Guitarist Johnny Smith's career spans the decades of the 1940's through the 1990's. From the very beginning of his musical career he influenced the playing of other guitarists. In fact, many mention Smith as a major influence on their playing. The major guitar builders as Guild, Gibson, Benedetto, and the Heritage all have their signature Johnny Smith high end models as a tribute to this master.
John Henry Smith, Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1922 and was only five years old when he became fascinated with the guitar. His father played five-string banjo but guitar was John's first and lasting love. Initially he was frustrated by the lack of a guitar teacher or instruction manuals: determined to master the instrument, he taught himself to play. Many outstanding and individual jazz soloists have fallen back on the empirical method for the same reason as Smith and emerged with wholly distinctive sounds. In 1935 the Smith family moved to Portland, Maine: Johnny was 13 and good enough to play in local bands.
In 1942 he joined the USAAF (he was already a student pilot) and ended up in a band which needed a cornet player rather than a guitarist. In six months he had learned the cornet well enough to be given the position of first cornetist. After his discharge from the Air Force in 1946 he went back to Portland to play both guitar and trumpet on local radio as well as playing in clubs at night, but the pay was never very good. He went to New York to work as an arranger at NBC and in 1947 he became a member of the NBC orchestra. For eight years he worked with the orchestra as guitarist, trumpeter, arranger and composer.
Although he had been greatly influenced by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian at the outset (he learned Django's solos from record and actually met the Gypsy guitarist when he came to the United States in 1946) Johnny did not consider himself to be a jazz musician. Nevertheless, he made his first record as leader in March 1952, in the company of Stan Getz, Eddie Safranski, Sanford Gold and Don Lamond. One title from that date, "Moonlight in Vermont," was a turning point in Smith's career despite its short duration. "Vermont" was made for the Royal Roost label (frequently abbreviated to Roost Records) and the company signed Smith to a long-term contract during which time he produced around 20 albums. Roost was later absorbed by Roulette which reissued several of Johnny's LPs. Most of the albums featured solo guitar or a trio; two backed Smith with strings playing arrangements the guitarist wrote himself. There was a great appeal to Smith's graceful, melodic treatment of superior tunes. Not only the record-buying public but hundreds of guitarists found the music entrancing. The dexterous fingering, the perfection of manner in which he ran chords and arpeggios, all contributed to the acclaim for Johnny's work.