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Arthur Smith
Photo via YouTube
Arthur Smith

The original guitar hero dies at age 93

Music

The celebrated country music guitarist Arthur Smith, who influenced the Beatles and befriended Billy Graham, died this month. He was 93. He left behind three children, a wife of 72 years, and a long legacy in jazz, blues, and country music.

Born in 1921 to a poor textile worker in South Carolina, Smith grew up working in the mills. His profound musical talent—Smith was a master at the mandolin, banjo, guitar, and trumpet— opened a way out of that world. By his later teens, he was already recording and playing professionally on local radio stations before World War II halted his career. He joined the Navy, and while playing at a Navy hangout, producer-brothers Irvin and Israel Feld noticed him and signed him to their new label, according to the North Carolina History Project.

Smith’s breakthrough hit “Guitar Boogie”—a boogie-woogie vamp played on guitar with lots of tasty soloing—became a genuine piece of Americana. After its debut in 1948, numerous artists, including Les Paul and Chuck Berry, covered his song. The song also made an important impact on a group called The Quarrymen (later renamed The Beatles), according to The Washington Post. “Guitar Boogie” was often humorously referred to as “the song that launched a million guitar lessons,” and Bluegrass historian Pete Kuykendall described it as “a forerunner to what was later called rock-and-roll.” 

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Smith also wrote the iconic “Dueling Banjos” tune. Warner Brothers then used the song in 1972—without Smith’s consent—in the Oscar-nominated movie Deliverance, in which a hillbilly banjo player engages in a spontaneous musical jam with an urban guitarist.

The soundtrack reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went on to become part of the cultural lexicon. Smith successfully sued Warner Brothers in an important copyright case that secured him royalties for life and appropriate credit on the soundtrack record. Smith told Warner Brothers not to use his name in the movie credits, however, because he found the film offensive, according to The Washington Post.

Smith’s convictions grew from his Christian faith, which he prized above celebrity status. Country star George Hamilton IV stayed at Smith’s home for a time, where he learned that Smith’s faith was “the major focus of his life,” according to OurState.com. Hamilton recalled participating in morning devotions with Smith and his wife, Dorothy, at the breakfast table with a big family Bible. 

Smith’s faith permeated his public and private lives. For 30 years, he hosted a nationally syndicated variety show called The Arthur Smith Show that featured many of the great names of the era, including Johnny Cash and Richard Nixon. Each episode of the show contained a Sunday school lesson and ended with a hymn, according to the North Carolina History Project.

Smith penned over 100 gospel titles that, in conjunction with his strong faith, led to friendships with Billy Graham and gospel legend George Beverly Shea. Billy Graham first produced his radio program, “Hour Of Decision,” in Smith’s recording studio.

A day after Smith’s death, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association posted on Facebook a link to Smith singing “Acres of Diamonds” with Shea at the 1972 Charlotte Crusade, along with the message “Our prayers are with the family of Arthur Smith, a music legend and friend of our ministry.”

Listen to this recording of Arthur Smith and Don Reno playing “Dueling Banjos” (originally titled “Feudin’ Banjos”):

Jeff Koch
Jeff Koch

Jeff is a mortgage lender and graduate of the World Journalism Institute's Mid-Career Course. He lives with his wife and their eight children in the Chicago area.

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