Arthur Smith, guitarist who wrote ‘Guitar Boogie’ and ‘Duelin’ Banjos,’ dies at 93

April 6

Arthur Smith, a trail-blazing guitarist and banjoist who wrote and recorded “Guitar Boogie” and “Duelin’ Banjos,” the latter heard in the acclaimed movie “Deliverance,” and influenced the Beatles, among many others, died April 3 at his home in Charlotte. He was 93.

A son, Clay Smith, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Smith, who was equally adept on guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin and violin, recorded “Guitar Boogie” in 1946 while stationed in Washington with the Navy. The composition, essentially a piano boogie-woogie played on a folk guitar, has been jokingly called “the record that launched a million guitar lessons.’”

Its simple form — a boogie-woogie riff followed by a hot solo — formed a template for innumerable early rock instrumentals. The record sold well for three years and appeared on the country and pop charts. Radio host Arthur Godfrey played it 10 consecutive times on his show. And, as it gained momentum, Mr. Smith substituted for his idol, Belgian-born gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, on a U.S. tour that Reinhardt could not make.

Bluegrass historian Pete Kuykendall said “Guitar Boogie” “was an early crossover hit, a melding of both the black and white influences on music at the time, a forerunner to what was later called rock-and-roll.”


Arthur Smith, a trail-blazing guitarist and banjoist who wrote and recorded the influential instrumentals “Guitar Boogie” and “Duelin’ Banjos” died April 3 at his home in Charlotte. (Courtesy of Arthur Smith Enterprises)

Les Paul and Alvino Rey both covered the song on electric guitars and “Guitar Boogie Shuffle,” a rocked-up version by the Philadelphia lounge group the Virtues, charted in 1959. Mr. Smith even appended his name with the song’s title — Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith — both to acknowledge its popularity and to avoid confusion with another Arthur Smith who performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

Feudin’ Banjos,” which Mr. Smith wrote and first recorded in 1955 as a banjo duet with Don Reno, was rechristened “Duelin’ Banjos” in the Oscar-nominated 1972 film “Deliverance.”

The soundtrack recording by banjoist Eric Weissberg went to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. It is heard in a key scene where a young backwoods banjo player (Billy Redden) has an impromptu jam session with a city-bred guitarist (Ronny Cox). It was not the first time the song had been recorded without crediting — or paying — Mr. Smith. However, this time he decided to sue.

“About seven or eight country groups had recorded that song and claimed it was theirs,” Mr. Smith told the Charlotte News and Observer in 1998. “But there hadn’t been enough money involved to pay a lawyer until Warner Brothers [the film company] did that. Cost me $125,000 in lawyer’s fees before we got to court, but it was worth it.

“A good copyright is really worth something,” he added. “I’ve always said I’d rather have 10 good copyrights than the Empire State Building. I get a nice check every 90 days.”

After several phone calls, an attorney for the film company called him back and offered him $15,000. According to his son Clay, Mr. Smith told him: “I really appreciate the offer. You might be a good attorney in Los Angeles but you wouldn’t do too good in Carolina.”

The lawsuit lasted two years, but Mr. Smith prevailed. When asked how much money he made on the settlement, he would simply point to a picture of a 42-foot yacht on the wall of his office and say that Warner Brothers bought the boat for him. He demanded his name be credited on the soundtrack records, but he told Warner Brothers not to use his name in the movie credits because he found the film offensive.

Mr. Smith wrote and co-wrote more than 500 compositions, including the 1955 cowboy ballad “The Red Headed Stranger,” which later became a signature song for Willie Nelson. Mr. Smith and his band, the Crackerjacks, also recorded in the mid-1950s as a gospel vocal group called The Crossroads Quartet.

Despite his national profile, Mr. Smith focused his energy on a broadcasting career in the Charlotte area. His self-titled country variety show ran in syndication from 1951 to 1982 and featured such guests as Andy Griffith, Johnny Cash and even Richard Nixon. At its peak, the show was broadcast in 90 markets, including Washington. He also had a sport fishing show on ESPN from 1982 to 1994.

Arthur Smith was born April 1, 1921, in Clinton, S.C. and grew up in Kershaw, S.C. His father worked in a textile mill, taught music and led a local jazz band. At age 11, Mr. Smith had joined his father’s band on trumpet and soon after, took up guitar. Three years later, he was performing on the radio with his own string band, the Crackerjacks. He made his first records for RCA in 1938.

Survivors include his wife of 72 years, Dorothy Byars Smith of Charlotte; three children, Clay Smith and Connie Brown, both of Charlotte, and Reggie Smith of Atlanta; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Smith’s music had an important impact on a British skiffle band called the Quarrymen, which featured Paul McCartney and John Lennon. McCartney, then a young guitarist, tried to play “Guitar Boogie” — and flubbed it — during his first concert with the Quarrymen in 1957.

“I could play it easily in rehearsal so they elected that I should do it as my solo,” McCartney once said. “Things were going fine, but when the moment came in the performance I got sticky fingers; I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was just too frightened; it was too big a moment with everyone looking at the guitar player. I couldn’t do it. That’s why George [Harrison] was brought in.”

The Quarrymen were later renamed the Beatles.

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