Tuesday, January 20, 2009
From Guitar Player, December 1977
When Les Paul appeared on the 1977 Grammy Awards show, more than a few people in the viewing audience were undoubtedly surprised to discover that he was neither (1) dead, nor (2) a guitar. Les, then 61, was not there for one of those tributes accorded creaking pioneers of the recording industry. He was there to receive a Grammy that he shared with Chet Atkins for the Best Country Instrumental Performance: Chester & Lester. The album was the first he had recorded in more than ten years, and the award represented just another notch in one of the most remarkable careers in show business history -- one that spans nearly half a century.
Ralph J. Gleason, the late dean of music critics, suggested some years ago that "no one in the history of pop music has had a greater effect on the ultimate pop sound than Les Paul." Guitarists as diverse as Wes Montgomery, Michael Bloomfield, Ray Benson, Pat Martino, Jerry Hahn, James Burton, Steve Howe, Peter Frampton, Steve Miller, June Millington, and Link Wray have all cited his influence and publicly proclaimed their love for his music; there are literally thousands more in the same debt.
The reason for Les Paul's importance are not hard to trace: even before Charlie Christian gained fame for his playing in Benny Goodman's band (1939-'41), Les's work with Fred Waring on network radio helped introduce the controversial electric guitar to a skeptical public. His designs of electric Spanish solidbodies were years ahead of the major manufacturers and his experiments with, and inventions of, presently routine recording techniques such as echo delay, phase shifting, sound-on-sound, overdubbing, and multiple-track recording, revolutionized the recording industry, catapulting himself and Mary Ford into national stardom in the early '50s. Additionally, he is responsible for the idea and design of the first eight-track recorder, and the world's most prestigious guitar bears his name.
Les Paul's story begins on June 9, 1916, in Weukesha, Wisconsin. Born Lester William Polsfuss, he had taken up the harmonica and built his first crystal set by age nine. The first thing he heard on that radio was someone playing the guitar, and he soon decided that he also wanted to play one, because it left him free to speak and sing.
His first guitar was from Sears Roebuck, and it wasn't long before he had learned enough chords -- three -- and songs to start performing at lunch hours for local Optimists and Lion Clubs and PTA meetings. The harmonica stayed in the act, as Rhubarb Red (Les's stage name at the time) fashioned his first harmonica rack from a coat hanger and began to develop the jokes and patter that remain a part of his performances today.
By the time he was 13, he had already built his first broadcasting station and recording machine and had amplified his guitar with a phonograph needle through the family radio. About that time, a western band featuring Joe Wolverton on guitar came trough town, and Les discovered for the first time that it was possible to make music above the third fret. Wolverton, impressed with the precocious guitarist and harboring a grudge against the band's vocalist, convinced the leader to fire the vocalist and hire Les in his place.
Following a summer of touring, during which he acquired his first Gibson, an L-5, Les returned to Waukesha to resume his schooling and experimenting. Within a year he received a call from Wolverton, now doing a single act, who invited Les to join him in Springfield, Missouri, to form a duet. Thus was born Sunny Joe & Rhubarb Red, with Les playing guitar, jug, harmonica, and piano, while Joe played guitar, banjo, and fiddle; both sang.
The combination was a hit as the two toured the Midwest, paying radio stations, clubs, fairs, theaters, and dance halls. One of Les's first projects was to build a PA system for the band's truck so that they could announce their arrivals. The two hit Chicago in the early '30s just as the town was beginning to break wide open as a jazz haven. Following the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, the pair ended their musical association. Les wanted to play jazz and electric, and Joe wanted to remain country and acoustic. Joe left for California, but Les stayed in Chicago and became two persons: his mornings were spent hosting a radio show for WJJD as Rhubarb Red, playing country music and receiving thousands of cards and letters a day, while at night he fronted a jazz group under his real name on station WIND. The dual identity extended to his recording projects. As Red, he recorded for Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward and had several modest hits. As Les Paul, he turned up on a number of "race" records with blues singer Georgia White, playing piano and guitar. Through it all he kept up his interest in inventing and electronics. In 1934, Les retained Chicago's Larson Brothers to build a guitar that he had designed in order to test his theories concerning solidbody instruments.
In 1936, Les tired of his double life and dropped his Rhubarb Red persona. His reputation as a jazz guitarist had grown swiftly as a result of countless late-night jam sessions with artists such as Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie South. Les decided to form his own trio. Jim Atkins -- Chet's older half-brother -- handled vocal chores and rhythm guitar, while Ernie Newton held down the bass and performed some comedy routines. Shortly thereafter, the trio left for New York. Les hustled a gig with Fred Waring And His Pennsylvanians, the large vocal ensemble with whom the trio worked five nights a week, coast-to-coast, on NBC. Audience response was immediate, and soon Les was receiving more mail than Waring because of the sound of his electric guitar. The Waring job lasted nearly three years, during which time Les began to experiment on a noncommercial basis with the concept of multiple recording. In 1940, he left Waring to become the musical director of radio stations WJJD and WIND in Chicago and to play with Ben Bernie's big band.
In 1941, Les built his first solidbody guitar, which he dubbed "The Log." It was actually a 4" by 4" board with a pickup and an Epiphone neck. An Epiphone body split in half was added to make it look like a guitar. Five years later he went to Gibson with his idea. Gibson turned him down.
Les's career took a significant turn in 1943, when he and Bernie left Chicago bound for Los Angeles. Bernie soon died, and Les formed another trio. Almost immediately they began to work with established stars such as Bing Crosby, Burns & Allen, and Rudy Vallee. With the war under way, Les was drafted into the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) to provide entertainment for GIs. His commanding officer was composer Meredith Willson (The Music Man, etc,), and Les was stationed in Hollywood, where his trio became the house band behind major entertainers such as Jack Benny, the Andrews Sisters, Dinah Shore, and Bing Crosby. During this period he also recorded a classic album called Jazz At The Philharmonic under the pseudonym Paul Leslie. The piano player on that album was Shorty Nadine, better know as Nat King Cole.
In 1946, Les recorded "It's Been A Long, Long Time" with Crosby, and the distinctive guitar work on that hit proved to be another big break. The superstar crooner was intrigued by Paul's recording experiments and urged him to build his own studio. Dissatisfied with existing equipment, Les decided to build a system better than anything then available. His recording lathe was fashioned from a Cadillac flywheel, and he began to develop techniques such as close miking, echo delay, and multiple tracking. The studio was built in his garage, and its quality attracted many artists who soon recorded there, including the Andrews Sisters, Pee Wee Hunt, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, and W.C. Fields (his only recordings). In 1948, Les released his first multiple recordings, "Lover" and "Brazil." Playing all the parts on both tunes, he achieved some very unusual effects, and the Les Paul sound -- still one of the most distinctive and easily recognizable -- was born.
The records were hits, but the bright promise of Les Paul's career was dimmed by the intervention of fate. On the way to a concert one winter evening, Les's car skidded off an icy bridge and dropped 50 feet into a snow bank. Eight hours later he was discovered with a broken nose, a broken collar bone, six broken ribs, a slit pelvis, cracked vertebrae, and his right arm and elbow shattered. One doctor, a Les Paul fan, dissuaded a colleague from amputating the arm (perhaps preventing one of legal history's hugest verdicts for compensatory damages). When Les was informed that, at best, his right arm would be partially functional but immobile, he requested that it be pieced back together and positioned in a manner that would allow him to play the guitar. Les spent almost a year and a half in a hospital with a cast on his arm. While recovering, he released a number of follow-up tunes previously recorded with everything but the lead parts. Undaunted by neither his inability to properly hold the guitar nor the fact that he had no right-hand movement except in his thumb, he laid his guitar flat and recorded the solo lines with a thumbpick. His biggest successes were yet to come.
In December, 1949, he married an attractive young vocalist working with Gene Autry named Colleen Summers and promptly changed her name to Mary Ford. That same year, he conceived and perfected the technique of sound-on-sound recording. With Les utilizing this revolutionary method to multi-track Mary's vocals and his many-layered instrumental parts, the couple was quickly elevated to international fame by a long string of hits that peaked in August, 1953, when "Vaya Con Dios" reached the number one position on the national charts and stayed there for nine weeks.
The couple toured extensively and performed on nationwide television as guest stars several times a week. They were among the first name stars to endorse a commercial product -- Rheingold Beer -- and they soon agreed to host a TV show of their own, Les Paul and Mary Ford at Home, a hit for seven years.
In 1950, the instrument manufacturing industry was immersed in controversy over the solidbody guitar. Some traditionalists reacted to it with vehement resistance, but the pragmatists and money men could not discount the success of Leo Fender. When Gibson developed its own entry, they naturally went to Les Paul for support, since they had long desired an official endorsement from him anyway and especially because of his pioneering work in building solidbodies. In 1952 -- the year in which Ampex marketed the world's first eight-track tape recorder, designed by Les Paul -- Gibson introduced the gold-top Les Paul Model guitar. An immediate success, the line was soon expanded with a deluxe version (the Les Paul Custom) and economy models (the Junior, TV, and Special). The Les Paul Model became the Les Paul Standard in 1960. In the latter part of the following year, Gibson replaced the design with a thinner guitar, a double-cutaway. Les and the company soon terminated their endorsement agreement, and the name of the new series was changed to SG. In 1968, a second generation of single-cutaway Gibson Les Pauls was unveiled, including the Deluxe, reissues of earlier models, and later, the low-impedance Les Pauls: Personal (1969), Professional (1969), Recording (1971), and the semi-acoustic Signature (1973).
