So you’re an English fingerstyle guitarist influenced by Merle Travis, Jerry Reed, and your childhood hero Chet Atkins. You’ve made a bit of a name for yourself and moved to Nashville, where The Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention is an annual event. The convention consists of formal and informal guitar sessions, and you’re a participant.
The major event of the convention is the Saturday night gala concert, where everyone dresses up, but it’s midsummer and this is an informal set, so you wear shorts and a golf shirt. You play The Entertainer, the video is uploaded to YouTube, it goes viral, and this becomes your career defining performance. This is what happened to Richard Smith.
No doubt about it, Richard Smith has serious fingerpicking skills. The guitarist seated next to him is Tommy Emmanuel, who was voted the best acoustic guitarist in the world in a musicradar.com poll, 2019. When you come to the end of a complex piece and Tommy Emmanuel gives you a standing ovation, you know you’ve done a good job! The July 2018 video of Richard Smith playing Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer has over 13m YouTube views, whereas most of his uploads are seen by thousands.
Richard Smith was the winner of the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, held in Kansas in 2001. In 2008, Smith was the Thumbpicker of the Year, a title given by The National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame (where he was inducted in 2009). In 2011, the Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists presented Smith with it’s Golden Thumbpick Award. In the next video British guitarist Fil from Wings of Pegasus reacts to Richard Smith’s incredible acoustic guitar skills.
The Entertainer, sub-titled “A Rag Time Two Step”, is a piano rag composed by Scott Joplin in 1902. It was sold as sheet music. In 1903, songwriter and journalist Monroe H. Rosenfeld wrote that The Entertainer was the best piece that Joplin had composed. He memorably elaborated that “It is a jingling work of a very original character, embracing various strains of a retentive character which set the foot in spontaneous action and leave an indelible imprint on the tympanum”
From 1910, the Entertainer was sold as a roll for pianolas (player pianos). The piece was first recorded in 1928 by the Blue Boys.
The public was reminded of The Entertainer and other Joplin pieces when Joshua Rifkin released Scott Joplin: Piano Rags in 1970s, but it was the 1973 movie The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, that led to The Entertainer being a composition that is known and recognised around the world.
The version of The Entertainer in The Sting is slightly adapted by soundtrack composer Marvin Hamlisch. The Sting soundtrack won the Oscar for Best Original Song Score and Adaptation in 1974. The film version of The Entertainer was released as a single and went to number 3 on the Billboard chart. The Entertainer was rated the tenth best song of the twentieth century by the Recording Industry Association of America. The Entertainer is commonly played by Ice Cream trucks in the United States.