Walk, Don’t Run: Johnny Smith; Chet Atkins; The Ventures.

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic instrumental song, Walk Don’t Run. This song had a fascinating history. We will first discuss the original by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith. Next, we will review a country cover of this song by Chet Atkins, and we will finish with the best-known version, a cover by The Ventures.

Johnny Smith and Walk Don’t Run:

Johnny Smith was a jazz guitarist who became known for his impressive playing technique. He was born in 1922 in Alabama, though during the Depression his family moved extensively around the East Coast and eventually ended up in Portland, Maine.

Smith taught himself to play the guitar at an early age. Because he was unable to afford an instrument, he was allowed to play guitars in pawnshops in return for keeping the instruments in tune. Smith dropped out of high school, because he was able to make $4 a night playing with a hillbilly band.

Smith then joined the Army Air Corps with the ambition of becoming a pilot. However, after he did not pass the eye exam, he was given the choice of joining the military band or being sent to mechanic’s school. Over a two-week period, Smith taught himself to play cornet and passed the military band’s audition.

Below is a photo of Johnny Smith playing one of his signature electric guitars.

Embed from Getty Images

After leaving the military, Smith settled in New York City, where he became an exceptional studio musician on guitar. Although he had his own trio, he would improvise with jazz ensembles at New York’s Birdland jazz club, or he would sit in with the New York Philharmonic when they needed a guitarist.

In 1952, Smith recorded an acclaimed version of Moonlight In Vermont with Stan Getz. Downbeat magazine rated it one of the two best jazz recordings of the year. Of Smith’s own compositions, Walk Don’t Run was his most famous.

So here is the audio of Johnny Smith playing his composition, Walk Don’t Run.

Isn’t this great? It is from Smith’s 1954 album, Walk Don’t Run. The title cut is the first in this audio file, followed by Loverman, ‘S Wonderful and Lullaby of Birdland. On this album, Smith is joined by Perry Lopez on rhythm guitar, Arnold Fishkin on bass and Don Lamond on drums.

I am fascinated by this, as I knew essentially nothing about Johnny Smith prior to writing this post. He was a terrific jazz guitarist, with exceptional technique and improvisational ability. The precision of some of his runs is quite stunning (this is especially true on the song ‘S Wonderful).

As we will see, it is rather amazing that a jazz guitar piece will become transformed into an acoustic country tune by Chet Atkins, and subsequently changed once again into a rock music classic by The Ventures.

Since we did not get to see Johnny Smith live, here he is in live performance with the song What Are You Doing With The Rest of Your Life?

Once again, I am impressed by Smith’s technique, in particular by the clarity of his playing, even through some very rapid arpeggios. I would put him right up there with Wes Montgomery and Charlie Byrd on jazz guitar, just a bit behind my choice for #1 jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt.

Since Johnny Smith was such an acclaimed guitarist, three different companies produced electric guitar models that were designed and endorsed by Smith. In 1955, Smith sent a design to the Guild Guitar Company, who manufactured a special-edition Johnny Smith guitar. Then in 1961, Smith worked with the president of Gibson Guitars to produce a signature guitar.

And finally, in 1989 Smith produced an electric guitar that was manufactured by Heritage Guitars. When the Gibson Guitar company moved their manufacturing facility from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, several of their employees bought the old Kalamazoo Gibson facility and named it Heritage Guitar. So Smith agreed to work with the Heritage folks to issue a signature guitar.

Johnny Smith was a great find for me; he was a master technician on electric guitar and an innovative jazz guitarist.

Chet Atkins and Walk Don’t Run:

Chester “Chet” Atkins was arguably the greatest country music guitarist of the 20th century. He was born in June 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee, the youngest of four siblings. Chet suffered from a severe case of asthma; his condition was so dire that he had to sleep sitting up in a straight-back chair in order to breathe.

Even at a young age, Chet was an exceptional musician. He was only able to play acoustic guitar, as his family had no electricity.

Chet Atkins developed his signature finger-picking style after listening to Merle Travis, a folk guitarist from western Kentucky. Travis employed a style that had been developed in Kentucky that involved using the thumb to produce bass notes and chords, while the index finger simultaneously picked out a melody.

In 1939, Atkins heard Travis on Cincinnati’s WLW radio and taught himself to copy that style. However, while Travis used only his index finger for the melody, Atkins developed a picking style that used three forefingers. Atkins did this because he could not imagine that Travis (or anyone else) could produce such elaborate effects using just a single finger.

Below is a photo of a young Chet Atkins in the recording studio.

Embed from Getty Images

Although we now consider Chet Atkins to be the embodiment of country music style, it is ironic that early in his performing career, Atkins was repeatedly fired from country music stations. The reason — his guitar playing was considered “too sophisticated” for country music (!)

For example, Atkins was hired by Grand Ole Opry, the centerpiece of country music, in 1946 as a member of Red Foley’s band. However, after his solo spots were cut by the Opry, Atkins next traveled to KTWO in Springfield, Missouri, where he was fired for “not sounding country enough!”

Chet Atkins eventually struck it big after he joined up in 1949 with the band of Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen and Anita Carter. The re-incarnation of the Carter Family singers became a major force in country music.

Atkins then began to work with Steve Scholes, director of A&R for RCA Victor. Eventually they moved to Nashville where Chet became the manager of their studios there. Atkins’ first big achievement was construction of the famous RCA Studio B in Nashville, which became the epicenter of country music for decades afterwards.

Chet Atkins recorded his version of Walk Don’t Run in 1957, and it appeared on his album Hi-Fi in Focus. Chet actually ran his version by the song’s composer Johnny Smith to get his approval (Smith liked it).

