Johnny Smith - Biography

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Johnny Smith

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Johnny Smith - Brief Biography

John Henry Smith II was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on 25 June 1922. He learned to play the guitar and violin as a youngster, performing the latter in the family’s hillbilly group. The Smith family migrated across the southern states as a consequence of the Great Depression and eventually settled in Portland, Maine. As a teenager, Johnny played the guitar with various hillbilly groups, most notably Uncle Lem and His Mountain Boys. In 1940, he joined a variety group, the Airport Boys, and toured the vaudeville circuit around Boston. His increasing passion, however, was to play jazz.

After WWII, Johnny Smith accepted an invitation to join the music staff at NBC in New York, where he played a wide range of musical genres. At the broadcaster, his prolific live work ranged from playing solo and with his trio, the Playboys (with Mort Lindsey and Arlo Hults), through to large ensembles and full orchestras.




Following the untimely death of his second wife in 1957, he relocated to Colorado Springs in 1958 in order to provide a more conducive family life for his young daughter. There, he opened a music store and enjoyed a highly active performing career on the local circuit, close to home, largely ignored by the national jazz press. In the late 1960s, he recorded three albums for Verve and launched his groundbreaking and popular Guitar Seminars across the US. In 1976 and 1977, he toured the US and Europe as a member of the Joe Bushkin Quartet with Bing Crosby.

In 1998, Johnny Smith was awarded the prestigious James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in recognition of his influence as a guitarist upon popular culture. He died on 11 June 2013 in Colorado Springs.

The full story of Johnny’s life and career is available in Moonlight in Vermont: The Official Biography of Johnny Smith from Centrestream Publishing.


Johnny Smith

As well as performing, arranging and conducting on radio and television shows for NBC, he found himself participating in concert recitals of atonal music, in the form of Schoenberg’s Serenade for Septet in 1949 and Berg’s opera Wozzeck in 1951 with Dimitri Mitropoulos.

In 1952, Johnny Smith scored a major hit with his first record ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. Aside from its mass appeal, the record showed jazz guitarists the previously unrealized potential of their instrument. Two years later, after paying his dues in small venues, he undertook his first billed residency at the apex of New York’s jazz scene - Birdland - where he would go on to appear far more often than any other guitarist. He was a major figure in jazz for the next five years, winning polls in Down Beat and Metronome. He appeared at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival and toured as a soloist with Stan Kenton and Count Basie. Meanwhile, his recorded output for the small Roost label was both prolific and eclectic (See Discography). He recorded 21 albums in his own name on Roost between 1952 and 1964. Although he was celebrated as the finest guitarist on the New York jazz scene and was a major draw at the city’s top jazz clubs, he continued to work as a sideman contributing to albums for other musicians.