Arthur Smith, 93; musician wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’
WASHINGTON — 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, confirmed the death but didn't specify a cause.
Mr. Smith, adept on guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, and violin, recorded ‘‘Guitar Boogie’’ in 1946 while stationed in Washington with the Navy. The song 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. As it gained momentum, Mr. Smith substituted for Belgian-born gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt on a US tour that Reinhardt could not make.
‘‘Feudin’ Banjos,’’ which Mr. Smith wrote and recorded in 1955 as a banjo duet with Don Reno, was rechristened ‘‘Dueling Banjos’’ in the Oscar-nominated 1972 film ‘‘Deliverance.’’
The soundtrack recording went to number two on the Billboard pop chart. It was not the first time the song had been recorded without crediting, or paying, Mr. Smith. However, this time he decided to sue.
‘‘About seven or eight country groups had recorded that song and claimed it was theirs,’’ Mr. Smith told the Raleigh News and Observer in 1998. ‘‘There hadn’t been enough money involved to pay a lawyer until Warner Brothers 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 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Smith prevailed. When asked how much money he made on the settlement, he would point to a picture of a 42-foot yacht in his office and say that Warner Brothers bought it for him. He told Warner Brothers not to use his name in the movie credits because he found the film offensive.
Mr. Smith wrote or co-wrote more than 500 compositions, including the 1955 cowboy ballad ‘‘The Red Headed Stranger,’’ which later became a signature song for Willie Nelson.
Despite his national profile, Mr. Smith focused on a broadcasting career in the Charlotte area. His self-titled variety show ran in syndication from 1951 to 1982 and featured such guests as Andy Griffith, Johnny Cash, and even Richard Nixon. He also had a fishing show on ESPN from 1982 to 1994.