The Song That Launched A Thousand Ships (…filled with guitar players)*
by Bart Stringham ( *Article appeared in Vol 45, page 42 of the November 2005 issue of Just Jazz Guitar magazine)
Earlier this year, EMI/Blue Note Records released on its Roulette Jazz label a CD entitled Walk, Don’t Run! (#724356044029) a marvelous if not historically significant compilation of songs performed by Johnny Smith. The other songs on the CD are Sophisticated Lady, I’ll Remember April, What’s New, How About You?, In a Sentimental Mood, Stranger in Paradise, Someone to Watch over Me, Easy to Love, Lover Man, Autumn in New York, ‘S Wonderful, Our Love Is Here to Stay, and Lullaby of Birdland. The recording of these songs took place at various times in 1954 and was released on different 10 inch LPs - In a Sentimental Mood (Roost 424) and In a Mellow Mood (Roost 421). Johnny’s overdub version of Lullaby of Birdland was originally released on a 78-RPM record. All of these tunes have been previously reissued on CD as part of an excellent and comprehensive "box set" collection put together and released by Mosaic Records. Jazz guitar giant Jack Wilkins provided an insightful and detailed review of the songs in this box set in Just Jazz Guitar [see JJG No. 34, Feb. 2003].
The release of this compilation under the title Walk, Don’t Run! is interesting because Johnny Smith, while the composer of this song, never released a record album with this song in the album’s title. Nor was his recording of it, appearing first on his In a Sentimental Mood album in 1954 and then on his Moods (Roost 2215) album in 1956, a particular hit for him. But it was a VERY big hit for a surf/rock band, The Ventures, who sold millions of copies of this song, toured the world playing it, and inspired who knows how many fans of the song to take up the guitar. The Ventures actually recorded and released the song twice - once in 1960 and again in 1964. The song was number 2 on the charts for a month in 1960, kept from being first place by songs that include Elvis Presley’s It’s Now Or Never, Brian Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini and Chubby Checker’s The Twist. In 1964, the Ventures’ rerecording of the song reached number 8 on the charts that established another first: a different version of a song by the same group hitting the top ten again. This band’s significant contribution to popular American music has prompted many to request that the Ventures be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To this day, the song Walk, Don’t Run is available in countless packages of surf/60s songs and typifies if not defines a genre of music from a particular era. It is impossible to know the exact impact of this song on our culture and society in general. But speaking as someone who grew up during this period of time, I can attest to the fact that the song helped inspire thousands and thousands of teenagers to go out and buy thin-bodied electric guitars and form bands with friends and neighbors.
The Ventures did not actually hear Johnny Smith’s recorded version of Walk, Don’t Run prior to doing their own recording of it. Johnny had recorded his song in the key of D minor - reworking the melody to Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise (a song from the 1928 Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II musical The New Moon). What the Ventures had heard, and were intrigued with, was Chet Atkins’ version of Johnny’s song on the Atkins’ record Hi-Fi In Focus (RCA LPM 1577) recorded in 1957. So instead of hearing Johnny’s jazzy crisscrossing of melody and bass lines, they heard, of course, the song done in Chet Atkins’ fingerpicking "boom chick boom chick" style – in the key of A minor. So, and as a likely result, A minor was the key the Ventures used for their 1960 and 1964 versions of the song.
Here are some excerpts from a conversation I had recently with Johnny Smith about Walk, Don’t Run:
BS: Did Chet Atkins speak to you about the song before he recorded it?
JS: Chet came to me on this. When Chet was in New York, sometimes he would stop by if I was playing at Birdland. And one night he stopped by and we were talking at the bar and he asked if he could record a song I wrote and I said ‘sure, go ahead’ and he said ‘no, I wouldn’t do that without you hearing my style of playing it.’ He insisted, so we went back into the little dressing room and he picked up my guitar and played his version of Walk, Don’t Run (WDR). I told him that I thought it was great and to go right ahead and record it. And he did, and of course it was through his recording that the Ventures came out with their version of WDR.
BS: Did Chet ever sit in with you while you were playing at Birdland?
JS: No. But years ago my wife Sandy and I were doing these week-long guitar seminars here in Colorado and Chet was one of my guests one time and we played some things together. Sometime later, Dick Gibson was putting together jazz parties and concerts at the old Paramount Theater in Denver, Colorado, and I believe it was Dick’s son who suggested getting Chet Atkins and Johnny Smith on the program together. This was fine with both Chet and myself and it got interesting when we tried to come up with some songs to play together at a "jazz" concert that would fit into his vocabulary. I remember Chet recommending the song Wagon Wheels...[laughter]. But I came up with a few things we could play and the concert went well - people really loved it.