Les and Mary were divorced in 1964, legally and professionally. Disappointed with the general state of the music industry, Les retired to his Mahwah, New Jersey, home to pursue his great love of inventing on a full-time basis. However, he did not isolate himself from the music business in his retirement, and he took great pains to keep abreast of industry developments and to stay in touch with musicians.
In 1970, Les was again the victim of a serious accident. A visiting friend playfully cuffed his ear and broke an eardrum. Three years of operations followed, involving serious difficulty with the inner ear. In early 1974, as he started to get around again, he got itchy to start playing. He cautiously allowed himself to be booked for a college concert in Elgin, Illinois, took one of his latest inventions -- the Les Paulverizer -- and knocked out the crowd. Since then he has appeared in a stream of concerts, club dates, and TV shows all over the country, and he took a brief tour of Europe. Les Paul is a hit all over again.
With still more inventions and recording projects in the works, Les, at age 61, is looking ahead. This interview was conducted at Les's home in Mahwah, and the setting could not have been more conducive, for the house is virtually a recording industry museum. All of his original recording equipment is intact, including the eight-track recorder, sound-on-sound gear, and Gibson amp. The Log is there, as is an experimental Epiphone he modified in the late '30s, most of the 22 gold records, and a wealth of innovative radio and recording equipment. Guitars are everywhere.
Are you getting many job offers these days?
There aren't enough days in a week to handle the requests. It blows my mind. Happy Days is a show of mine; I'm the musical director. There are several recording projects in mind. I'm involved in many, many things. Chet and I are going to do another album.
How did those sessions with Chet Atkins come about?
Well, he called me sometime in 1974, and he heard I was moving about again, and did I want to do an album? I said sure, and then about another year later he calls again and says he's about ready -- just as soon as he gets his chops together. Then another year later he calls and says, "I've definitely made up my mind, and I'm gonna do it." I say, "Okay, I'm ready if you are." So I went in and dug out the guitar.
How did you select the tunes and format?
Chet said, "What are we going to do?" I said, "I don't know -- book the band and studio." So he did -- for a week. Then we went to this greasy little restaurant to sit down and kick it over. At first Chet suggested that I play harmonica and guitar; he'd play violin and banjo, and the two of us would sing. So I asked Chet if he wasn't one of the most well-known guitar players in the world, and why the hell should we fool around and do things we can't really do? Let's just play guitar. Chet said, "Who's gonna buy it? Just a couple of squares are gonna buy it." Anyway, I said, "Let's put a mike between us in case either of us thinks of something to say and just start playing." And he says, "But Les, I don't wing it. I'm not one of those guys who make it up on the spot. I rehearse every part very tightly." I said, "Well, let's lay it down and see what happens." So we get to the studio for the rehearsal, and the mike is set up, and we're sitting there saying, "What are we gonna do?" So he's thinking country, and a couple suggestions were made, and finally I said, "Do you know 'Avalon'?" Chet says, "Yeah," and we start to fall into it. I said the line about did Chet know who Mel Bay was? He fell right into it. Best straight man I ever had. Chet said, "Yeah, he sells the guitar book." And I said, "Well, let's send for it." Then I said, "How about 'Caravan'?" and off we go. So anyway, we sit there and come up with this list, and after a few hours, it's over. So we go up stairs to take a little rest, and Chet says, "I've got the band and studio for the rest of the week," and I said, "Chet, we're all done. I got a plane reservation. I'm going to Newark in a couple of hours. Just use the rehearsal." And Chet says, "But what about all those clams?" "Leave them," I say. "People like clams. They like to know we're human."
And did you succeed in releasing that rehearsal?
Yeah, and of course it won the Grammy. You could have knocked me over. I don't know why they called it country, through. Hell, there wasn't a country cut on it. Anyway, Chet is so easy to work with. We really blended together. He's so rhythmically tight and colorful and distinctive that it leaves me wide open to tear off way out in the field somewhere and fly my kite. In show business, there are guys who can wing it, and you're talking to a winger. As far as I'm concerned, I don't want to see anything until I'm right there. You just move me over to where I'm supposed to be when it's time, and I'll take it from there.
How did all of this get started? How did you begin making music?
At nine years old something started to grow in me that became noticeable. I knew that there was something happening. I was walking down the street, and I saw this sewer digger on his lunch hour open up his lunch pail, dig out a harmonica, knock out the cracker crumbs, and play a bunch of tunes on it. I was fascinated by that harmonica, so I stared the guy out of it. I just stared at him. He said, "Here kid, take it. Get out of here." So now I'm playing the harmonica, and I go over to my friend's house, and he's winding this piece of wire around a cardboard toilet paper roll. He's making a crystal set. So he draws me out a plan to make one, and I go home and make one. The first thing I hear on it is a guitar. And then I'm hearing the Grand Ole Opry, and a guy named DeFord Bailey is blowing blues harmonica, and I figure it out: it's not blow, it's draw. That guy's got a C harmonica, and he's playing in G. I figure it out, and all of a sudden, I'm the king of Waukesha, and I'm playing in little places all over town for tips. So I'm coming home making $30-$35 a week, and my brother's working 50 hours a week driving a truck and making $18.
When did you begin playing the guitar?
I didn't get my own guitar until I was 11 or 12, but I'd already learned a couple of chords on my friend's father's guitar. When I got my first guitar from Sears Roebuck, it came with a capo and a book called the E-Z Method For Guitar. The nut was adjustable so that I could make it Spanish or lap steel. The problem was that it was too big -- I couldn't get my hands around the fingerboard.
How did you handle that?
I took the sixth string off. I just decided to leave it off until I grew enough to reach it. So I started out on five strings, and that's when I discovered that moving the bridge changed the intonation. I asked, "This is not in tune -- why not?" So I marked it with a pencil and moved it, and the intonation changed. That led to other discoveries like height and action, and it progressed from then on. I was into customizing right away.
When did you start investigating electronics?
It was just sort of a thing with me that the electronics and the music grew at the same time. I started taking microphones and phonograph pickups apart to see how they worked right away. I had to know what everything was.
Did anyone help you? Any teachers?
Just the library. I'm a real book man. If it's in a book, I can get it. I used to spend hours in the library. Still do.
How did you get the guitar and the electronics together?
Well, when you play outdoors, where at least half my jobs were, you can't be heard unless it's amplified. So immediately I go for a microphone, amplifier, and electric guitar.
How did you do that?
First with a phonograph needle. I took my mother's record player apart and jabbed the needle into the guitar, and it came out the speaker. I didn't realize it then, but I was also doing stereo back in the '20s. The reason for that was my own ignorance. The only way I could figure out how to get amplified was to use my mother's radio, and I could plug a mike into that, and it was fine for my voice and harmonica, but I couldn't figure out how to put another mike in there so that I could also amplify the guitar. Then I took my dad's radio and hooked it all together and put one radio on one side of the stage and one on the other. Instant stereo. I just kept studying electricity and eventually figured out how to make a magnet, how to wind a coil, and what induction and capacitance are. It was fun. I built my own recording machine when I was 12.
How was that accomplished?
My dad owned a garage and had a lathe, so we could make a lot of the parts. It worked on a gravity-feed principle: you'd wind up a weight with a crank, and the weight comes down like a grandfather clock. When it hits the bottom, that's the end, and you'd better be done singing and playing before it hits, because that's all you get. That was the only way to get consistent speed.
Were you getting any kind of guitar instruction at that time?
No, it was all on my own or what I could cop from someone else. When I was about 11, Gene Autry played my hometown. This was before they has a theater there, so when Gene came to town to promote one of his movies, they just picked a parking lot and showed the movie on the outside wall of a building. So I went down to see him, and he was singing his songs, like "Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine," and he was playing in the key of F. At that time I only knew about three chords, and F was not one of them, so I had written out a fingerboard diagram and had it with me so that I could put down what he was playing. I had a flashlight, and sat in the front row. Every time he'd play an F, the light would come on, and I'd put a dot down on the diagram and then turn off the light. If he wasn't playing F, the light wasn't on. So finally, after an evening of this, he said, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, I've got to stop here for a second, because there's something that's really bugging me." And he went and hit an F, and the light lit. And he says, "Why in the world does that light come on just when I hit an F chord?" So I confessed, and he called me up on stage and asked me to play my guitar and sing. I was the hit of the town.
What guitars did you acquire after that?
I got the Sears guitar in 1927 and went almost immediately to a Gibson L-5. I went to the Kalamazoo, Michigan, factory to pick out the one I wanted. I had the 1927 model for a little while and then went to a 1928 model; I still have the 1928 one. Gibson had a pretty good lock on the market then. I didn't even hear a D'Angelico until I came to New York in 1936. I had heard of Epiphone, of course, with George Van Eps and the others. I still have the real great-sounding Epiphone that I used in the late '30s. I've built a bunch of guitars and rebuilt other ones until you wouldn't know what they were, but the L-5 was the leader of the band until the Les Paul. I was friends with the Epiphone people right up until the time that they went broke. I walk in, and they say, "Anything you want, Les, take it. We've had it." Very sad, because they made a wonderful instrument, but they weren't as progressive or as consistent as Gibson.
Were you playing electric guitar in your early act with Joe Wolverton?
No, he'd had none of that. Strictly acoustic.
What was the progression of development of your solidbody guitars?
