Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith (1921-), son of a poor mill worker, rose to become one of country music’s brightest stars. His singles, including “Guitar Boogie” and “Feuding Banjos,” sold millions of copies, and millions more people tuned in to his radio and television programs.
Smith was born in South Carolina on April 1, 1921. He inherited a love for music from his father, a textile mill worker who directed the town’s brass band. Smith originally played the cornet but preferred—and eventually switched to—the guitar. Though he worked for a time in the textile mill, Smith also performed live music at local radio stations with his brothers Ralph and Sonny. Smith began hosting radio shows on the Spartanburg radio station WSPA in 1941. Two years later he moved to Charlotte to work as a host for WBT radio.
Smith, his brothers, and a Charlotte native named Roy Lear performed on air as “Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks.” World War II split up their act; Smith left WBT to serve in the navy. But he continued to play the guitar, and at one Navy hangout he attracted the attention of Irvin and Israel Feld, businessman brothers who were looking for stars for their Super Discs record label. They found one in Smith. His 1948 instrumental “Guitar Boogie” became a smash hit after the radio broadcaster Arthur Godfrey played it ten straight times. It rose to the top of the Pop chart and sold more than 4 million copies.
By that point, Smith had returned to WBT, where he hosted a radio program called “Top of the Morning.” Smith succeeded in television as well. “The Arthur Smith Show” debuted in 1951 and ran for 32 years afterward. The show featured performances by Smith’s band, the Crossroads Quartet, and by musical guests like Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Andy Griffith. Even Richard Nixon made an appearance. Nixon, then the vice president, showcased his piano skills by playing “Home on the Range.”
Christianity was a driving force in Smith’s life. Many of his songs—among them “Because Jesus Said It,” “I Saw A Man,” “I’ve Been With Jesus,” and “Not My Will”—were religious. Most episodes of “The Arthur Smith Show” featured a Sunday school lesson and closed with a hymn.
As Smith’s fame grew, he expanded outside radio and television. He founded a recording studio in 1957; it was the first such studio in the Carolinas. James Brown, Pat Boone, and the Statler Brothers recorded there, and Billy Graham produced his radio program “Hour of Decision” in the studio. Smith found steady work as an advertiser, cutting commercials for Bristol Myers, Grove Laboratories, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. An enthusiastic fisherman, Smith founded the Arthur Smith Sportfishing Tournament and briefly hosted an ESPN show about fishing.
Smith’s greatest hit came nearly two decades after he wrote it. In 1955, he had recorded an instrumental called “Feuding Banjos.” The 1972 film “Deliverance” took Smith’s song, retitled it “Dueling Banjos,” and used it without his consent. Smith sued. He won the case and, as he put it, “Royalties [kept] on coming.” “Dueling Banjos” went to number two on the Billboard charts and introduced a new generation of listeners to Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith.