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 ws 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. The song (a big hit for singer Margaret Whiting a few years earlier) has an unusual construction, comprising an AABA1 form made up of 6-6-8-8 bars. (The A1 section is the same as A plus a two-bar tag.) The melody in the middle-eight (the B section) is economical but there is a host of beautiful chord changes.
"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 dextrous fingering, the perfection of manner in which he ran chords and arpeggios, all contributed to the acclaim for Johnny's work.
He continued to work at NBC until 1958 when, following the death of his wife, he decided to leave New York to be near his young daughter. In 1982 he told Robert Velin of Guitar Player magazine: "I got the best glimpse of New York I ever had - it was out the rear view mirror of my car, which was heading down the New Jersey turnpike. I always hated New York, but I loved the work there, and I was extremely lucky to work with so many great musicians and arrangers."
One album he made in 1953 placed him in a different context. He took part in the studio jam session which produced Jazz Studio One for American Decca. For contractual reasons he appeared on the album under the pseudonym "Sir Jonathan Gasser," and opened the long "Tenderly" in inimitable fashion with a beautiful exposition of the theme. One interesting aspect of the music is the way he and pianist Hank Jones share the support duties behind the soloists (Joe Newman, trombonist Bennie Green and saxists Paul Quinichette and Frank Foster). Some years later he made a fine quartet LP for Verve, again with Hank Jones: their harmonic understanding is remarkable.
Smith moved to Colorado Springs in 1958 and three years later opened his music store there. He still does occasional concerts, and did a world tour with Bing Crosby as a member of the Joe Bushkin Quartet in the 1970s. The group made an album in London on which Johnny was featured throughout "Sunday of the Shepherdess," a Scandinavian folksong.