Early on, I figured out that when you've got the top vibrating and a string vibrating, you've got a conflict. One of them has got to stop, and it can't be the string, because that's making the sound. So in 1934, I asked the Larson Brothers -- the instrument makers in Chicago -- to build me a guitar with a 1/2" maple top and no f-holes. They thought I was crazy. They told me it wouldn't vibrate. I told them I didn't want it to vibrate, because I was going to put two pickups on it. As far as I know, I was the first guy to put two pickups on a guitar. Before that, they always had just one. A guy picked a spot and put it there not because of how it sounded but just where it looked best or where it was convenient to install. Anyway, the next step was in the late '30s, when I took an Epiphone and bolted a 3/8" steel bar across the top of the body on the inside. The pickup was completely immune to vibrations from the bridge and from the neck. It was suspended, so it didn't touch the bar or the guitar and was shock-mounted so that it would not move. It gave me the equivalent of a solidbody guitar. The sides of the body were for cosmetic purposes only.
When did the Log come about?
That was 1941. Epiphone gave me the use of their factory on Sundays. I could go down there and use their tools and work all day. That's where I built it. It was the next logical step. The Epiphone people would come in and shake their heads when they looked at it.
Did you use it a lot?
Oh yeah. I used it to put down the bass guitar lines on my records. I used it a lot when I was in California in the '40s. I was living in Hollywood, and everybody -- Leo Fender, Bigsby, all of them -- were in my back yard looking at that Log and the Epiphone with the steel bar. When I took it to Gibson around 1945 or 1946, they called it the broomstick with a pickup on it.
What guitars did you use before the Gibson Les Pauls?
I was using the one with the steel bar and the Log most of the time. I made my first multiple recording, "Lover," with an aluminum guitar that I built.
A guitar made out of aluminum?
Yeah, I made three or four of them. I've got one here. I had a few hits on that guitar -- "Caravan," "Brazil." I also did the recording session with W.C. Fields on that one. The problem with it didn't show up until I went out on stage. I was working with the Andrews Sisters at the Paramount on Broadway, and the guy got up there with two hot spotlights and hit the aluminum guitar, and it started to do all kinds of crazy things. The first thing I know, I'm saying, "Holy God, what's wrong with my ear?" So I tune it again, and I get it right, and then the guy pulls the spot over to one of the Andrews Sisters, and I start sinking into another key again. I says, "There goes my invention." Many of my hiding places around here are full of inventions I've tried that were stupid. But they weren't so stupid that I wouldn't try them. I thought at the time that they were all good.
Who were some players who influenced your style?
Eddie Lang. And there was a guy I used to hear on the radio who used a capo and a thumbpick; I don't know his name. He was one of the Three Keys. Django Reinhardt really knocked me out, of course. But that was later on. Back when I was starting to learn to play the guitar, there wasn't really anybody for me to look at. I'd hear some guys at the Opry, but they weren't doing a whole lot. I found a Chicago musicians' union book from 1929 not too long ago, and I think there were maybe six guitar players listed. That's how few there were. There were other guitar players that came along, but they didn't really influence me. Very few guitar players really connected with me. There weren't any electric players to speak of. I'm the one who went to the union and insisted that they make a separate category for electric guitar in the union book.
Were you playing electric guitar as Rhubarb Red on Chicago radio?
Oh yeah. I had my L-5 with a pickup on it and then that guitar with the 1/2" maple top, the one that the Larsons had built for me.
How were you meeting all of the jazz players?
That was easy, because Chicago was the fireball in the early '30s. All the great music was in Chicago. They either came to town, or they were already there. You never took a streetcar or bus to get to clubs. They were too close. You'd just take your guitar in your hand and walk from one club to another. Every theater in the neighborhood had vaudeville. We lived jamming. It was wonderful. I was playing jazz all night, so I would sleep in the lobby of the studio where we did the Rhubarb Red radio show. I needed every minute of sleep I could get. I worked out the concept that every minute of my life was valuable. So if I got the chance to play with Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge, I made the time, even if I didn't get much sleep.
When did you decide to go to New York?
In 1936. I thought -- it's time to move, it's time to take this and go into the big time of tomorrow, which at that time was either New York or Los Angeles. So we packed our car -- the Les Paul Trio -- and flipped a coin. Heads, New York; tails, L.A. It was heads. The guys said, "Well, what are we going to do when we get there?" I say, "Don't worry, because [bandleader] Paul Whiteman is a very good friend of mine." Now, I've never met the man, but here we are, on our way, driving like three fools. When we get to New York, we hit a cheap hotel with the bathroom down the hall, and Jim says, "Don't you think we ought to call up your dear buddy, Paul Whiteman?" So I look up his number and call the office, and the secretary wants to know who I am. I tell her Paul and I are old friends. She says, "Mr. Whiteman doesn't seem to remember you; what's this in regard to?" I told her that we had a trio, but she said, "Mr. Whiteman is very busy and doesn't have time to see you." I hung up.
Where did that leave you?
Well, the guys say, "What'd he say?" I tell them he says to come right over. We went to 53rd and Broadway and pressed the button and went up there. It says "Paul Whiteman" on the door, and it's a hot day, and I can see him in the back. There's a girl at the reception desk. I tell her I called a few minutes ago and that I'm Les Paul, and I've got my trio here, and I'm sure Mr. Whiteman is anxious to hear us. Whiteman gets up and slams the door. The guys are not too happy with me, and we're standing in the hallway when Fred Waring starts to go into Whiteman's office. So I said, "Aren't you Fred Waring? We'd sure like to play something for you." He says, " I've got 62 Pennsylvanians now, and I can't feed them." So I says, "You've got nothing to lose. The elevators are all down on the ground floor -- can we play until the elevator gets here?" So we whipped out our guitars and started playing, and the faster the elevator came up, the faster we played. He cracked up and said, "Put that stuff in the elevator." We did and went one floor down to his office, and we went into the rehearsal hall where all the Pennsylvanians were. And he says, "Men, I just had the damnedest thing happen to me, and if you like this trio as much as I do, I'm going to hire them." We went to work that day.
How did that affect your career?
That put us on the air coast to coast, and I received more letters than Waring, telling me to stop playing that electric guitar. We used to do two shows a night, one at seven, one at eleven. One for each coast because of the time difference. So one time, I did the show using the acoustic for one show and the electric for the other. We recorded them and listened to them and took a vote among the trio and Fred, and it was unanimous to stay with the electric. So I says, "That's it."
Was Gibson building pickups for you at that time?
No, they never built them for me, and I wouldn't tell them what I was doing. They were on their knees begging me to tell them how I could run all this cable and how I could do this and that. I finally told them in 1967 after I had retired. I always built my own pickups or altered the ones they gave me.
And what was the secret?
Something that should have been pretty obvious: low-impedance pickups. Unfortunately, we started in the music industry with high impedance and locked ourselves in and for some reason haven't turned ourselves around. I figured out very early through my study of electronics that low impedance was the way to go. I figured that if the telephone company used it, that's the way to go. If you walked into a professional recording studio and someone handed you a high-impedance mike, you'd think he was nuts.
Why are low-impedance pickups superior?
Well, first of all, if you're in the club, you don't pick up the sound of the cash register or the neon lights, and you can run as much cord as you want. With high-impedance, every foot of chord adds capacitance and knocks down the high frequencies, the treble. So what does the guy do? He says -- give me another amp, or give me another guitar, or whatever -- when he should be worried about the length of the cable or his pickup.
So how did high-impedance pickups become the industry standard?
They're cheaper. With high-impedance you wind the coil and go directly into the tube or transistor. With low-impedance you need a transformer to transform the energy from low to high at the amplifier.
When did you first start getting interested in multiple recordings?
That actually goes all the way back to 1927, which was the year my mother got her player piano. She didn't like to pump the thing, so she made me do it. As I pumped the piano and watched the keys go down, I could tell what was happening. Then it was a question of what wasn't being played. There was a lot of paper left over, so I started punching holes in it. If it was a wrong note, I'd just cover the hole with a piece of flypaper. My mother comes home to listen to her piano, and all hell breaks loose. There was always a long leader, so I cooked up some hot intros. So the first time I started adding parts to songs was on a piano roll.
When did you start doing disc-to-disc multiples?
That was around 1946, when I built the studio in my garage in Hollywood. I built the two recording lathes out of Cadillac flywheels -- cost a lot less that way, and they worked better than anything else that was around then. I had seven number one hits with disc multiples: "Lover," "Nola," "Goofus," "Little Rock Getaway," and some others -- they were all recorded on disc -- no tape. You'd get two machines going, record on one, play that back, then play and sing along with it, recording on the other. And you just keep doing that, back and forth. "Lover" had some 24 parts on it. And you'd better not make a mistake, because if you do, it's back to number one.
What were disc recording's advantages over tape?
Tape was what you call modulation distortion, which is inherent in the tape, and this is one of the things they're still fighting with tape. You didn't have that kind of distortion with disc. But every dog has its day; the disc had its drawbacks. As you go to the inside of the record, you would lose highs. I got around that by recording at 78 rpm on the outside of a 17" disc. That gave me a lot of room, and I was burnin' up those discs. That's why the quality was so great. I was going at 78, with EQ of 33 1/3, so when my records came out, they were hotter than a skunk.
When did you start doing sound-on-sound with tape?
That was about 1949, I never told Ampex what I was doing. I just asked them for a fourth head, and they just drilled a hole and put it there. They had no idea about what I was doing, and I didn't tell them until five years later. "How High The Moon" was our first big hit on tape. Eight-track came in 1952. I just went to Ampex with the idea and handed it to them. I never did patent it. They built it for me, but it took them four years to get it right. I've still got it here, and it's the best machine in this place. My modern machines have one tough time trying to keep up with the old one. The original board is here too, and it also surpasses anything around.
