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Kessel, Barney (17 October 1923-6 May 2004)

Guitarist from Muskogee, Oklahoma, who dropped out of school at the age of fourteen to join Ellis Ezell’s outfit and work local the club circuit.

In 1942, he moved to L.A. but it turned out to be a short stop-over, as he was soon on tour with Chico Marx’s band.  His guitar stylings translated well to the recording studio, and in 1943 he laid down his first tracks with Chico Marx.  He also did a stint with Les Brown, performing live in Miami, Florida, and Hollywood, California.  Some of these performances are available on vinyl.  In 1944, he hooked up with Charlie Barnet’s band and they had a big hit with “Skyliner”.

He also moonlighted with Artie Shaw’s band, recording some tracks later that autumn.  Then, he hit the big screen in one of the first music videos, the Oscar-nominated short film, Jammin’ the Blues.  In 1945, he made the cut on Artie Shaw’s short list and worked with The Gramercy Five.  Barney was the guitarist du jour, splitting time between the orchestras of Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw.  He appears on 70+ Artie Shaw recordings in 1945 and 1946 alone.

In 1946, he hooked up with Benny Goodman, and they performed live and recorded through 1947.  Then he band-hopped to Charlie Parker’s band, recording tunes for the album, Relaxin’ at Camarillo.  He also recorded the LP, From Dixieland to Bop, with Benny Carter and Lucky Thompson.  The next few years were spent largely in the recording studio, accompanying Billy May and Mel Torme on the Capitol label.

From 1947 to 1960, he was consistently ranked as the #1 axe-man in polls conducted by the magazines, Down BeatEsquire and Playboy.  Appropriately enough, in the ‘50s he appeared on a string of LPs called The Poll Winners with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne.  He also recorded an album under his own name, simply titled, Kessel Plays Standards.

In 1951, he re-united with Ray Brown as a member of The Oscar Peterson Trio.  The trio traveled the world, on a 14-country international tour in 1952.  In 1953, Barney was replaced by Herb Ellis.  He went on to record more albums brandishing his own name for the Contemporary label.  Sonny Rollins employed his services in the late 1950s on a series of recordings, such as “How High the Moon”, which is available on the boxed set, The Freelance Years.

The big-band era, with its big live performances and big recordings, was over.  As music (and session work) changed, Kessel adapted.  He appeared on several soundtracks and genre-hopped on recording sessions with The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Liberace, Dean Martin, The Monkees, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Phil Spector.  The cadre of musicians with whom he traveled from studio to studio obtained the moniker, The Wrecking Crew, and included fellow guitarist, Glen Campbell.

In 1955 and 1956, he arranged and performed with Julie London on Julie is Her Name, using only a bass and guitar, complementing London’s intimate sound.  Their most famous recording together was “Cry Me a River”.  In the ‘60s, he continued to be the go-to guy for artists such as Errol Garner, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.  George Harrison said that Barney was the best guitarist… ever.

Gibson even unveiled a Barney Kessel guitar in 1961 and manufactured them steadily through 1973.  The guitarist turned author in 1967, penning The Guitar:  A Tutor, a music instruction book.  He was also a regular contributor to the magazine, Guitar Player.

From 1967 through 1970, he was owner-operator of Barney Kessel’s Music World in Hollywood.  His all-star clientele included Eric Clapton, George Harrison and John Lennon.  It did not keep him off the road, however:  In 1968, he joined George Wein’s Newport All-Stars for a European tour.

In the ‘70s, he developed a presentation called “The Effective Guitarist” and conducted the seminar overseas and in the States.  He became a member of The Great Guitars, with Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, in 1973, and they stayed together through the 1980s.  Kessel kept a foot in the door of education, doing some teaching at Central State University in Oklahoma.

In 1992, he suffered a stroke, and it ended his career.  Nine years later, an even harsher verdict:  He was diagnosed with cancer that was deemed inoperable.  It claimed his life on 6thMay 2004 at his residence in San Diego, California.  Just Jazz Guitar dedicated their September 1997 issue to him.

He has been immortalized in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.