So here is Chet Atkins in a live performance of Walk Don’t Run.

This is from 1991 along with Marcel Dadi at the Atkins/Dadi Festival. I really enjoy this piece. As you can see, Chet transposed the electric jazz guitar elements of Johnny Smith’s original composition into a country music piece. Atkins incorporates what sound like classical music elements into this piece.

Chet Atkins shows why he was considered the pre-eminent Nashville guitarist for several decades. While his thumb concentrates on the lower notes, Chet picks out the melody with his three fingers. So we now have two noticeably different takes on Walk Don’t Run, and soon we will get a third totally different rendition of this classic tune.

In 1954,
Atkins persuaded the Everly Brothers to move from their small Kentucky hometown to Nashville. Once there he became their adviser, sideman and friend. He played electric guitar on many of the duo’s early classics, including “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “When Will I Be Loved.”

With Chet Atkins in charge of production at the RCA Victor Nashville studios, he instituted significant changes to bring country music out of a commercial slump. Atkins eliminated fiddles and steel guitars from the Nashville repertoire, including more piano (with artists like Floyd Cramer), and using both acoustic and electric guitars.

Chet Atkins was a true country music pioneer. He brought new artists like Dolly Parton and Jerry Reed to record in his Nashville studios, as well as “outlaw country” musicians such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. One of his most daring moves was to hire Charley Pride, the first major African-American country star, during the mid-60s when the South was riven by controversy over the civil rights movement.

In addition to transforming country music, Chet incorporated elements of jazz and even classical and flamenco music into his repertoire. Although he played other instruments sparingly, he was also accomplished on fiddle, mandolin, banjo and ukulele.

Atkins won 14 Grammy Awards and was named Instrumentalist of the Year nine times by the Country Music Association. In 1973 Atkins became the youngest performer ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

He died in 2001 after a recurrence of colon cancer. In 2002, Chet Atkins was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We salute the late Chet Atkins – what an amazing artist!

The Ventures and Walk Don’t Run:

We reviewed The Ventures for their cover of the Del Shannon tune Runaway. So here we will briefly look back over the history of this group.

The Ventures are an instrumental band that formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Bob Bogle met Don Wilson at Wilson’s father’s used-car dealership. The two bonded over their interest in guitars, so they formed a band called The Versatones.

Instrumental band The Ventures.

Alas, they discovered that their name The Versatones had already been taken, so they chose The Ventures. Above is a photo of The Ventures from the 60s.

The Ventures underwent a few changes in personnel until they settled on their “classic” lineup, with Nokie Edwards on lead guitar, Don Wilson on rhythm guitar, Bob Bogle on bass and Mel Taylor on drums.

In 1960, The Ventures struck it big with their recording of Walk, Don’t Run. The Ventures heard a record of Chet Atkins playing Johnny Smith’s tune.  They sped up the tempo, modified the guitar solo and produced a rock music cover of that song.

The Ventures version of Walk, Don’t Run hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Here they are “live” on the Dick Clark TV show Saturday Night Beech-Nut Hour from August 27, 1960.

Of course, there is nothing “live” about this performance – The Ventures are simply playing air-guitar while their record is played (I have never forgiven Clark for not insisting that his artists play live on his show – it would have invigorated rock music enormously, and would have rewarded those musicians who were able to perform live).

However, you can hear the great Ventures sound here. It is a combination of a unique electric guitar style that became known as the “surf guitar” sound, together with a hard-hitting drum beat, heavy on the snare drum and featuring the occasional quick drum roll.

Anyway, Walk Don’t Run was interesting because it rapidly became clear that the Ventures’ original bass player Nokie Edwards was actually a much better guitarist than Bob Bogle, the group’s original lead guitarist.

Shortly after they recorded Walk Don’t Run with Bogle on lead guitar, Edwards and Bogle switched roles. And a couple of years later, The Ventures re-recorded Walk Don’t Run with Nokie on lead guitar.

And here are The Ventures with a live performance of Walk Don’t Run.

Isn’t this terrific? You experience Nokie Edwards’ signature guitar style on this tune, with Bob Bogle on bass, Don Wilson on rhythm guitar and Mel Taylor on drums. The song starts off with a flourish on drums, and then the boys break out into their signature tune.

If you wanted to play surf guitar, there was no better substitute than to sit down and copy all of Nokie Edwards’ guitar licks, and to try and imitate his unique guitar sound.

Once Walk, Don’t Run became a smash hit, The Ventures were on their way. Not only did they have a number of top-rated singles, but they sold a slew of albums. Their albums were notable in that they were generally crafted around a coherent “theme,” rather than simply being a collection of otherwise-unrelated singles.

The Ventures were wildly successful commercially – selling over 100 million records and placing 38 albums on the Billboard charts, they are the best-selling instrumental group of all time. But more than that, the Ventures were trend-setters in guitar technique. Among other innovations, they introduced fuzz guitar and flanging effects (look it up). Although The Ventures did not consider themselves “surf rockers,” nevertheless they were the archetypes for the surf-rock genre.

The Ventures’ fortunes declined in the 70s in the States, although they are still considered rock gods in Japan (being an instrumental band, there is no language barrier to surmount). However, the band experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 80s in the U.S., when surf-rock music came back into fashion.

The group saw a big bump in the 90s, when Quentin Tarantino featured a cover of Nokie Edwards’ Surf Rider in his blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. In 2008, The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Alas, the only original Venture still alive today is Don Wilson. We wish him all the best and we applaud the accomplishments of his bandmates.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Johnny Smith
Wikipedia, Chet Atkins
Wikipedia, The Ventures
Chet Atkins, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bio.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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