In what way?
It's because everybody wants things small. They want them transistorized -- everything on a little chip. Don't get me wrong -- we work with the chip. We're heavily into research work, and I don't want to sound like a stubborn old-timer, but the tube will outperform the transistor or chip. The chip might cost 29 cents or what ever, and it draws very little current, and it doesn't dissipate nearly as much heat, and it's lightweight and compact, etc., etc., but the old-timer is still the most consistent. The change to solid-state is inevitable though, because price forces you to compete, and maybe they'll come up with something better in the end.
How do you record your guitar?
I've gone directly into my amp and into my mixer since 1934.
How do you feel about modern recording techniques?
Much more complicated than they need to be. One of the first things I learned in the multiple-track business is that this machine can run away from you -- it can run you, instead of you running the machine. I learned that the machine can be a bitter enemy, because he will do anything you tell him to, and you better be careful. Another thing -- just because there's a track open doesn't mean you have to put something on there. When I made "My Baby's Coming Home," the guy at Capitol called me up and said, "We didn't get the complete record -- there's only one voice and one guitar on it." And I say, "That's it. That's the whole thing." And he said, "How can you do that, when the last one had about 28 voices and a million guitars on it?" I says, "Well, that's all it needs. If it only needs one, what do you want to put down 28 for?" What you have now is guys going into the studio and laying the parts down and searching for something. They really don't know what it's going to sound like when it's done. Some may have an idea, but damn few.
How did you do it?
The way I do it and have always done it is like this: I don't touch the machine until I'm sure of the whole arrangement. Then I go to the machine, and in 15 minutes, I'm done. I learned to do it like that working with sound-on-sound. You better know what the end is before you start, because you can screw yourself up in a hurry.
What is the Les Paulverizer?
It's a remote control box for a tape recorder, and it's mounted right in the guitar. Let me back up and tell you where the idea started. Making the multiple recordings -- first disc and then on tape -- and doing the echo delay and sped-up sounds, it rapidly dawned on me that people would want to hear a sound like the records when performed live. You walk out there with just one voice and one guitar, and you've got a problem. If they yell out, "How High The Moon," you've got to give them something close as possible. So I came up with the bright idea of taking Mary's sister and hiding her offstage in a john or up in an attic -- wherever -- with a long microphone. Whatever Mary did onstage, she did offstage. If Marry sniffled, she sniffled. It just stopped everyone dead. People couldn't believe it or figure it out. There was no tape then, so when this came around, it was highly different and shocking. One night I hear the mayor of Buffalo sitting in the front row tell his wife, "Oh, it's simple. It's radar." So a couple years after playing with the extra voice and an orchestra and everything, they began to think that they heard all kinds of things. They put things in there that weren't there. But I felt the real solution was to make it sound just like the record, as close as possible, and eventually I came up with the idea of the remote tape control unit, and I built the first box. I used it for the very first time in a performance for President Eisenhower.
Did you modify the equipment after that?
Yes, as time went on it got more sophisticated, more condensed. When I came out of retirement, I looked around and found that all that equipment weighed 1,100 lbs. So I told my engineers that I wanted it down to 120 lbs, and they said it couldn't be done. I said it could be done, and it would be done, and it was. And it does much more than it ever did before. Now when we go out on a job, we throw it in the back seat of the car or under the seat of a plane, and we're gone. It takes us maybe 15 minutes to set up. And you look at the other guys -- five 18-wheelers pulling up with all their gear.
And all signals come out of one line?
All out of one line. I have my microphone mounted right on the guitar, and it comes out of the same line as the Paulverizer. Some of the stuff is so simple. I believe simplicity is the greatest, but it's the toughest thing to get sometimes. They'll make it complicated, the public will. The mayor says. "It's radar." You know who figured out the trick with Mary's sister? Nobody could figure it out. Life Magazine couldn't. We wouldn't tell anybody; it was a secret for years. Then one night, a man came backstage with his little girl and says, "If I tell you how you're getting that sound, will you give me a yes or no?" I said, "Sure" and the little girl says, "Where's the other lady?" It took a little kid who didn't have a complicated mind. Everybody saw machines, turntables, radar -- everything but the simplest thing.
When you came out of retirement, was it difficult for you to get your chops back?
I was desperate, but still I didn't scramble. I guess I just leaned more on what was in mind than what was in my chops. I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one, and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes. With 20 notes -- he's got a lot of problems. My chops were not as fast as when I was a kid; things that were done a certain way before were harder to do when I came out of retirement. But then the speed came back. Chops come back, and you don't worry about them. I think the most important thing about playing is to walk out with confidence and look the people right in the eye and say, "Here I am," and go and do your thing. As soon as they know you're confident, they're confident. As long as you adjust to them, you're not in trouble. You should eyeball them and find out what they want and give it to them. They didn't pay to come and look at the tapestries.
Do you like any of the currently popular guitarists?
Oh, sure. There are a lot of them I like for certain things. It seems to me that there's a number of guys that got a lot of things going for them, and I can understand what they're doing. And I can't say that any of them seems to have a corner on the market, I think everyone would agree: there is no one guy shinning, no one guy who is king above all. But one of the problems with the new crop on the horizon is they've got their razor-clean playing, but it's like a clock. It's about as musical as a metronome. It's easy to play like a machine, and when a guy gets to playing like a machine, it's frightening. You've lost all the feeling in it. We can appreciate how hard he practiced and studied and probably skipped playing basketball and going with girls, but I still feel that in many cases, what is lacking is that the guy is not saying anything. And that's what music is all about. He can pick clean, but the music is expressionless.
Do you go out to concerts much?
Oh sure, I keep up, but it's getting harder to do. Right now, as far as I'm concerned, the music industry has a big void in it. Everybody's searching for a change. I think Roberta Flack is looking for it; I think Bette Midler is looking for it; I think the Rolling Stones are looking for it. Somebody's got to come along. In 1948, the door was open, and there was a hole sitting there, and I came along with the idea of the Les Paul sound. It was wide open for me to come in and clean up and sell millions of records, because there was nobody in the bag.
Which Les Paul guitar is your favorite model?
I would have to say the Recording. It's an excellent box, although the guy playing with a rock group who wants to drive the daylights out of a Marshall may want to use a regular Les Paul, because he can get more power out of it. The Recording has low-impedance pickups, and I feel it strikes the best balance of any guitar ever made.
Which model are you playing now?
I'm playing one of the low-impedance prototypes. It's got the same body size and shape but doesn't have an arched top. It also has my own pickups on it and a steel bar running through it. All my guitars have that steel bar. Improves sustain.
How long will you continue your career?
That's one thing I get asked all the time on the stage: "How long are you going to keep playing?" And I say, "Until someone tells me not to." The day that I recognize the fact that I'm not needed or that I can't make someone happy, then I'm not going to play."
Saturday, January 10, 2009
From: John Bernays [mailto:email@example.com]
- Hide quoted text -Sent: Monday, October 22, 2007 5:51 AM
To: Lee Rodgers
Subject: Re: Grew up in Benton & Hot Springs, AR- Played Lead Guitar
with "ROCK ROBBINS" KAAY 1966
KTHS used to be in the ARLINGTON HOTEL! I played as well with THE
SALINE COUNTY HAWAIIAN STEEL band, Mr. Comstock, at the Benton Pawn
Shop. Tommy Clinton, a Former Mandolin & Guitar player with the Texas
Playboys, was very much a INFLUENCE on my style.
My FATHER was born in Muskogee, oklahoma, same town as BARNEY KESSEL
Johnny Bernay (1932-2003) was born on October 7th, 1932 Muskogee,
Oklahoma,As a School Boy with Barney Kessel, My Father was an
Accomplished Jazz and Boogey-Woogey Piano Player, and a capable
Guitarist. Unfortunately, while in Los Angeles, he caught the dread
"Valley Fever" which caused my Grandmother, Nedra E. Bernay, to Rush
him home to Muskogee, where he was Fever-Ridden & Bed Fast over a
Year. His Life was Ruined after that, and he Died in Prison, on Death
Row, McAllister State Prison, on December 11th. 2003. I Learned to
Love Jazz from My Father, but Inherited the Brain Fever, and was BED
RIDDEN for a Year in 1955-56.
Barney Kessel (1923-2004) was born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee,
Oklahoma. By age 16, as a high school student, he was emulating
Charlie Christian, playing his electric guitar with local blues bands
and with the University of Oklahoma Dance Band.
In 1942 Barney Kessel made his way to Los Angeles and quickly
established himself as a professional musician and a guitarist to be
reckoned with. His first important job was with Chico Marx. He spent a
year on the road with the Marx band and when he returned to Los
Angeles he began pursuing a career in which he combined studio, radio
and club work. During this time he was heard on recordings that
featured Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge and Artie Shaw along with a
string of radio appearances. It was also during this period that
Barney Kessel appeared in the movie Jammin' The Blues.
On 10/22/07, Lee Rodgers <LeeRodgers@abc-sf.com> wrote:
> I worked on KAAY when it was KTHS...also worked on its sister TV station,
> KTHV, Channel 11. Also well know the sound of the Johnny-pop, the
> two-cylinder John Deere.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: John Bernays [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
> Sent: Monday, October 22, 2007 5:34 AM
> To: email@example.com
> Subject: Grew up in Benton & Hot Springs, AR- Played Lead Guitar with
> "ROCK ROBBINS" KAAY 1966
> I listen to you-all most every morning, a old Farm Boy, (Dairy Farm!)
