Remembering the late great Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith

Posted by David Menconi on April 4, 2014 

Arthur Smith on the set in 1973.

COURTESY OF ARTHUR SMITH ENTERPRISES

Sad news today out of Charlotte, where Tar Heel great Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith has passed on at age 93. There’s a lengthy Charlotte Observer here; and below is an equally lengthy profile I wrote on Smith way back in 1998, when he was about a decade-and-a-half past his television-star prime as host of “Carolina Calling,” a show that generations of kids across the Carolinas grew up watching every morning.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Arthur sort of invented the idea of syndicating a local TV show,” said producer/musician Don Dixon. “He was a very sharp businessman, in addition to being a sharp dresser & guitar player. He was very countrypolitan, but also very sophisticated despite the down-home angle. Even off-camera backstage, he was walking around in beautiful suits. You’d never see him in overalls.”

One of the best examples of Smith’s business acumen was the legal dispute over the 1972 movie “Deliverance” and its soundtrack song “Dueling Banjos” -- a plagiarized version of Smith’s 1955 hit “Feuding Banjos.” Banjo player Eric Weissberg, who recorded “Dueling Banjos” for the movie, was recording with Dixon’s band Arrogance in the mid-1970s about the time Smith’s lawsuit against Warner Brothers was coming to trial.

“Eric told us he’d grown up playing that and thought it was a traditional song, and nobody bothered to check,” Dixon said. “The story I heard is that somebody came to Arthur and told him his song was in ‘Deliverance.’ ‘I know,’ he said, ‘I’m just waiting to see if it’s a hit.’ He’d figured out that if he settled ahead of time, he wouldn’t get near as much after it became a hit. He was right.”

For more, see the closing section of the story below.

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The Ballad of Arthur Smith: Picker reached beyond where the airwaves took him

By David Menconi, News & Observer

May 24, 1998

Charlotte -- In the days before the information highway or even interstates, there weren't 100 channels on television. In Western North Carolina, in fact, there was only one: Charlotte's WBTV, Channel 3.

WBTV signed on in 1951, nine years before "The Andy Griffith Show" even existed, and one of its first programs was "The Arthur Smith Show." For the next three decades, until he went off the air in 1982, the renowned country guitarist was a staple of the airwaves in the Southeast.

Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins - they all showed up to play with Smith and his band, the Crackerjacks. Back then, everybody who was anybody wanted to be on "The Arthur Smith Show." Which is how Smith came by the photo of himself with Richard Nixon. Hanging in Smith's home recording studio in Charlotte amid shots of other famous guests, the Nixon photo shows the candidate, seated awkwardly at the piano, surrounded by Smith's band.

"He was in town for some political reason, " Smith recalls. "Sometime in the '60s, maybe when he was running for vice president? Anyway, he played piano and did pretty well. He played 'Home on the Range, ' I believe."

"The Arthur Smith Show" alone would be enough to earn Smith a place in the state's cultural history. But consider, too, such instrumental compositions as 1945's crossover landmark "Guitar Boogie" and 1955's "Feuding Banjos" - although most people know the latter as the "Deliverance" movie theme "Dueling Banjos" - and it's easy to see why the N.C. Arts Council is honoring him with a folk heritage award, which will be presented Tuesday in Raleigh.

"He's like a homegrown, music-makin' machine, " says Nashville-based musician George Hamilton V, whose father, George IV, often appeared on "The Arthur Smith Show." "Whatever Arthur Smith puts his mind to, it gets done."

Arthur Smith Enterprises (which Hamilton calls Smith's "one-man empire") included not only syndicated TV shows but also a recording studio where James Brown invented '60s funk with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag"; record labels specializing in bluegrass and gospel; and a publishing company to administer the hundreds of songs Smith has written over the years, a catalog that includes such gospel classics as "Acres of Diamonds" and "I Saw a Man." Up until five years ago, he also ran one of the largest fishing tournaments in the world, which explains the stuffed 44-pound king mackerel mounted above the window of his home studio's control room.

Even today, semiretired at age 77, Smith keeps busy with numerous music and video projects, the latest being the public television series "Arthur Smith Now and Then." (It airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. on UNC-TV.)

"He's just a dedicated, hardworking guy who was doing 'D.I.Y.' alternative country long before anyone else, " says Hamilton, who led the Chapel Hill band Hege V in the '80s. "I think he's an inspiration - especially being in Nashville, when I look at how many people are just waiting for other people to do things for them."

