Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith — best known for writing the crossover instrumental hit, “Dueling Banjos” — died Thursday (April 3) at his home in Charlotte, N.C., two days after his 93rd birthday.
A multi-instrumentalist of dazzling proficiency, Smith first gained national attention in 1948 with his recording of “Banjo Boogie,” which reached No. 9 on Billboard’s country chart.
He followed it a few months later with “Guitar Boogie,” a song he wrote in 1945. It made it to No. 8 and gave him the sobriquet he carried for the rest of his life. (The name also set him apart from Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith , an early member of the Grand Ole Opry.)
In 1955, Smith and Don Reno recorded a showpiece instrumental in which each followed the other’s increasingly fancy banjo licks. Smith called the tune “Feudin’ Banjos.”
It first reached a wide audience in 1963 when the Dillards bluegrass band (in its role as the Darlings) played it with Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show in the episode “Briscoe Declares for Aunt Bee.”
But the song went stratospheric in 1972 after it was spotlighted in the movie Deliverance, based on James Dickey’s novel of the same name. More than simply a soundtrack component, it was the centerpiece of a crucial scene.
Recorded for the film by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell, the song was released on record in early 1973 under the title “Dueling Banjos.” It went to No. 1 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, No. 2 on its all-genre Hot 100 chart and No. 5 on the country chart.
Smith, who was not given credit for the song, sued the movie’s producer, Warner Bros, and won both songwriting credit and the considerable royalties it had generated.
Now a standard, “Dueling Banjos” has been recorded by Earl Scruggs, Roy Clark, Jose Feliciano, Percy Faith, Ray Coniff and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Sir James Galway even recorded a flute version.
Apart from his musical contributions as a songwriter and performer, Smith also achieved success as a television producer and recording studio owner.
The Arthur Smith Show, a musical variety television series, was syndicated nationally for 32 years, ultimately airing in 90 markets.
His recording studio initially produced Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision radio show, and Smith created and produced similar radio programs for Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, James Brown, Richard Petty and gospel great George Beverly Shea.
Brown cut his hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in Smith’s studio.
Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV was among Smith’s protégés.
Smith was born April 1, 1921, in Clinton, S. C., the son of a textile mill worker. He grew up in Kershaw, S.C., and was early drawn to jazz music — as evidenced by his signature hit. But he soon switched to country in search of a larger audience and made his first recordings in that genre in 1938 for Bluebird Records.
Smith was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010.