> I get up with the Chicken's after all these years! (I was born after
> WW2, learned to drive in a "Poppin' Johnny" & a 1949 Plymouth, Amateur
> Radio Operator since 1958 (KD5MPM) and Used To Join in the 3830 KCs
> "Art Bell" Ham Gang Bang, but got Shunned after a while.
> I bet you remember Rock Robbins! I was 16 years old, had a New Gibson
> ES-330-TD Guitar with a Bigsby Vibrato, & I won "Battle of the Bands"
> beating out Robbin's Band's Guitarist, so he Hired me On The Spot.
> Here is what Charlie told us about Stax: "It was me and "Rock Robbins"
> of KAAY Little Rock who are credited for Jeanne & The Darlings
> '"What's Gonna Happen To Me". Rock Robbins' real name was Tom Riggs
> or Tommy sometimes. He also worked as a radio DJ as Tom Payton, hence
> the usage on the record label. Tom and I had an agreement such as
> Lennon and McCartney... we shared credits even though one or the other
> created that particular song. He totally wrote that one. My
> participation was because of our sharing. Memory fuzzy about session
> date. Only learnt of it happening at a later time. Neither one of us
> was present, as per recollection. Perhaps mid or late summer of 67.
> Song was never specifically written for any artist that I know of. Tom
> had that one in mind when I met him in early '60's... Tom, being
> around North Little Rock for his teen years and sporadically
> thereafter, could have met Jeanne & The Darlings anytime during mid
> 60's... I really don't know. Most likely while working at KAAY as
> "Rock Robbins" in 66 or so. Neither one of us was present during the
> session. Tommy Riggs died in July 2000.
> Tommy Riggs (Tom Payton) is an Arkansan singer, piano and keyboard
> player who had several bands while performing around the state in the
> 1960s and 1970s. He also was working as a radio DJ (as Tom Jones) at
> the time, on KCLA, during 1968 through 69 &As Tom Payton on KXLR in
> North Little Rock in 1964, and in 1966 at KAAY]]. During this period,
> he promoted himself as Tom Payton and the Kingpins, Tom Payton with
> The Playboys, and several other names. He recorded while he was Rock
> Robbins from KAAY on the Little Rock label "MY Records" in 1966. Two
> songs from the session were released on a 45 rpm record, "My Little
> Girl" and "Good Lovin'"... The other songs and all tape masters are in
> private hands. Promoting himself as Tommy Riggs, he performed around
> the country From St. Louis to Las Vegas before settling down in
> Nashville, Tennessee and frequently playing at the Stockyards Lounge.
> The multi platinum selling Alternative Rock band Evanescence has its
> origins in Little Rock.
BARNEY KESSEL (1923 - 2004)
Legendary musician, guitarist, influential jazz artist, composer, arranger, session player and record producer. A tribute by Harvey Kubernik.
Pioneer of be-bop guitar, one of the leading figures in West Coast jazz, later delving into hard bop, Barney Kessel is now generally considered by fans, critics and fellow musicians around the world to be arguably the greatest guitarist of all time.
Barney Kessel was born October 17, 1923 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA. He died May 6 from brain cancer, first diagnosed in November of 2001 after having suffered a stroke in May of 1992. He lived in San Diego, California with his wife, Phyllis, who accompanied him on US and international tours and awards ceremonies and tended to him devotedly after his stroke.
Barney first picked up the guitar at age 12, left home and started playing professionally at age 14 and soon after moved to the Central Avenue jazz district of Los Angeles, California. From the 1950s through the '70s Kessel lived in various areas of greater Los Angeles, including Van Nuys, Glendale and West Hollywood. Throughout the decades, he toured the world extensively and lived in London, England for several years in the late 1960s and early '70s.
Kessel appeared in the 1944 Academy Award nominated Warner Brothers short feature, 'Jammin' The Blues'. He was the only white musician in an otherwise all-black band that included one of his two heroes, tenor sax guru Lester 'Pres' (the President) Young. (Kessel's other hero was electric guitar pioneer, Charlie Christian.) Barney told of how Lester Young was the guy who (among other more substantial contributions) first coined the slang expression "cool" back in the 1930s. But Jack Warner was concerned about losing money in the South from likely boycotting because of Kessel's presence with the other black musicians, so he had the cameraman shoot Kessel from a distance and in the shadows. When that didn't work Warner told his makeup department to darken Kessel's face and hands. Barney ended up darker than Lester Young, a light skinned Negro, so Barney joked that they'd better apply dark makeup to Lester too.
Kessel placed #1 Guitarist during the late 1950s and early '60s in all top music polls including Playboy, Downbeat, Metronome and Esquire, and rated #1 again during the early '70s in top UK music polls including Melody Maker, etc. Critics agree that Kessel - who bridged swing and be-bop, and combined a nearly inhuman technique with an almost other-worldly inspiration - ultimately reached the same creative and performance level as such other giants as Charlie Parker on sax, Art Tatum on piano and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet.
Kessel, as front man and/or featured artist, recorded over 60 albums, including 'To Swing Or Not To Swing', the 'Poll Winners' series, 'Barney Plays Kessel', the 'Great Guitars' series, 'On Fire' and 'Spontaneous Combustion'. Whether in the US, Europe or Asia, he recorded for numerous labels including RCA, Polydor, Concord, Emerald, Phil Spector International, and Reprise. However, most of his recordings were with Lester Koenig, producer/owner of Contemporary Records, including early 10" releases and some red, blue and green vinyl LPs, which have all been re-released on CD. He's also featured in his own live performance videos and instructional videos. Additionally, Kessel is a credited ensemble player on hundreds of records as well as a session player on thousands of pop and rock hit records, including singles and albums.
After learning jazz on the street, Kessel studied classical guitar, piano, orchestration and film scoring. His work in Hollywood as an arranger and musician includes radio, hundreds of films and TV shows and major commercials.
In 1940 when Kessel was 16, his idol, legendary electric guitar pioneer and fellow Oklahoman, Charlie Christian, had also heard of Barney. Christian, while on a break from touring with Benny Goodman, went to see Barney play in Oklahoma City where they ended up jamming together for three days, straight. Christian kept his marijuana stuffed inside a mattress, Kessel once revealed. Charlie was very impressed with young Barney and told him he'd put in a good word for him with Benny Goodman. Kessel later joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Barney and another fellow Oklahoman, vocalist Kay Starr, both auditioned for the Charlie Barnet band on the same day. Kessel chose to audition with the song 'Cherokee', a previous hit record for Barnet and a relatively difficult song with a harmonically complex bridge. He got the job. So did she.
Kessel played and recorded with big bands fronted by Chico Marx, of the Marx Brothers (1943), Charlie Barnet (early '40s-1947), Benny Goodman (1947, 1958) and Artie Shaw (1945). He recorded with Shaw in his Gramercy Five. Vocalist and fill-in drummer Mel Torme roomed with Barney on the road in Chico's band, which was actually led by Ben Pollack, who earlier in his own band had given Glenn Miller and Goodman their first big breaks.
Charlie 'Bird' Parker asked Kessel to join his group in '46 and they recorded together in '47 including 'Birdland Suite' and 'Relaxing At Camarillo'. When Kessel and Parker first jammed together on the West Coast, Bird was so knocked out he carried the guitarist's amp for him through the parking lot straight to Kessel's car while raving about his guitar playing. Soon after, he called Kessel to record with him.
Kessel's son Dan shares, "I took Betty (singer, B.J. Baker) to see one of our favorites, Anita O'Day, in Hollywood in the early '70s. Betty and I always grooved to Ms. O'Day's hip, sexy way with a lyric and melody, going back to the early Gene Krupa stuff with Roy Eldridge. When I spoke with Anita after the gig she told me, 'I remember first seeing Barney, in the '40s, standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, in his cowboy boots, sun glasses and hipster threads, holding his guitar case… man, you just knew that cat could wail!'"
During 1952 and '53, Kessel was the original guitarist in the scorching Oscar Peterson Trio with pianist, Peterson and bassist, Ray Brown. Barney later teamed up with Brown and drummer Shelly Manne for the universally acclaimed 'Poll Winners' series of recordings on the Contemporary label.
Kessel toured in the early 1950s with many top jazz artists including Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young, as part of the legendary 'Jazz At The Philharmonic' series, which producer Norman Granz recorded live at concert halls in the US and Europe.
Kessel was consistently innovative. He was the first to achieve the effect of an orchestra with his guitar. As the arranger/music supervisor and guitarist on Julie London's 1955 smash hit 'Cry Me A River' (Liberty Records) he helped re-ignite the 'torch singer' genre in modern jazz and established its mood, paving the way for the craze that followed. And with just his guitar and string bass accompaniment, he broke new ground with his ability to convey full orchestral colorations. Kessel originated the concept of the guitar as lead voice in a powerhouse instrumental jazz trio with bass and drums, as a departure to various piano-fronted formats which had been standard practice. Another milestone in modern jazz was Kessel's innovation of incorporating flute and oboe in arrangements on a jazz recording.
For years he toured globally and recorded with the influential Great Guitars trio, with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd. A short list of other jazz giants Kessel performed and recorded with includes Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Sarah Vaughan, Art Tatum, Anita O'Day, Benny Carter, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, Hampton Hawes, Stephane Grappelli, Elvin Jones, and Bobby Hutcherson.