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Not just what, but where:

Lots of people struggle to figure out what to do with their lives, but Arthur Smith found his calling at a young age. Born in 1921 in Clinton, S.C., he was playing trumpet in his father's band by age 11. By age 14, he had his own radio show in Kershaw, S.C. By age 15, he had made his first recording for RCA.

By the time Smith graduated from high school, he was so sure of what he wanted to do that he turned down two college football scholarships and an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy - to do a 15-minute daily program playing Dixieland jazz on a station in Spartanburg, S.C.

"I always knew what I was gonna do and didn't figure college would help me be a successful country musician, " Smith says. "Other guys would get ahead of me if I went away for four years. So I was out of high school on Friday and in Spartanburg working on the following Monday. My wife says, 'You and I never were children.' We were planning to marry in the 10th grade and got married at 19."

Soon after marrying, Arthur and Dorothy Smith moved up to Charlotte, where Arthur went to work for CBS-owned WBT. It was the early '40s, and Nashville was not yet fully established as the capital of country music. In fact, there was a time when any number of other cities could have become that, including Charlotte.

"In the '20s and '30s, there were a handful of clear-channel radio stations broadcasting live country music, " says Charlotte writer Frye Gaillard, author of the 1978 book "Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music." "There was WSL in Chicago, WSM in Nashville, WSB in Atlanta. These stations all became magnets for talent. When country music first became a commercial enterprise, rather than just folk music of the Appalachian Mountains, it was through radio. WBT in Charlotte was one of these stations, with the Carter Family. But somehow, the critical mass of the country music industry eventually came together in Nashville rather than these other places."

That was primarily due to the "Grand Ole Opry, " which Nashville's WSM began broadcasting every Saturday night in the mid-'20s. But even though Charlotte didn't become Music City, U.S.A., Smith turned it into a sizable satellite in the country music world.

After a hitch with the Navy Band in Washington during World War II, Smith returned to Charlotte and his radio career. When WBT added a "V" and went on the air as a TV station in the early '50s, Smith also took the jump to television with one of the earliest variety shows.

"Arthur Smith had the important show in the '50s, " recalls Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for Traditional Arts. "I lived on the edge of Tennessee, between Boone and Mountain City, and everybody watched Arthur Smith. You could miss anything, but not that. He came to Mountain City with his band to play, and could sell out the ball field there, which was the biggest space we had."

Today, "The Arthur Smith Show" and "Carolina Calling, " its weekday morning spinoff, are quaint time capsules of a long-gone era. Smith's worldview was summed up in his outro - "Until next time, same time, same station, goodbye, good luck, good health and God bless you everyone" - which he intoned at the close of each show without the slightest trace of irony or cynicism.

Smith and the Crackerjacks would play advertising jingles for Tube Rose snuff, Red & White grocery stores and other sponsors, interspersed with news bulletins and weather reports. There were also recurrent skits, including "Radio Twins, " "Counselors of the Airways" and especially "Brother Ralph and Cousin Phudd."

Tommy Faile played Cousin Phudd, and Arthur's brother Ralph Smith was Brother Ralph. The duo performed Laurel & Hardy-type comedy routines - "How do you spell Mississippi?" "The river or the state?" - such as this well-worn send-up of longtime sponsor Bost Bread:

Phudd: "If it's fresher than Bost, it's still in the stove."

Ralph (beating Phudd over the head with a hat): "Oven, stupid, oven!"

The music was top-notch. Among the acts that played the show were Johnny Cash (probably the most frequent guest, Smith figures), Earl Scruggs (who hailed from Cleveland County), Roy Orbison, Tex Ritter, Glenn Campbell and even the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher. Smith himself was one of the premier country guitarists of his generation, and the rest of his band was equally strong.

"Nowadays, musicians tend to just stand there and play their records, " says Wilson. "Smith didn't do that, though he did have plenty of records. He had maybe the best banjo player in the world, Don Reno. And Tommy Faile, a glorious singer - he could've been the biggest singer in Nashville if he'd ever left Charlotte. But something about Charlotte held those lads. And I, who went to Nashville for a spell, can't tell 'em they made a mistake by staying away.

"No," Wilson concludes, "the homogenization of country music cannot be blamed on Arthur Smith. He did his part to keep it regional."

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Early to rise:

When he was doing "Carolina Calling" every day, Smith rose at 4:30 each morning. He was on the air by 7, with meetings and rehearsals following as soon as they went off the air at 8 - preparation for the next morning's show as well as the weekly Thursday night program.

"We had 13 people in the cast, and every person in it was like a member of a thousand different families, all the people who watched the show, " Smith says. "I always had my idea of who was watching. I visualized the audience as a 7-year-old kid on the floor, with his dad sitting three feet behind him reading the paper in a rocking chair. We had enthusiasm and good taste. There was never any smut connected with our show."

