In 1973, “Dueling Banjos” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained in that spot for five weeks. Made famous in the 1972 film Deliverance, it featured Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel on guitar and banjo. (In the film the banjo player was Billy Redden and on guitar was Ronny Cox. Neither of them played the instrument in the film*.)
There was just one problem, the writer of the song, Arthur Smith, was never given credit in the film. So Mr. Smith sued Warner Bros. and won an undisclosed amount.
But for Mr. Smith, “Dueling Banjos,” is trivial in comparison to the country music legend’s larger career.
Mr. Smith made his name with the 1945 recording of “Guitar Boogie.” Only 24 at the time, his playing on the song not only made the single a hit but it influenced future rock stars including Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and Tom Petty. Paul McCartney kept a copy of the 45 in his guitar case and called it “one of his favorite records.” (Click the link to watch a peformance of the song by Mr. Smith.)
Surrounded by music from early childhood, Mr. Smith first played trumpet before eventually learning fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. He began writing his own songs at the age of six, eventually writing and publishing 500 country and gospel tunes.
He recorded some of his songs at his own studio which he opened in 1957. It was the first in the Carolinas. James Brown used the studio in 1965 to record his hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
Mr. Smith gained a broader following with the syndication of his half-hour variety show, The Arthur Smith Show. The show began broadcasting in 1959 in 14 cities and by the 1970s was watched in 90 television markets nationwide.
Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith died on April 3, 2014 at the age of 93.
(“Dueling Banjos” is copyright 2004 Atlantic Recording Group)
* Ronny Cox chose not to play guitar on the film’s version because the banjo player, Billy Redden, could not play and to re-record the song at a studio was an inconvenience during filming. In the movie, another actor slipped his arms through Mr. Redden’s and played the banjo on-screen - the director used severe camera angles to hide the other gentleman.