I first heard his song from the Ventures, like many others painstakingly forming their preliminary chords. “Walk, Don’t Run” was easy enough to learn to play, and so I mistakenly figured Johnny Smith was simple. But he was a consummate musician’s musician, who featured in orchestras conducted by such as Arturo Toscanini and Eugene Ormandy; spent years on staff at NBC where he had to perform everything from classical to pop to polkas; and formed a jazz group in the early 1950s that became a held-over attraction at Birdland, where even Charlie Parker himself would sit and appreciatively watch Smith tickle the strings.
Of a generation that included George Barnes and Les Paul, his bridge would cross over to such as Chet Atkins, whose version of “Walk Don’t Run,” which Johnny wrote in 1954, would be the match lit by the Ventures, though many like myself were unaware of its originator. Smith had come to solo prominence in 1952 when his rendition of the standard “Moonlight in Vermont” (on an album that also featured Stan Getz) became the No. 1 jazz album of the year. Two years later, Smith took the chord changes of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and overlaid the indelible melody of “Walk, Don’t Run.” In 1959, the Ventures would simplify it into the pop charts, riding the crest of an explosive popular interest in the electric guitar.
Though known for his biggest hit, the other songs on this album reveal Smith’s sense of chordal movement and flair for a spotlessly clean tone and melodic invention, an unhurried style that made it easy to see why he came up with his famous mantra. His is almost a pianistic approach; you can hear his considerable technique on “I’ll Remember April” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and he turns “Lullaby of Birdland” into a Bach-like etude. Having seemingly conquered all musical worlds available to him, tiring of touring and life in the hustle of the Big Apple, in 1958 Johnny went home to Colorado Springs to care for his daughter after his wife died, and opened a music store. There he primarily stayed for the next 55 years, until his passing on June 11, 2013, at the age of 91. Wish I could’ve walked into his shop to buy some strings and take another lesson.