MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Johnny Smith was revered by guitar players in rock, country and jazz. Jazz is where Smith honed his craft. He had one of the best-selling jazz records of the 1950s. His version of "Moonlight in Vermont."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT IN VERMONT")

BLOCK: Johnny Smith died Tuesday evening at his home in Colorado Springs, just two weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. NPR's Tom Cole tells us about Smith's career and the song that made it possible.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: This is the version of "Walk, Don't Run" you might remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: The Ventures recorded their hit after hearing Chet Atkins play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: Chet heard it on a 1954 Johnny Smith recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK, DON'T RUN")

COLE: Smith had been in New York about five years when he wrote "Walk, Don't Run." He was one of the most in-demand guitarists in the city, a staff musician at the NBC radio network, playing with orchestras and leading his own bands alongside the beboppers on 52nd Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Here's Smith just two years ago from the Smithsonian oral history interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY SMITH: I'll never forget I was playing in Birdland, and I finished at 4 o'clock in the morning. The following 9 o'clock in the morning, I was sitting in the middle of the New York Philharmonic.

COLE: He was born in Alabama, and his family travelled the South looking for work during the Great Depression. They eventually settled in Portland, Maine, and he set a high bar for what he wanted his guitar to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: I figured if a piano player could go from one end of the keyboard to the other, I ought to be able to do that on my guitar.

COLE: Smith used chords to move with the melody, creating a luxurious liquid sound that's been the envy of guitarists ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: Johnny Smith also designed guitars for Guild and Gibson. One of them is at the Smithsonian. But at the height of his career, Smith's wife died, and he couldn't keep up his relentless schedule and care for his 5-year-old daughter. So in 1958, he packed everything up and moved to Colorado, where he opened a music store. In the end, the modest innovator was happy with his life as a family man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: Every dream that I had when I was a young kid came true.

COLE: Tom Cole, NPR News.

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