Shirley Taylor sat on a back row of the Calvary Church sanctuary in south Charlotte on Saturday, crocheting and mouthing the words to inspirational songs composed by Arthur Smith.
A lifelong fan of the Charlotte-based entertainer who died April 3 at 93, Taylor drove in from Anson County to attend a public memorial service for the musician who had influenced generations, including Tom Petty, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney.
An hour before the service began, she listened to entertainers such as Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV and the Avett Brothers of Concord – Scott and Seth – practice numbers they would perform.
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Taylor, 66, had always loved Smith’s gospel songs such as “I Saw a Man” and “The Fourth Man,” but didn’t know he had written them until she was an adult.
“He wrote some wonderful music – it’s unreal,” Taylor said. “I loved all the songs.”
She was among the 450 people who came to honor the guitar wizard who wrote “Guitar Boogie” and “Dueling Banjos” and carved out a national presence.
Top musicians turned out for the event emceed by WBT’s John Hancock. “This is a celebration, that’s what this is,” Clay Smith said of the memorial for his father. “His legacy and music live on.”
It was an afternoon of shared memories revolving around a man who was not only a music great, but an innovator, TV pioneer and successful businessman.
Born in Kershaw, S.C., Smith grew up in Clinton, S.C., where his father worked in a cotton mill and led a brass band.
Charles and Martha Walden of Lancaster, S.C., came to Saturday’s service because they felt connected to Smith.
“I was raised in a mill village and grew up listening to Arthur Smith on the radio,” said Charles Walden, 76. “Arthur and the Crackerjacks used to come to the old Springs School in Lancaster. The school would be full, and it was good entertainment.”
Smith’s mill village roots along with his musical talent and humility had drawn Walden to the service.
Martha Walden, 75, recalled Smith’s daily radio show when she was growing up.
“He woke us up every morning on WBT,” she said. “My parents had it wide open. I heard him every morning of my life until I was 18.”
‘He lived his music’
Lynn Kellam of Charlotte came to pay her respects to the man she knew from working at his Charlotte recording studio.
She remembered famous entertainers coming to the studio – people such as Johnny and June Carter Cash and soul singer Otis Redding. James Brown arrived with an entourage, including someone to carry his money.
“Arthur Smith was just a great man,” Kellam said. “Such a good spirit and very talented. Everybody loved him.”
Charlotte recording artists Jimmy and Darlene Harrison also got to know Smith through his recording studio.
Darlene Harrison was 14 when she made her first gospel record there.
And Jimmy Harrison recorded in the Smith studios during the early 1960s with his brother, the late Wilbert Harrison, best known for the 1959 rhythm and blues million-seller “Kansas City.”
“Arthur Smith was a wonderful guy,” said Jimmy Harrison, 72. “He was a good man who lived his music. He was out of sight.”
Darlene Harrison said of Smith: “He made his mark on this earth.”
A prelude to Saturday’s service was a music video that profiled Smith’s career.
Clay Smith told the audience his father “never forgot where he came from.”
That was a theme taken up by Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council.
During the past two years, Martin said, the state has lost outstanding entertainers, naming “Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Andy Griffith and, now, Arthur Smith.” Those artists, he said, left a great legacy that included being creative, innovative and building on tradition.
“They loved the very landscape of North Carolina,” Martin said. “They always retained their connection to the state of North Carolina and our communities.”
Smith could have based his operations in Nashville, Tenn., but “he chose to stay with us,” Martin said. “And we’re glad that he stayed.”
George Hamilton IV called Smith “a musical Renaissance man” and told a story from Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson that illustrated the depth of popularity of Smith and his band, the Crackerjacks.
When country music legend Hank Williams Sr. and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, stopped at a Charlotte service station in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Hamilton said the station employee saw the instruments and cowboy outfits and asked: “Are you Arthur Smith’s Crackerjacks?”
Williams replied they weren’t and got another question from the employee: “Whose Crackerjacks are you?”
Smith turned 93 on April 1, and Saturday’s event fell on what would have been his 73rd wedding anniversary. His wife, Dorothy, sat with other family members as the crowd clapped to “Dueling Banjos” and sang a verse of “Amazing Grace” with the Avett Brothers.
Keith Dudley sang Smith’s “I Saw a Man” and the Dove Brothers performed “The Fourth Man” and “I’ve Been with Jesus.”
In the back of the church, Shirley Taylor sang along.
“It’s a glorious day,” she said. “It couldn’t be a better day to celebrate a man like Arthur. I’m thankful we had him for 93 years.”