Friday, 4 April 2014

Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith (1921 ~ 2014)

Arthur Smith died on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at his home. The 93 year-old entertainer was born in Clinton, South Carolina, USA.  He grew up in Kershaw, S.C., where his father worked in a cotton mill and was the leader of his own “brass band”. Brass bands were common throughout the USA in the 1800’s – early 1900s.

As a child, Smith played trumpet in his father’s cotton mill group and absorbed all kinds of music - from the Big Bands to rhythm and blues, Gospel and jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. 

Around the age of 6, Smith started writing his own songs – more than 500 songs in his lifetime. He played in a Dixieland group with his brothers Ralph and Sonny, and later mastered the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and other instruments.

Smith was 15 when he cut records for RCA’s budget Bluebird label at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Rock Hill. The band’s name was ‘Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks’. The session produced no hits. However, when Smith was 24, he did have a hit song with “Guitar Boogie”. The kid with the hot guitar licks had then made a name for himself around the world.
Smith, June Carter and Johnny Cash

Nashville, Tenn., producer and musician Tim Smith remembers mentioning his famous uncle to Paul McCartney in London around 1982: “I told him my father was a great musician and that my uncle was Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith,” Tim Smith recalled. “He (McCartney) didn’t say a word. He just walked over to a road case in his studio and opened it up. It had slots like an old record store counter and was full of 45s. He thumbed through and pulled out a 45 of ‘Guitar Boogie’ from the ’50s and told me it was one of his very favorite records. He wanted to know all about Arthur. It was a great moment.”

“Guitar Boogie” was recorded on acoustic guitar with help from Don Reno on rhythm guitar and Roy Lear on bass. That song would go on to influence generations of musicians including Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Glen Campbell and Roy Clark to name but a few. A young Paul McCartney played the “Guitar Boogie” in his audition for a Liverpool, England band that later became ‘The Beatles’.

Smith’s hit record single helped inspire a 'country-boogie' trend and led to Smith’s contract with the MGM record label in 1947. Such country stars as Vince Gill, Glen Campbell and Roy Clark all stated that Arthur Smith influenced their interest in the guitar.

Smith was a music innovator, TV pioneer, radio personality, successful businessman and Sunday School teacher: He was important on many levels. His radio career had begun in 1941, hosting live shows on WSPA in Spartanburg. In 1943, he moved to Charlotte as a radio personality at WBT. He began appearing on WBTV in 1951. The success of Smith’s daily and weekly programs enabled him to promote his traveling country and gospel music package shows which made personal appearances across the South.

In 1955, Arthur Smith recorded “Feuding Banjos,” which featured Smith’s tenor banjo with Don Reno’s 5-string banjo. The instrumental became a popular bluegrass tune that was featured as the theme song for the 1972 film “Deliverance” -- but giving no credit to Smith.

The mild-mannered Sunday School teacher showed a he was no “easy mark” and took on Warner Brothers movie company after his novelty song “Feuding Banjos” was used in the movie “Deliverance without credit or royalty payments.” Smith filed a lawsuit and won a substantial settlement.

In 1992, “Dueling Banjos” was used in a commercial for Mitsubishi automobiles. Smith said this experience was much more pleasant than the one he had with Warner Brothers. Although he never disclosed how much money he made from the lawsuit, Smith pointed to a picture of a 42-foot yacht on the wall of his office and noted, “Warner Bros. bought that boat for me.”

Smith’s hobbies were boating and sports fishing. He founded ‘Arthur Smith Sportfishing Tournaments’ which ran for almost 20 years on the Carolina coast, Florida, New York and the Great Lakes.

Smith’s business interests also included the first recording studio in the Carolinas. Founded in 1957, the Charlotte studio not only recorded Smith’s records, but national artists such as Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, the Statler Brothers and many more.
Smith, with Earl & Louise Scruggs at Johnny Cash's home

In 1965, the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown rented the studio for three hours and cut “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which later ranked No. 72 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

For 25 years, Smith produced, marketed and syndicated national radio programs hosted by Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash and others. Smith’s own show, “Top of the Day,” ran for 30 years – and with one sponsor.

Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff often said that he was surprised Smith could make it in the country music business without living in Nashville. “Arthur never wanted to move out of Charlotte; Arthur did it his way.”

Whether it was radio, TV, personal appearances or through recordings, Smith told an interviewer in 2007: “I was always thankful to have an audience. We stood for the people.”

Note: All photos courtesy of the Smith Family Collection. 

[ED: This piece was written using several sources, including personal recollections and recent newspaper tributes to Arthur Smith.]