk Don’t Run.” I had never heard it before and it became a favorite of mine that I played frequently on my show.

Since that time, I hadn’t heard it, but when I heard that he passed, I played it again. It brought back the magic of that first listen. My wife, who was a big fan of The Ventures’ recording of “Walk Don’t Run” loved it as well. She never knew of any version other than The Ventures.

Ironically, 35 years later I’m back in the same building where the radio station was once housed. It is long gone, but if you walk down the hallway on a Wednesday night between 10 and 11 PM, you might here the strains of Mose Allison, Stan Getz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and Johnny Smith.

While his was not a household name, he was a legend – a guitar legend that three guitar companies (Guild, Gibson, and Heritage) build and market Johnny Smith signature models. Play on Johnny – we’ll miss you, but we have the discs to keep the memory alive.

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