An equally short list of popular vocalists Kessel backed on stage and recordings includes Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Bobby Darin, Barbra Streisand, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley.
Kessel's guitar artistry can be heard in the Orson Welles film noir masterpiece 'A Touch Of Evil' and Billy Wilder's comedy classic with Marilyn Monroe, 'Some Like It Hot'. He pre-recorded the guitar for actor John Saxon in 'Rock, Pretty Baby' and performed David ('Laura') Raksin's jazz score for director John Cassevetes in 'Too Late Blues' with Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens. Kessel is seen in a cameo opposite '(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66' composer Bobby Troupe in an episode of the original 'Perry Mason' TV series, to cite but a few of his endless film and TV credits.
I conducted an interview with Steve Howe, the guitarist in Yes, in October 2003 when I informed him that Kessel was critically ill. Howe has always cited Barney Kessel as a primary influence on his own guitar style: "Barney Kessel was the first American jazz guitarist I ever related to. I started playing when I was 12 in 1959 and I reckon about two years after that I was aware of Barney Kessel. I guess the Kessel album that was most important to me and still is, is 'The Poll Winners' with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. 'Volume 1', a blue cover, on the Contemporary label. I bought it and most of Barney's albums in London at Dobell's, the famous jazz shop. It was archetypal, real jazz. I bought all the LP's he made when he was the leader. I also liked him in support roles. I have the whole collection of 'The Poll Winners'. One of the things I liked about Barney was his sound. Compared to other players, he had a very earthy, organic quality to his sound. And his playing was a remarkable mixture of 'single line' and 'chords', ya know, which inspired me to believe that any guitarist who doesn't understand chords won't be able to play much in the single line because they relate so much. Barney had his own great, highly individual approach to jazz guitar. The way he combined the chords and that single line. It was a perfect balance, really.
"And there was something mysterious about his equipment. In England, we could recognize L5s or 400s but we weren't sure if he was playing an L7C, or what. Nobody really knew what that guitar was for a while. We knew it was some sort of Gibson. They weren't heavily clarified in catalogues nor readily available in England in the '60s. That's when the L7 was less than popular, ya know? But he had that characteristic big guitar. I mean, I obviously went on to play a rock 'n' roll 175. I got it in 1964 and bought a new one in 1975. That was styled after Kessel, who I had seen a few times on television, and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery and other guitarists who also used a 175, the most gorgeous guitar. As I went around, people said, 'Wow, you play that guitar?' Because it wasn't considered a rock guitar in any shape or form. So it was kind of a breakthrough and it did help me because the sound of a full body is so different from the solids, the slim lines that people were playing. And everybody asked me, 'Why didn't it feed back?' Because I used a volume pedal and I stood a certain distance from my amp and didn't use too much bass from my amp, I guess. I got 'round that problem but I certainly wasn't directly emulating Barney Kessel but I was thinking I would not remove myself from that line of fire, because I wanted to be influenced by jazz.
"I read Barney's column, a few times, in 'Guitar Player Magazine'. There obviously was a whole line of fine guitarists he inspired, or that had been touched by him. That stuff Barney did with Julie London like 'Cry Me A River' which starts with his guitar, is amazing. One important thing to me is that Barney Kessel is the first guitarist I ever saw who said 'You need eight guitars to be a session guitarist'. I only had about four at the time. And when I saw his 'eight guitars' quote I kinda read what he meant. Like having a 12-string. Barney put something very influential in my head about the multi-guitar idea when he mentioned eight guitars including 12-string and mandolin. That well-rounded idea that obviously affected me when I went into doing 'Monster Guitars' goes back to Barney Kessel.
"And Barney played that tune, 'A Tribute To Charlie Christian', on his 'Easy, Like' album. That was one of his things I learned. The fact is I've always mentioned Barney Kessel as the first player I ever got into, Barney and Django Reinhardt. And then of course my mind became more distracted from Barney but he never really went away. He was still there. A straight ahead guy with an organic edge to his sound."
In late November 2003, I met guitarist/composer, and former Wings member, Laurence Juber for a meal, and he too had been hit hard by his youthful exposure to Barney Kessel. "In the early '70s I was a music student at London University and soaking up as much guitar as I could find. I first heard Barney Kessel on a duo album with violinist Stephane Grappelli and fell in love with his bluesy, swinging style. Whenever he was performing at Ronnie Scott's club, I would arrive at 9:30 pm, when they opened, and get in for £2 with my student union card. As the first one in, I would grab the best table by the stage and sit there nursing a carafe of wine and a pack of Marlboros until the club closed at around 3, absorbing every nuance of his playing. Then I'd go home and practice until dawn! I saw other monster guitarists perform there. But Barney could SWING harder than anyone. Years later, I learned about his studio and production credits and realized that what I'd experienced as a student was only a part of the man's prodigious musical talents."
"Kessel is as lyrical a guitarist as we have in jazz… a rhythmic natural who can out swing any man in the house." - Jazz Critic, Leonard Feather.
"Kessel is a player who is never just standing still at one level." - Guitarist, Wes Montgomery.
"One of the most extraordinarily consistent and emotionally huge musical improvisers of our era." - Writer, Nat Hentoff.
"Barney Kessel is a unique guitarist. He swings like every member of the rhythm section wishes he could. He is a true artist." - Musician/composer/conductor, Andre Previn.
"I'd listen to Barney Kessel records and my jaw would drop. I was awe-struck by the nature of his ad-libs. I followed Barney Kessel's musical stories like a kid following a fairy tale." - Guitarist, B.B. King.
"Kessel is #1. His style of guitar is copied so much, but never equalled. Barney Kessel is the greatest guitarist in the universe!" - Producer, Phil Spector.
"Barney Kessel is incredible. He's just amazing. I mean it's crazy. Nobody can play guitar like that. What else can you say?" - Guitarist, John Lennon.
"Barney is the greatest." - Drummer, Hal Blaine.
"When I was on the road with Bob Wills, the Texas Playboys and Tommy and Glynn Duncan, often times Barney would come to the country dance halls to visit. His very presence inspired us to play better." - Guitarist, Jimmy Wyble.
"Barney Kessel was a very special man, a good man and a great, great legendary talent." - Bassist, Carol Kaye.
"Kessel is transcendental in his artistry." - Composer, Henry Mancini.
"Barney Kessel is the Sir Laurence Olivier of the guitar." - Actor, Mickey Rooney.
"Barney Kessel is definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world." - Guitarist, George Harrison.
"Barney Kessel nailed me to the cross, twelve ways to Sunday." - Pianist, Oscar Peterson.
"Those who have heard my music can sense that I learned a lot from Barney." - Guitarist, Tal Farlow.
"Barney Kessel has become the American jazz icon. He reached the same status as Louis Armstrong." - Guitarist, Mundell Lowe.
Toulouse Engelhardt, a well respected, world-class finger-style master guitarist for over a third of a century - the 'Segovia of Surf', who now resides in Laguna Beach, California - as a youth took some guitar lessons from Wes Montgomery and Larry Carlton. He often saw Kessel play around Hollywood in the late '60s and early '70s, the last time being a 1972 Kessel gig at the famed Shelly's Manne-Hole venue. Engelhardt recently told me during a recording session in the summer of 2003, "People came to watch Barney's hands. Every guitarist in town for decades went to check him out. When I opened some dates for the Byrds in 1975 when Clarence White was with them; backstage, bluegrass cats, pickers, and the 'jazz dudes' would discuss Kessel's playing, especially his solo albums and trio work. Surfers always had his records and would pull them out at beach parties. We always dug he was a 'West Coast Guy'.
"At his shows… it seemed like a well choreographed finger ballet in 6/8 time… Until I saw his thumb gliding across the front and back of his '46 Gibson… the other fingers danced in well choreographed impossible contortions… all this moving in a whirlwind of continuous juxtaposition… A technical virtuosity equalled by none.
Sadly, Barney Kessel was not in Ken Burns' "JAZZ" documentary.
Kessel played guitar on over half a dozen albums with Elvis including the hit singles 'Return To Sender' and 'Can't Help Falling In Love With You'.
Some other early rock 'n' roll hits that Barney played on include 'Rockin' Robin' and 'Over And Over' with Bobby Day; a slew of Leiber and Stoller sessions with the Coasters including 'Searchin'', 'Young Blood', 'Down In Mexico' and 'Smokey Joe's Café', and 'Bongo Rock' with Preston Epps.
During his stint at Verve as a record executive, not only did Kessel produce and play on records with such sophisticated artists as Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, he helped engineer the child star as TV attraction into rock 'n' roll star on the national hit parade, setting the table for numerous TV kids (Annette, Shelly Fabares, Britney Spears, Hillary Duff, etc.) to cut records. Naturally, Barney Kessel's name was not mentioned in the VH-1 movie on Ricky Nelson. At least Kessel's contributions were noted in author Joel Selvin's Nelson biography on which the film was based.
Kessel was head of A&R for Verve Records in Beverly Hills 1956-1960. Verve President, Norman Granz, asked Barney to find some "rock 'n' roll product" because his distributors were asking for it when Elvis Presley hit. Barney, years earlier, had played in a band with Ozzie Nelson. He saw Ricky on 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet' one evening when Ricky was playing drums on the show. Barney called Ozzie, and put Ricky Nelson's recording deal together. He suggested they have the kid out front and put a guitar in his hand. Kessel then set about producing Ricky's first three major hits when Nelson was still 16.
