Influential guitarist Arthur Smith wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’

By Terence McArdle / The Washington Post

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

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

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, 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.”

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. 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 Smith wrote and first recorded in 1955 as a banjo duet with Don Reno, was rechristened “Dueling 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 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 — Smith. However, this time he decided to sue.

“About seven or eight country groups had recorded that song and claimed it was theirs,” Smith told the Raleigh 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, 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 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.

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.

He also wrote a number of gospel compositions which Smith and his band, the Crackerjacks, recorded in the mid-1950s as a vocal group called The Crossroads Quartet.

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.