Guitar Boogie Shuffle

"Guitar Boogie," originally recorded by The Rambler Trio featuring Arthur Smith and released on the Super Disc label in 1945, is one those pieces of music that evolved through the years into a rock and roll classic; its 12-bar rhythmic pattern and melody can be detected in so many recordings by artists of all types that it would be futile to try and name even a fraction of them. Smith, the song's composer, was defined by his signature pickin' style, billed from that moment on as Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. On the outside it might have appeared he was simply a one-trick pony, but that single achievement was, frankly, enough to ensure his historical importance.

Besides the guitar, Smith played banjo, fiddle and mandolin. A South Carolina native, he logged time with the U.S. Navy during World War II. Making Charlotte his home after the war, he became an on-air personality on WBT radio with his music show Carolina Calling. He began to expand his nationwide reach after joining the MGM label in 1948. "Banjo Boogie," featuring his band, renamed The Cracker-Jacks, hit Billboard's Most-Played Juke Box Country and Western charts in September, followed by a rerecording of "Guitar Boogie" that hit the top ten on the same chart in early 1949, becoming the version he is best known for. Billboard magazine was so impressed with Smith that in one article they called him a "hot guitar" player with impressive "digital dexterity," a phrase that would likely have a nonmusical meaning today. That same year the radio station was the first in the area to branch out into television broadcasting with Charlotte's channel 3, WBTV. Within a couple of years, Carolina Calling had transitioned to the tube, increasing the local celebrity status of Smith and the Cracker-Jacks. For a number of years the show was syndicated nationally.

Frank Virtuoso practiced violin when he was young, later switching to, and becoming more proficient at, guitar and bass. He crossed paths with Arthur Smith while in the Navy during WWII's final months. Afterwards, Frank started The Virtuoso Trio in Philadelphia, serving as bassist with guitarist Steve Rossi and pianist Ralph Frederico. They played small clubs and later backed high-profile acts like Frank Sinatra, Patti Page and Nat "King" Cole. Meanwhile, Smith's "Guitar Boogie" reappeared as "New Guitar Boogie Shuffle" by The Super-Sonics on Rainbow Records in 1953. "Introducing 3-D Sound" was plastered on the label in an attempt to tie into the first wave of the glasses-required 3-D craze still going today, yet the recording was in mono (as was everything else at the time)! "3-D" my eye!!! Then Nickelodeon Records put out The Esquire Boys' "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," a hotter version with a vocal section midway through repeating the line 'We're gonna rock this joint tonight!'

The Virtues

In the mid-'50s Virtuoso changed his professional name to Frank Virtue. The group, with the new lineup of Jimmy Bruno on guitar, John Renner on saxophone and Joe Vespe on drums, had been egocentrically rechristened The Virtues and took a stab at stardom in late 1958 with "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" and its flip side, "Guitar in Orbit," on Sure Records. Original pressings had a blue label showing a space ship blasting off; later the label was white with a green arrow hitting a bullseye. It was distributed nationally on Hunt in early '59 and hit big. The A side, similar in sound to the Esquire Boys' single but strictly instrumental, spent most of May and June in the top ten. Of the many versions, it was the one that caught lightning in a bottle, easily outselling them all. British guitarist Bert Weedon covered "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" and it worked out nicely for the unassumingly expert axe-handler, kicking off a two-year run of instrumental hits for him in the U.K.

Often cited as a major influence on rock and roll guitarists, it wasn't so much that the Virtues' "Shuffle" was any more wondrous an accomplishment than the other versions (particularly Smith's original and the hot Esquire and Weedon sides); it just ended up being the big hit everyone heard. Follow-up singles on Hunt Records were little more than variations on the first track. After one single on ABC-Paramount, "Happy Guitar" on the Highland label kicked off 1960 sounding so much like "Shuffle" that it was clear Virtue and the guys needed to try something completely different. But they didn't. "Highland Guitar," "Guitar Boogie Twist" and "The New 'Guitar Boogie'," all released on different small labels as Frank Virtue and the Virtues, continued to beat the concept to death. A return to the Sure label in 1962 finally landed the band, again as the Virtues, back on the charts for one week in March...with "Guitar Boogie Shuffle Twist," a faster, more heavily amplified version of the same ol' same ol'.

The band broke up shortly afterwards. Frank started the Virtue Recording Studio in Philly and kept it going for about 20 years. He had one release on Liberty in 1964 under his real name, then revived The Virtues in 1966, putting out a 45, "Cotton Candy," on his own Virtue label. He worked with studio musicians, though original group members joined in occasionally, and there was one final single on the Virtue label in 1970, "Guitar on the Wild Side."

- Michael Jack Kirby


Guitar Boogie Shuffle