The initial release in April 1957 ended up being a double A-side. The first A-side, 'I'm Walkin'' was written by Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew and was originally a hit for Fats on Imperial Records. Barney recorded it against the protests of Ricky's father/manager Ozzie Nelson and Verve Records owner, Norman Granz, who thought Ricky shouldn't a cover a recent hit. But Kessel had already determined that Ricky gave his best performance on it and Kessel liked the combination of Ricky with the R&B/Rock 'n' Roll/Fats Domino inspired sound. He decided not only would they record it but also it would be Ricky's debut release. Barney wrote the arrangements, assembled the musicians including himself on guitar and produced all the sessions. It went to #4.
After 'I'm Walkin'' peaked, the radio stations flipped it over and the B-side 'A Teenager's Romance' hit #2 on the charts. Kessel penned (along with Jack Marshall) 'You're My One And Only Love' for Ricky's next A-side release. He produced, arranged and played guitar, again. The song zoomed up the charts to hit #4. In an innovative move (and setting an example for protégé, Phil Spector), Kessel wrote the instrumental B-side 'Honey Rock' in ten seconds and recorded it in one take. It was Barney and the boys laying down a solid riff and jamming, with a chick cooing, "Oh, Honey"!
David Kessel, (who along with brother Dan produced the Ramones, Blondie and the Ventures with Go-Gos Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin; and recorded with John Lennon, Cher, Leonard Cohen and Celine Dion, among others), grooved on a 1976 incident one night in Hollywood at Diamond Jim's Restaurant where he was seated next to Rick Nelson and then-wife Kris Harmon who were in a tense discussion. Just before the ribs arrived, David felt he had to introduce himself to Nelson, "Excuse me, I'm David Kessel. My father is Barney. I just wanted to say hello and let you know that my father had something to do with your recording career." Nelson jumped to his feet, and stuck out his hand, saying, "He sure did!"
Dan Kessel vividly recalls some of the many Kessel family dinner guests throughout the 1950s and into the '70s when Barney wasn't touring. "We would have really wonderful guests over to visit, such as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Oscar Peterson, Audrey Hepburn, Spade Cooley, Tom Neal, Lawrence Tierney, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Wyble, Norman Granz, Fred Astaire, George Harrison, Pearl Bailey, Ray Brown, Jayne Mansfield, Dizzy Gillespie, Mickey Rooney, Herb Ellis, Flip Phillips, Steve McQueen, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Nick Adams, Colonel Tom Parker and Hedy Lamarr. Also, Christmas cards were exchanged with the above and Duane Eddy, James Burton, Jimmy Dodd and Elvis, among others."
David Kessel also mentioned a family outing as Frank Sinatra's guests, in Palm Springs when Sinatra greeted them all at a restaurant. Frank in full animation sprang up from his company and in formal wear, welcomed the foursome, "Betty, Barney, boys. Enjoy your meal." He sat down and visited for over ten minutes till some of his guys brought him back to their table. Barney performed with Sinatra often, at his special request. Betty (B.J. Baker), a legendary Hollywood background singer and vocal contractor for records, films and TV, had sung on numerous Sinatra records including 'That's Life'. She's also heard on many Elvis Presley hits including 'If I Can Dream' and tons of hit records by Lloyd Price, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson and countless others. Even though she was a jazz singer, as well as classically trained, she was the kind of gal that could dig Cream with Deep Purple at the L.A. Forum and years later, groove to a Cramps gig at the Masque. She was a former Miss Alabama beauty queen and previously married to Mickey Rooney. Welcome to the real to reel Hollywood, people.
Barney Kessel performed on all the mid-period Beach Boys hits such as 'I Get Around', 'California Girls' and 'Dance, Dance, Dance', including the later Brian Wilson productions such as 'Pet Sounds', 'Good Vibrations' and 'Smile'. Upon conclusion of the classic 'Good Vibrations', Brian Wilson personally sent Kessel a letter citing his guitar contribution to his production. In addition, it was Kessel who brought the theremin instrument to Brian Wilson's attention. Brian subsequently utilized the instrument on 'Pet Sounds' on 'I Guess I Just Wasn't Made For These Times' and later on 'Good Vibrations'. Barney Kessel and a trio were doing a gig at a jazz club on Hollywood Blvd. Kessel, who invited Wilson to their set, had a theremin player on stage that Barney knew from movie score work and Brian got hip to the trip.
I talked to Brian Wilson over the phone in September of 2003, just after he did a recording session with Paul McCartney at Cello Studios in Hollywood where the recording complex has a photo of Barney Kessel and Benny Carter on prominent display. "Barney Kessel was a wonderful guitar player. He did a wonderful job on 'Wouldn't It Be Nice'. He's in my prayers."
Barney lived in London, England in the late 1960s and early '70s and continued to be a very popular attraction at Ronnie Scott's legendary club in Soho, throughout the decades. All the top English rockers went there to see him play. His wife B.J. Baker and sons, Dan and David, separately and together, often accompanied Barney on his overseas tours.
Son Dan Kessel remembers, "It was really exciting, playing drums in my Dad's jazz group in Europe when I was 18, without any prior band rehearsals. I actually panicked, thinking, 'Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?' But I knew he wouldn't let me perform on stage with him out of misplaced loyalty if I couldn't really cut it. So, I managed to calm down, keep it together and not fall apart. Then it was great!
"Several years before that in late 1966 and part of 1967 when my brother David and I were kids, we were in Switzerland, England and Lichtenstein for a while. We were completely into Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. We'd been at the 'River Deep - Mountain High' and 'Good Vibrations/Pet Sounds' sessions at Gold Star, which our father played on. We loved the Byrds, whom we'd seen perform 'Eight Miles High' on Sunset Strip with our step-brothers Mickey and Tim, and other L.A. bands like Love and the Doors. And we were digging the whole late mod/early psychedelic English thing. I was listening to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline on my AM/FM/short wave and reading Melody Maker, Fab 208, NME, Record Mirror, etc. And, we got to see some of the early Pink Floyd gigs in London. Intoxicating stuff, all!
"Anyway, we were in London when the Jimi Hendrix Experience was first formed. We were up on all the buzz and we pestered our dad for us to go see Hendrix's band at the Bag O' Nails club in Soho. He was busy with his own scene but he did arrange for David and me to get into the club. Of course, Jimi, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell were phenomenal. We had our minds blown, plus, we were in awe that Brian Jones, McCartney and the rest of England's rock elite were all there in the audience. We saw several of his London shows and got to meet him and hang out a few times. We totally flipped over Hendrix. And, we were stoked when he told us he was in awe of our father. After that, we did nothing but rave about Jimi all the time, till it got to be too much and people finally had to tell us to shut up.
"Being a virtuoso jazz artist, our father wasn't musically impressed with rock guitarists unless they had a real grasp of blues or country roots. Because, although a jazz purist, his foundation was in blues and country and western swing. So, with much lobbying from my brother and me, he'd come to appreciate some of the Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor stuff with John Mayall, and some of Jeff Beck's stuff. With Jimi, though, he resisted the whole circus atmosphere, the pyrotechnics and psychedelic posturing. But, after we kept playing him our Hendrix records, he eventually appreciated that behind the excessive image, Jimi was actually an innovative blues guitarist, who had taken it into the next dimension. And, he liked Mitch Mitchel's playing too, saying Mitch was the jazziest rock drummer he'd heard. He also commented that he thought Jimi's vocals were unique. We agreed and added that we liked Noel's hair."
Barney was part of the original Phil Spector Wrecking Crew, the Gold Star Studios team of crack session players. Arranger Jack Nitzsche introduced and delivered all of the musicians to Phil, with the exception of Barney Kessel, who Phil already knew. Kessel is on records by the Paris Sisters, Crystals, Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner. Kessel and several of the Wrecking Crew musicians are in the stage band for Spector's seminal pop music filmed event 'The Big TNT Show'.
Kessel was pivotal in introducing the 12-string guitar to rock and pop recording by employing the instrument on the Crystals' recording of 'Then He Kissed Me', a Spector production that John Lennon has said made him want to have the instrument on Beatles records. Also, Jack Nitzsche, on the Crystals sessions as arranger, had used a 12-string while writing 'Needles And Pins' with Sonny Bono. And speaking of 12-strings, legend has it Kessel was on or around the recording session, with guitarist Jerry Cole, that yielded the Byrds' 'Mister Tambourine Man'. Several viable sources attest that Barney did do an overdub on that record date.
It was Barney Kessel, who in late 1956 at DuPars restaurant on Vine St. next to Capitol Records in Hollywood, suggested to teenage jazz guitarist, Phil Spector, to consider a career in pop and rock 'n' roll record production and song writing, not a career in jazz. Barney told Phil that although he definitely had musical talent and showed promise as a jazz guitarist, being a rock/pop producer and writer would be a safer career choice. Spector's mother and sister had pushed Kessel for a meeting after Kessel read 15 year old Phil's letter, published in Downbeat jazz magazine, expressing anger that Barney Kessel wasn't mentioned in an article in a previous edition. Young Phillip's bedroom wall had posters of Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Barney Kessel.
Kessel also played on very early Phil Spector demo tapes and acetates. Barney and his sons Dan and David are all on the Dion 'Born To Be With You' album Spector produced in the mid-'70s. It's considered a favorite LP of the Who's Pete Townshend.
Sometime in 1977, Spector, myself, and Kessel's sons, Dan and David, all went to see Barney play jazz at the Hong Kong Café in Century City. Phil was on his best behavior at the club that night. No hassles with management and a one drink limit. A few times during the evening, the attentive Spector, in almost mantra-like fashion offered, "No Barney, No Phil".
