Charlotte’s Arthur Smith, who wrote ‘Dueling Banjos,’ died Thursday at 93

The kid from Kershaw, S.C., picked a guitar like his fingers were on fire. Hot licks flew from the instrument when Arthur Smith played – a wizard coaxing magic out of the strings.

In 1945, he wrote and recorded a sizzling instrumental that eventually hit the charts worldwide. “Guitar Boogie” would go on to influence generations of musicians, including Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Glen Campbell, Roy Clark. A young Paul McCartney played the Kershaw kid’s boogie in a tryout for a Liverpool band that became the Beatles.

Smith, who died Thursday at home at age 93, was a Charlotte-based entertainer with a national presence.

Music great, innovator, TV pioneer, successful businessman: He was important on many levels. The amiable Sunday school teacher with a honey-dipped Southern drawl also had a feisty side; he took on Warner Bros. after his novelty song “Feuding Banjos” turned up uncredited as “Dueling Banjos” in the 1972 movie “Deliverance.” Smith filed a lawsuit and won a substantial settlement.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, sons, Clay and Reggie, daughter Connie Brown, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Thousands of devoted fans watched his daily variety show “Carolina Calling” on WBTV, and a national audience later followed his syndicated “Arthur Smith Show.”

Smith and his band, the Crackerjacks, served up country music and sly humor while featuring such guests as Billy Graham and Johnny Cash, two of Smith’s friends. As host, Smith endeared himself to audiences; when he pitched an advertiser’s product, people listened and trusted.

“He was a good neighbor on radio and TV to so many people,” said Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “He was somebody who came to you every day in your living room or kitchen and felt like a member of the family in a way hard to imagine today. He was from the same mold as Doc Watson and Andy Griffith. He enjoyed the genial tradition of being a Southern gentleman. He relished that.”

Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV, who worked with Smith on his syndicated TV show, called him a “good, decent man.”

“ ‘The Arthur Smith Show’ was where I got my country music education and inspiration,” said Hamilton, a native of Winston-Salem. “He was a childhood hero who lived up to his legend. He was the real deal. He connected with people. He was a man who walked his talk.”

‘A great moment’

Born in Clinton, S.C., Smith grew up in Kershaw, where his father worked in a cotton mill and led a brass band.

As a child, Smith played trumpet in the mill group and absorbed all kinds of music, from big bands to rhythm and blues and gospel and the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Around the age of 6, Smith started writing his own songs – and never stopped. He played in a Dixieland group with his brothers, Ralph and Sonny, and later mastered the mandolin, fiddle and guitar, among other instruments.

Smith passed up an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to pursue a career in music and entertainment. He was 15 when he cut records for RCA’s budget Bluebird label at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Rock Hill. The band’s name was Smith’s Carolina Crackerjacks. The session produced no hits. That came later with “Guitar Boogie,” when Smith was 24. The kid with the hot guitar licks made a name for himself around the world.

Nashville, Tenn., producer and musician Tim Smith remembers mentioning his famous uncle to Paul McCartney in London around 1982. At the time, Tim Smith was performing and recording with Joe English, former drummer for McCartney’s band Wings.

“I told him my father was a great musician and that my uncle was Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith,” Tim Smith recalled. “He (McCartney) didn’t say a word. He just walked over to a road case in his studio and opened it up. It had slots like an old record store counter and was full of 45s. He thumbed through and pulled out a 45 of ‘Guitar Boogie’ from the ’50s and told me it was one of his very favorite records. He wanted to know all about Arthur. It was a great moment.”

“Guitar Boogie” was recorded on acoustic guitar with help from Don Reno on rhythm guitar and Roy Lear on bass, said John Rumble, senior historian at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Smith was back in the Carolinas after serving in the Navy and had found work with the popular country band the Briarhoppers and with Cecil Campbell’s Tennessee Ramblers. The name on the “Guitar Boogie” record was the Rambler Trio, but Rumble said Smith’s lead guitar picking “drove the record’s substantial regional sales and gave Smith his familiar ‘Guitar Boogie’ moniker.”

The hit helped inspire a country boogie trend and led to Smith’s contract with the larger MGM label in 1947, Rumble said. MGM reissued “Guitar Boogie” in 1948, and this time the disc rose to No. 8 on Billboard magazine’s country popularity chart.

Smith’s radio career had begun in 1941, hosting live shows on WSPA in Spartanburg. In 1943, he moved to Charlotte as a radio personality at WBT. He began appearing on WBTV in 1951, and Rumble said the success of Smith’s daily and weekly programs enabled his promotion of country and gospel package shows in personal appearances across the South.