BS: Was this you two playing in a quartet setting?
JS: Yes, Chet and I and a rhythm section of drums and bass.
BS: So you two playing the head and then taking turns soloing?
JS: Yes…and Chet Atkins’ nephew Gary said the next morning over breakfast that we really tore the place up, women tossing babies in the air... [laughter]. And of course I did some things down in Nashville for Chet…some recording with Don Gibson...an album with him.
BS: But you and Chet never actually recorded together…put out an album?
BS: Later on, did you ever get a chance to speak to him about the success and evolution of WDR?
JS: I will never quit shouting my appreciation for that man!
I was and remain so grateful to him for recording that song. Right at the time the Ventures were having their success with WDR, I lost the tip of my left hand ring finger in an accident adjusting the seat on an airplane I was flying [Note: Among his many interests, Johnny is a licensed airplane pilot]. As a guitar player, I was out of commission for an entire year. If it had not been for the income coming from the royalties from the Ventures’ recording of WDR, I would not have been able to survive. So I credit Chet for the success of WDR.
BS: I understand you did meet with the Ventures one time…I can only assume that they were very happy to meet the man who wrote the song that put them on the map?
JS: They were in town, touring, and they called and I invited them over to the house. At that time my son was a teenager and of course they were his heroes, and he went into orbit with excitement. As a result, I wound up cooking hamburgers for everyone. The Ventures did ask if I would write another hit for them but I didn’t have any other ideas for a song for them - and that was the end of that.
BS: Did you ever perform WDR and have someone come up from the audience and tell you that you were doing it wrong…that you need to listen to the Ventures’ version, etc.
JS: Not really…my jazz arrangement of it was so far removed from the Ventures’ version that unless I announced that I was going to play it they wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
BS: What’s the story regarding composing the song? What made you choose the chord changes to Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise? Did you do it as kind of an exercise?
JS: You know Bart, during my years at NBC studios in New York I quite frequently accompanied classical and semi-classical singers like Patrice Munsel and many others that would sing songs like Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise where not just the song but the lyrics would inspire me. Another song that has lyrics I really like is Vilia – from Lehar’s 1905 operetta The Merry Widow. I liked them so much I recorded the song twice. These songs are very remote…disconnected from being associated with jazz songs. But I loved these types of songs and the lyrics – I am significantly influenced by the lyrics of a song.
Here’s another example of my fondness of lyrics: I recorded the song Old Folks on one of the Verve albums [Johnny Smith's Kaleidoscope (Verve 8737)] which is about this old guy that claimed to have held the speech at Gettysburg for Lincoln that day. At the end of Old Folks I played a little phrase from the Battle Hymm Of The Republic. People unfamiliar with the lyrics wound not realize why I did that. Well, to get back to your question, the little company that produced my records was always asking for original songs so that they would not have to pay royalties. So it was a combination of my appreciation of Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise and the producer’s wish not to pay any fees that WDR came into being.
BS: Speaking of paying royalties, I understand BMI awarded you with a certificate sometime ago – honoring the fact that WDR had so many millions of known broadcast performances.
JS: Well gosh…that certificate must be 15 or maybe 20 years old. And it is amazing…the printout I regularly receive about the performances that continue to be reported…from just about every country in the world.
BS: It is amazing…I went online myself and saw the number and variety of artists that have recorded the song - including such dissimilar artists as Herb Albert and dobro player Mike Auldridge.
JS: I can’t believe it…especially when it comes down to the bare fact that I didn’t even name the song.
BS: What? [laughter] I thought you named the song.
JS: No. Teddy Reig who produced my records…he named it. At the recording session of the song, I did not have a name for it…I just called it Opus. So Teddy gave it a name.
BS: Did you consider recording the song again on your solo guitar album The Man With The Blue Guitar?
JS: No…not really…I would have to be a Chet Atkins for that…
BS: Johnny I would like you thank you for taking the time to talk about the history making song you wrote. Perhaps we can speak again soon and pass along some helpful hints to JJG readers about the proper playing of those difficult to voice chords you do so well in the song Moonlight in Vermont.
JS: Anytime, I would be happy to do that.