At its peak, "The Arthur Smith Show" aired in 87 markets from Delaware to Texas and as far away as California. Smith also found time to raise three children and to keep up a recording career.

He had his first big hit while in the Navy, when he spent his free time playing studio sessions with the likes of Lionel Hampton. On one such session in 1945, they had some extra time; so producer Irving Feld asked if any of the musicians had anything they wanted to record. Smith put his hand up, then taught the rhythm section the chords to something he called "Guitar Boogie, " and off they went.

"The most you could put on a 78 rpm acetate was three minutes, 20 seconds, " Smith recalls. "Well, we got into the song and I got to feelin' it; they got to feelin' it. Irving was yelling at us through the window, and I did a slow takeout. We all realized halfway through playing it that this had to be a hit. Irving came out afterward, looking all sweaty, and said, 'You about scared me to death. The last noted ended at 3:18. Two more seconds, and we'd have lost the whole thing.'"

"Guitar Boogie" went on to sell millions and was one of the earliest crossover hits. The song has been enormously influential, with Chet Atkins, Roy Clark and even Paul McCartney among those citing it. Onstage at Raleigh's Carter-Finley Stadium in 1990, McCartney told the audience, "I treasure my copy of 'Guitar Boogie.' "

Smith has a souvenir of his run with "Guitar Boogie" on a wall in his studio, a 1945-vintage photo of himself and singer Billy Eckstine, when the two were label mates on MGM Records. In the picture, they're both holding copies of each other's No. 1 hit records - Eckstine's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore, " which scored on the pop charts; and Smith's "Guitar Boogie, " which topped the country charts.

"Bob Wills and I were both on MGM Records, and we used to own the charts for a few years, " Smith says. "But then we were both in New York with [MGM president] Frank Walker's office, and he said, 'I've got a tape here of someone from the "Louisiana Hayride, " what do you think?' It was Hank Williams singing 'Lovesick Blues.' Wills said, 'That guy can't keep time.' But I said, 'I think he's got a real commercial voice, and you should sign him.'

"Well, Frank Walker took my advice, and within a year Hank Williams was all over the place - and no one was buying Bob Wills or Arthur Smith records anymore."

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Dueling copyrights:

Smith says that if he hadn't made it in music, he probably would've been a lawyer. That is fitting, given the circumstances surrounding his other major claim to musical fame.

In 1955, Smith and Don Reno co-wrote "Feuding Banjos, " a lively call-and-response instrumental that quickly became a standard. Nearly two decades later, the song became a bone of contention. Warner Bros. retitled it "Dueling Banjos" and made Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell's version the centerpiece of the 1973 movie "Deliverance" - without crediting or (more to the point) paying Arthur Smith.

Warner Bros. grievously underestimated Smith's determination and told him, "Sue us." So he did. It took an expensive two-year court fight, but Smith prevailed. He won $200,000 in damages plus royalties. A number of awards the song won were transferred to him.

"About seven or eight country groups had recorded that song and claimed it was theirs, " Smith says, sitting behind his desk and trimming his fingernails with a pocketknife. "But there hadn't been enough money involved to pay a lawyer, until Warner Bros. did that. Cost me $125,000 in lawyers' fees before we got to court, but it was worth it. A good copyright is really worth something. I've always said I'd rather have 10 good copyrights than the Empire State Building. I get a nice check every 90 days."

Ever the consummate professional, Smith says he doesn't get tired of playing either "Guitar Boogie" or "Feuding Banjos." Go to Tuesday's folk heritage award ceremonies, and you'll hear him do both songs.

Nevertheless, he professes to find contemporary country music somewhat mystifying. It may please crowds, but when he listens to what's out there nowadays, Smith just doesn't hear the old verities.

"Country music is an ever-changing thing, " Smith says. "I was talking to Vince Gill about this, how it takes in more fans and more artists and more people, but it always goes back to the core of the emotions it stirs up. And at this point, I don't know if it's ever coming back to that. It's strayed so far from its roots. I have my doubts it will ever get back to what Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb were singing about.

"I don't think there have been any 'new' country acts in the last 10 years, it's all just somebody copying somebody else's No. 1 hit. From the length of time I've been in the business, I know just about everybody who's done anything up until about 24 months ago - and I don't know nobody now.

"I had a motto, when I started recording for RCA when I was 13, " he concludes. "My slogan has always been, 'All the music that's fit to be heard.' "

For more than 60 years, that has been enough.

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