Physical playing style

The early morning “Carolina Calling” show ran for a decade and always scored high in the ratings. One of the popular comedy routines was the “Counselors of the Airways” – Cousin Fudd (Tommy Faile) and Brother Ralph (Ralph Smith) – who “solved the problems of the Piedmont.”

The daily hourlong variety show featured Arthur Smith, the Crackerjacks, the Counselors, Little Wayne “Skeeter” Haas, and Smith’s Crossroads Quartet. Also appearing on the show were top stars of country music, Broadway and Hollywood, as well as sports figures.

The syndicated “Arthur Smith Show” could be seen on 14 stations by 1959 and by late 1963 was airing in cities in the Carolinas, Georgia and West Virginia.

In 1955, Rumble said Smith recorded “Feuding Banjos,” which featured the interplay of Smith’s tenor banjo with Don Reno’s 5-string banjo; the number became a popular bluegrass tune that was featured in the film “Deliverance” but giving no credit to Smith.

In 1992, “Dueling Banjos” was used in a commercial for Mitsubishi automobiles. Smith told the Observer this experience was much more pleasant than the one he’d had with “Deliverance.”

Although he didn’t disclose how much money he’d made from the movie lawsuit, Smith pointed to a picture of a 42-foot yacht on the wall of his office and noted Warner Bros. had bought the boat for him.

Recording studio

Smith’s hobbies were boating and sports fishing. He founded Arthur Smith Sportsfishing Tournaments, which ran for almost 20 years on the Carolina coast, Florida, New York and the Great Lakes.

Smith’s business interests also included the first recording studio in the Carolinas. Founded in 1957, the Charlotte studio not only recorded Smith’s records, but national artists such as Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Pat Boone, Ronnie Milsap, George Beverly Shea and the Statler Brothers. Features for Billy Graham’s House of Decision were produced at the studio.

In 1965, the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown rented the studio for three hours and cut “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which later ranked No. 72 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

For 25 years, Smith produced, marketed and syndicated national radio programs hosted by Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Richard Petty, George Beverly Shea and Amy Vanderbilt. Smith’s own show, “Top of the Day,” ran for 30 years for one sponsor – Shelby-based Bost Bread.

‘Big fish, period’

Tim Smith found out about those connections when he moved to Nashville and learned country music’s elite knew about Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith.

“In Charlotte, I’d thought Uncle Arthur was a big fish in a little pond,” Tim Smith said. “I found out he was a big fish, period.”

Over the years, veteran Charlotte radio broadcaster Tom Gentry saw such country stars as Vince Gill, Glen Campbell and Roy Clark interviewed on Smith’s program. And they all agreed that “Arthur kindled their interest in the guitar. He inspired them to play,” Gentry said.

He remembers Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff’s surprise that Smith could make it in the music business without living in Nashville.

“Arthur never wanted to move out of Charlotte,” Gentry said. “Arthur did it his way.”

Gentry recalled that when Cash came to Charlotte, he stayed at the Smith residence. Cash felt he could be himself there. Sitting on the floor like a teenager, Cash would get out Smith’s records, look through them and “flip the record shucks across the room.”

‘He had a gift’

Longtime WBTV and WSOC anchor Doug Mayes often took over announcing duties on “Carolina Calling” when the regular announcer Clyde “Cloudy” McLean was off. The laughter and diverse music that dominated the show still resonates with him.

On an old typewriter in the prop room, Smith’s brother Ralph would be banging out material for the “Counselors of the Airways.” Cousin Fudd and Brother Ralph would read a fictitious letter from a viewer, spinning some outlandish tale, and then go on to answer an equally outlandish question put to them. They tried to do it with straight faces, but didn’t always succeed.

Commercials had Smith’s personal touch and were often laced with humor. A Bost Bakery jingle went: “If it’s fresher than Bost it’s still in the stove.”

The ads had an impact in the marketplace.

Mayes recalls the reaction of a Sears dealer to a successful plug for refrigerators on the Smith show. “He called and said, ‘You’ve done it again,’ ” Mayes said. ‘ “They cleaned out my warehouse and everything in the store.’ ”

For Mayes, a lasting image is Smith sitting on a stool in the studio, arms draped over his guitar, which is shaking as his body ripples with laughter. Brewing hot licks on a guitar and connecting with audiences – Smith made it look easy.

“He had a gift, no question. A God-given gift,” Mayes said. “It’s all a part of the world of communication. Nobody could equal his talent.”

Whether it was radio, TV, personal appearances or through records, Smith told the Observer in 2007: “I was always thankful to have an audience. We stood for the people.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer