Johnny Smith on Django, Chet, and the “Walk Don’t Run” Backstory

RADIO FREE CHIP reader Lonnie Brownell’s comment about his back door connection to Johnny Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run” got me to thinking.

Because Lonnie’s is a connection shared by many, many listeners who first heard the Ventures famous beach blanket bingo version of “Walk Don’t Run,” one of the biggest rock instrumental hits of the early 1960s, and an iconic Sound Signature of the surf music epoch. And like many devout seekers after musical truth, after a brief stopover in Fender Country (Twang Twang) he eventually found his way to Johnny Smith’s sublime original.

Johnny Smith [Picasso Blue Guitar, by John Potis]But this is a familiar tale in the annals of RADIO FREE CHIP and our fellow Musical Pilgrims.

Inevitably, one key motivation in mounting this blog and reaching out to music lovers, is to make connections clear where seemingly the trail has played out; to journey down all of the tributaries of the greater river of music, while always looking to seek out the roots and the source. That is to say, “How did we get to this point?” Or conversely, “If I liked this particular musical stream, what other tributaries might prove inspiring.”

Often, the connections are barely discernible unless one pursues them with some sort of tenacity, which is how RADIO FREE CHIP hopes to function as a resource for listeners who want to connect with any and all artists who possess a truly profound Sound Signature, irrespective of genre.

Me? One buzzed evening in college, someone quite weary of my inevitable requests for Cream and Hendrix, tossed on instead a copy of John Coltrane’s Ascension–quite a bracing experience to put it mildly. Through reading Nat Hentoff’s liner notes, and checking out the people whose Sound Signatures he revered, within a month I had found my way back to the roots of modern jazz and inspiring recordings by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, Lester Young and Jo Jones, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington.

But that is another story for another day.

As we continue to honor the memory and legacy of guitarist Johnny Smith, I thought it might prove interesting to relate the back story behind how the Ventures connected to his tune, blissfully unaware of its roots in modern jazz, through a second-and connection to Johnny’s dear friend, Chet Atkins.

Which serves to illustrate how sometimes, out of the darkest of circumstances, a ray of hope and light can emerge—and reaffirms Johnny Smith’s figurative and literal connection, in an ironic twist of fate, to one of his heroes, the legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (among the first European musicians to be acknowledged as an innovator and a peer among American jazz musicians, and who overcame a disastrous accident to his left hand and prevailed as one of the great virtuosos in the history of the guitar).

[We reference Johnny’s Django connection parenthetically with a wonderful first-person story about how the American guitarist hung out in New York City with his Belgian inspiration during the gypsy master’s only American tour, as a featured soloist with Duke Ellington Orchestra, showcased here in a Chicago performance from October 11, 1946 accompanied by a remarkable rhythm section: the Duke himself on piano, bass innovator Oscar Pettiford and the flamboyant drummer Sonny Greer on the Fats Waller chestnut, “Honeysuckle Rose”]

Smith kept recording until 1968 (when he cut Phase II for Verve), and continued to teach and perform around the Colorado Springs and Denver area well into the mid-80s. However, a freakish airplane accident—which to my best reckoning occurred sometime around 1960 (Johnny himself preferred not to remember)—came close to ending his career, and likely abridged it in the final analysis.

“I was in a small plane, and I was giving instructions, when my finger got caught up in this fold-down type of seat which clamped down on my finger. I lost about a quarter of an inch off of my ring finger on my left hand, and I was out of commission for about a year. And a Dr. Jack King, still a very dear friend of mine, did some grafting and managed to build it up some, but it was never the same. And things I used to do before, which came so easily—like long arpeggios, and the long stretches on chords—became a lot harder.”

“That’s no excuse, though. Django was outrageous with just two fingers.”

“But then the Ventures came out with their version of ‘Walk Don’t Run’ and that kind of saved the day.”

“I was always grateful to Chet Atkins, and if it wasn’t for his version of ‘Walk Don’t Run’ inspiring the Ventures to do their arrangement, I don’t know how I would have survived that period without the income that came in from that song.”

“The Ventures hadn’t ever heard my version of the song. They only heard Chet’s recording. So I don’t claim any of the credit for the success of ‘Walk Don’t Run.’”

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t even name the song. I called it ‘Opus,’ but it was Teddy Reig, the owner of Roost Records, that named it.”

Johnny Smith [LR] wirh D'Angelico, by Chuck Stewart

Posted in radiofreechip
3 comments on “Johnny Smith on Django, Chet, and the “Walk Don’t Run” Backstory
  1. This was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

  2. Ronald Paul Clark says:

    I guess I’ll never know ALL of the stories associated with Johnny Smith. I first heard “Walk Don’t Run” on Chet Atkins’ “Hi-Fi In Focus” LP–by sampling a friend’s unknowing and very “anal” father’s phonograph and record collection while he was at work. (By now it’s safe to confess!) This was late in 1957, just months after high school, but nearly three years before THIS SONG put THE VENTURES on the map. (Yes, Johnny, you can thank everyone else, but YOUR SONG was the genesis!) Fast foward to 1971, when my ill-fated California-based Soft Rock group was touring the western states until it fell apart during a gig in Colorado Springs, where I settled and became a solo act. On 9/12/1973, while performing nightly at the Hi Neighbor Lounge, I drove to Johnny Smith Music, Inc. in the Cheyenne Shopping Center on South Eigth Street and bought an Ovation guitar. (There was a Signature Johnny Smith model Gibson behind glass, but I could only afford to drool!) Johnny set it up and added a pickup, jack and pickguard. When I returned for the completed guitar on 10/2, I asked if he gave lessons and if one could just come in and be taught the chords to a particular song, rather than studying for years. Instead of ignoring my ignorant question, he asked what song I had in mind. “Misty”, I said, and he began explaining the rudiments of chord progression–WHILE PLAYING “MISTY” ON MY GUITAR WITHOUT EVEN LOOKING AWAY FROM ME! I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears, only heard half what he said, and was so embarrassed and intimidated that I left and never returned. I’ve kicked myself for many decades for not taking lessons from this mild-mannered genius! (I still have that Ovation and sales slip–and recently bought myself a D’Angelico Excel for my birthday . . . Now if I could only make it sing like Johnny’s did back in the early fifties!)

    • radiofreechip says:

      Ronald, thank you so much for sharing your story with us all. Johnny’s absolute mastery was if anything exceeded only by his extraordinary humility, which could indeed be intimidating in its own laid-back, gentle manner. But hey, you had an up-close and personal encounter with the man. I became friends with him over the years, but my frequent interactions were all over the telephone, nor did I ever really seek his consul on any technical or theoretical issues. I enjoyed him as a man and as a friend, albeit a long-distance one. I do recall talking to him once, where he spoke derisively of those 5000 CHORD guitar books, dismissing them as sources of confusion–he was a great believer in directness and simplicity, which you can surely discern in the unadorned beauty of his sound and the straightforward conception of his carefully arrangements and elegant improvisations. He never considered himself a jazz guitarist in the same sense as a Barney Kessel or a Tal Farlow…however you would be hard-pressed to find any jazz guitarist who did not revere him. I in fact, had a Johnny Smith Gibson, which Jimmy D’Aquisto did a fret job on, but I was compelled to cash it in get my first apartment in NYC for my wife and baby daughter back around 1976. Johnny always said that I got the better of that deal.

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