Between recording his own albums, guesting on albums of other top jazz performers and touring the world, as a premier jazz artist, Kessel was first call on guitar for pop and rock record dates. Quite aside from Phil Spector, Elvis Presley and Brian Wilson, all the top artists and producers knew they could always count on Kessel to come up with a catchy instrumental hook that could make their record a hit. One such example (among many others) is Jimmy Gilmer's #1 hit (five weeks) 'Sugar Shack' on Dot Records, which was second only to the Beatles' 'She Loves You' in sales for 1963. Kessel's simple but effective Danelectro bass line, with its crunchy high end, is the loudest instrument in the rhythm track and is as much of a hook as any other element in the record.
Barney performed on Sonny and Cher's hits including 'I Got You Babe' and 'The Beat Goes On'. The duo's nickname for him was 'The Professor'. It should be noted that Barney happily had his mind blown by his 'beatnik, rock 'n' roll' friends when years later, Cher earned an Oscar and Sonny was in the U.S. Congress.
Barney and second wife, singer B.J. Baker, formed Emerald Records in 1964 and released Kessel's 'On Fire' album in 1965, which was distributed by Phil Spector. In '67 they formed Windsor Music Co. and published Kessel's book 'The Guitar'. 1967 also saw them opening Barney Kessel's Music World on Vine St. in Hollywood. B.J. furnished and decorated the place with a tasteful, inviting ambience. Their customers included John Lennon, George Harrison, Buffalo Springfield, Chris Darrow, Frank Zappa and the Beach Boys. The Association used a Kay bass, plucked from the store's wall, and employed it on their #1 hit, 'Windy', cut just a few doors down the street at the famed Capitol Records studios. Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee would go in there a lot. One time they picked up an exquisite, rare, antique pump organ for their home. Kessel and B.J. both performed with Darin and Dee, often. Also, Barney gave Bernardo Ricco (B.C. Rich Guitars) an early break, in 1969, by letting him ply his trade there, in one of the two upper lofts, next to Hollywood's #1 guitar repair guru, Milt Owen.
Kessel is guitarist, along with keyboardist Jack Nitzsche and other Wrecking Crew members on Marty Balin's 1962 solo debut recording, 'I Specialize In Love' for the Challenge label. Balin and crew cut it at Gold Star Studios in East Hollywood before Jefferson Airplane was formed.
Kessel was later an invited guest to jam "in the key of D" with Gold Star vets, Buffalo Springfield at a San Francisco music store opening in the summer of 1967. He also played some gigs with Spencer Davis at the Troubadour in L.A. for a live album.
Claremont, California-based multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer and respected session musician Chris Darrow (formerly in the Kaleidoscope and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and who played and recorded with Linda Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, and James Taylor, among others in the last 35 years) used to have his guitars fine-tuned at Barney Kessel's Music World. Darrow offered this telling observation on Kessel's studio session work and accompanist role: "Whether it was 'Young Blood' by The Coasters, 'Cry Me A River' with Julie London or any number of songs produced by Phil Spector with the Wrecking Crew, Barney Kessel was and always will be considered the consummate L.A. guitar man. His ability to understand genres and fit perfectly in the equation is what being a great recording sideman is all about. His taste and technique are legendary. From Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley, Barney was where the action was.
"The long term effect of his contribution to music will always be felt. Barney always seemed to be at the cutting edge of whatever music was happening around him. From Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker to Sonny & Cher and the Beach Boys. I remember once standing behind him and Hal Blaine in Hollywood at the Musicians' Union, Local 47, while they were there to pick up some checks. It took over a half hour to pick up my money, and I was next in line! But Barney was one of a kind and his memory will live long enough through the great musical legacy he left behind."
Barney wrote and published many music tutorials; made instructional videos; gave music seminars around the world; wrote a monthly column for years in Guitar Player Magazine, and wrote books including 'The Guitar'. Jim Crockett, the original publisher/editor of Guitar Player Magazine named his son, Kessel Crockett.
Pete Townshend wrote and recorded 'To Barney Kessel' on his album 'Scoop' in 1983.
Kay Guitars, who put out Jimmy Reed and Howlin' Wolf models in the 1950s, released three different Barney Kessel models from '57 through '60, starting with the BK Pro and BK Artist up to the BK Jazz Special. Teenaged Eric Clapton is said to have played one of these and they are collector's items today.
Kessel's overwhelming, spellbinding performances in '91 at New York's premier jazz refuge, The Village Vanguard, sold out instantly and were well attended by industry types including Ahmet Ertegun and Robert Plant. The New York Post review called him "the finest", while the New York Times review called him "the master".
Dan Kessel offers, "Besides the jazz crowd, a surprising number of rock artists appreciate my father. When I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards ceremony in New York in '92, with Phil Spector and Andrew Loog Oldham, my brother, David and I were sitting next to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Before the Yardbirds went up on stage to be inducted, Beck and Page told us, most earnestly, how very much they both admire our father's playing. Afterward, on our way backstage, where we were headed to spend some serious, quality time with Keith Richards, Carlos Santana graciously shook our hands and said wonderful, complimentary things about our father's artistry. Noel Redding, who had just been inducted, as bassist in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, likewise came over to say hi and praised our father's "genius". And, when we arrived backstage, Keith, beaming, grabbed our hands, exclaiming gleefully, 'Let me rub those paws! Maybe some of that Kessel magic will rub off on me!'"
In 'The Blues' PBS-TV series that aired in early October of 2003, during the Mike Figgis-directed show, Jeff Beck paid homage to Kessel by offering a solo guitar instrumental of 'Cry Me A River' made famous by the hit record with Barney and vocalist Julie London. Later, when Figgis ended the programme that spotlighted the Blues impact on British musicians, he had Lulu fronting a band jam session (again with Beck in the "Kessel" slot) closing the action with a cover of 'Cry Me A River'.
Barney's favorite personal guitars that he played extensively, on his own records and world tours, are a 1946/47 Gibson ES 350 modified with a 1939 ES 150 Charlie Christian pickup. Another modification was the replacement of the factory rosewood fingerboard with an ebony board, with dot markers. And he replaced the original Kluson tuning pegs with open-backed Grovers. Kessel's other professional mainstay was an original custom made Ibanez prototype for a proposed Barney Kessel signature model, from the early '70s. His personal guitar collection includes a Roger guitar, made in Germany in the '50s; an Epiphone Broadway from the '30s; along with many others that he played on tons of hit records.
Aside from his Gibson ES 350 and Ibanez BK Model prototype, Kessel especially cherished a classic 1925 Steinway grand piano that he played incessantly at home and also used for composing and writing arrangements for records, films and TV. Barney studied composition, orchestration and film scoring with composers, Bernard Hermann ('Citizen Kane', 'Vertigo'), Earle Hagen ('Harlem Nocturne', 'I Spy') and Disney Music Dept. head/USC film scoring professor, Buddy Baker.
Buddy, coincidentally, had previously been married to Barney's second wife B.J. Dan Kessel explains, "On Hollywood studio turf, she is to background vocalists what Carol Kaye is to bass players and Hal Blaine is to drummers. She was the Queen. In fact it was Blaine who dubbed her 'Diamond Lil'. A child prodigy who played classical piano, sang opera and studied Latin, she became a jazz and pop singer, fronting bands and singing on her own radio show at age 14. She became Miss Alabama (as Betty Jane Rase), turned down contracts from David O. Selznick, Paramount and 20th Century Fox and married then-reigning #1 box office king, Mickey Rooney, when she was 17. She was Rooney's second wife after actress Ava Gardner, and subsequently married Buddy Baker. She received many honors during her lifetime. She and BK met while she was recording with Elvis for 'Flaming Star' and he was down the hall, producing a jazz session for a film soundtrack."
Barney Kessel received many honors during his lifetime, including:
U.S. State Dept. appointment as Official U.S. Cultural Ambassador.
Performances at the White House for U. S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Induction into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame along with the late Chet Baker in 1991.
An Honorary Doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 1996. (Years earlier he had received an "F" in music in that same state).
Induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, on stage together with Vince Gill, in 1998.
Induction into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, along with Sonny Rollins, Les Brown and Nancy Wilson, in 1999.
In October of 2003, to commemorate Kessel's 80th birthday, Contemporary Records released the compilation 'Barney Kessel Plays For Lovers' (CCD-6022-2), which vocalist/bassist Jim Ferguson says, "…reveals the subtle, melodic side of Kessel's improvisational genius."
One afternoon, sometime in 1968, while dialling away from the free-form, underground format of radio station KPPC-FM in nearby Pasadena, I stumbled onto the L.A. jazz channel, KBCA-FM, where DJ, Les Carter had a shift. It seemed like every time he'd announce a selection, then give the record label and even provide the catalogue number of the record he spun, he'd conclude with "and that was Barney Kessel on guitar." Who is this guy I wondered? It seems I spent 35 years finding out who he was.
Barney Kessel is survived by his wife since 1992, the writer/editor Phyllis Van Doren-Kessel; sons, producers/musicians Dan Kessel and David Kessel; and step-sons, actors/musicians Mickey Rooney, Jr. and Timothy Rooney.
Barney Kessel's previous wives include artist/sculptor Gail Sexton-Farmer (mother of Kessel's sons Dan and David, 1949 - '58) and B.J. (Betty Jane) Baker ('61 - '80). He was then married to an Oklahoma school teacher named Joanne for a ten year period.
(A very special thanks to Dan Kessel for his invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.)
- ▼ 2009 (11)