The greatest guitar player ever? There may have been flashier performers, but it’s unlikely that anyone will ever match the accomplishments of Barney Kessel. A resident of the University Heights neighborhood of San Diego from 1991 until his death on May 6, 2004, beyond his role as musician on countless hit recordings, television and movie soundtracks, he was also a mentor, producer, major label A&R executive, indie label owner, author, and inspiration for over 60 years. Suffice it to say the soundtrack of our lives would be much different without Kessel’s fretwork.
He was born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Curiosity piqued by a music shop on his paper route, he picked up the guitar. A quick study, he learned his chosen instrument through a WPA federal music project, studying four hours a day, six days a week. Such a rigorous schedule would dampen some spirits, but Kessel’s skill grew by leaps and bounds. By 14 he was regularly performing with area bands. By 1940, at age 16, he was entertaining crowds with a band at the University of Oklahoma, the Varsitonians. That same year, at a dance band show, an impressed Charlie Christian, then performing with Benny Goodman, approached Kessel and invited him to jam the following day. Still a high school student, Kessel was well on his way.
He arrived in Los Angeles circa 1942. From that point forward Kessel’s life is a nearly unbelievable whirlwind of activity. He joined his first in a series of combos in 1942, spending a year with the Chico Marx Band and scoring his first national airplay via live performance broadcast from Chicago’s Black Hawk Club where they had a four month residency. Bands led by Charlie Barnet (in 1944 he can be heard on the band’s hit “Skyliner”) and Artie Shaw (1944-1945), followed by a short stint with Shaw’s side group, the Gramercy Five. Notably, in 1944, he appeared in the film Jammin’ the Blues alongside saxophonist Lester Young and other jazz legends. Unfortunately, due to segregation at the time, movie producers felt that having mixed-race performers on stage together might cause the film trouble in the South, so they opted to have Kessel perform in the shadows, dying his hands with beet juice to boot. By this point, word of Kessel’s improvisational prowess had spread, leading to jam sessions, live guest spots, and short runs of dates with everyone from Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon to TV sitcom icon Ozzie Nelson.
It’s safe to say a full Barney Kessel discography would be nearly impossible to complete, so vast is the amount of music he left behind. His sheer love of music meant that he was playing more often than not, with many gigs recorded and broadcast. Indeed he was now performing with the biggest names, including a spot with Lionel Hampton’s Just Jazz All Stars in 1947.
His first major recording was on the album Jumpin’ on the Merry Go Round with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra in 1945, with other classics issued during this time frame including both of Charlie Parker’s albums Carvin’ the Bird and Relaxin’ at Camarillo.
Perhaps more important, by 1948 he had also begun to play sessions, quickly becoming one of the music business’s most in-demand players. It’s important to note that while Kessel was indeed a jazz player, unlike many other musicians of the day, he had no problem working with pop and later rock acts.
Early session work included an album with Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard and Lucky Thompson’s From Dixieland to Bop, alongside other star players such as Benny Carter and Red Norvo. From 1948-1951, he immersed himself in session work, notably with Mel Torme and Billy May. In 1951 he cut back on those activities to join the Oscar Peterson Group, with highlights including a 1952 14-country world tour.
In 1953 Kessel began recording for Contemporary Records, both as a solo artist and as part of a trio dubbed “The Pollwinners,” alongside Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. His debut album, Swing Guitars, was released that same year, the first of more than 50 albums under his own name.
Beyond his amazing guitar playing, it’s fascinating how much of his activities were concurrent. Indeed, future historians might assume he was three people. Between 1953 and 1957, Kessel was musical director for Bob Crosby’s television variety show. At this point Kessel became just about omnipresent in pop culture. Though he was rarely the star attraction, his sounds could soon be found everywhere from TV and movies to the Top 40.
While he had done pop/jazz sessions in the past, his first major crossover work came in 1956 when he arranged and played guitar on Julie London’s album Julie Is her Name and the immortal song “Cry Me a River.” At the same time he was part of several studio orchestras, backing everyone from Bing Crosby to Anita O’Day. That same year he also changed the course of music history when he advised young guitarist Phil Spector to try production, and also as part of his job as A&R Director for Liberty Records from 1956 – 1960 he signed and mentored Ricky Nelson, even playing on his first hit, “I’m Walkin’” (1957). In the time frame of roughly the late 1950s through the early 1960s, it seemed like Kessel rarely stopped to catch his breath. He produced discs by Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, He’s on early records by the Coasters and the Platters and took part in more studio orchestras backing a who’s who of the day including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Errol Garner, and Lou Rawls as well as backing the likes of Billie Holiday and Bobby Troup live. It’s no surprise that he can be heard on over two dozen Holiday albums as well as multiple discs with Benny Goodman, Sonny Rollins, and others.
Though he would continue to make great music, it’s likely that the mid-sixties were Kessel’s artistic peak. As a member of the loose-knit collection of session pros dubbed the Wrecking Crew, he was a first choice guitarist for everyone from Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand to Doris Day. It would be a rare week that he didn’t have two, three, or four songs in the top 40, all under another artist’s name, of course.
He recorded soundtracks to four Elvis Presley films, including 1962’s Girls, Girls, Girls, while the mega hit “Return to Sender” features Kessel as the guitarist.
1963 found Kessel recording with Sam Cooke on the album Night Beat and resultant hit “Another Saturday Night” as well as Dick Dale’s King of the Surf Guitar. He also become a central part of Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound.” Among many others, Kessel can be heard on such classic as the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,”, the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” and the number one Christmas album of all time – A Christmas for You with the Ronettes. Naturally he was also a Brian Wilson studio favorite, playing on such classics as “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Get Around,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “California Girls.”
In 1964 he started his own label, Emerald Music, to release his album On Fire, continuing to play sessions at a break neck pace. 1966 saw Kessel working on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, performing that distinctive solo on “Good Vibrations.” Other hits using his talents during this time frame include Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On,” Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack,” and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High.”
He had a slight detour in 1967 when he took time out to write his book The Guitar: A Tutor and also opened a music store in Hollywood, Barney Kessel’s Music World. The shop closed in 1970, but in its short run counted the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton among its customers.
After 1968 he continued session work, but also joined the Newport All Stars for a European tour, moving to England through the early seventies. In 1973 he formed the touring group Great Guitars alongside Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis, which he continued through the 1980s as well as performing more solo shows through the early 1990s.
As hectic as all this sounds, that’s still just the tip of the iceberg. He was a regular guest on variety programs, including “The Tonight Show,” his entire career. He can even be seen briefly in a 1957 episode of TV drama “Perry Mason” alongside his old friend Bobby Troupe. He also provided the guitar sounds John Saxon mimed in the film Rock Pretty Baby. Other soundtracks includes Orson Welles masterpiece A Touch of Evil, Billy Wilder’s comedy classic Some Like It Hot, and Cool Hand Luke. He wasn’t a musical snob however. Alongside his acclaimed film work, he also provided soundtracks to many commercials, including those for Rice Krispies and Der Wienerschnitzel.
More impressively the list of artists that he has recorded with, most on more than one occasion, reads like a true who’s who of popular culture. Fred Astaire, the Jefferson Airplane, Stan Getz, Cher, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughn, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Dean Martin, and Quincy Jones are just a few of the dozens of names whose hits have been enhanced by Kessel’s guitar.
Beyond Kessel’s own recordings and performances he has also inspired generations of musicians. While many jazz performers cite him as an influence, it’s interesting that so many rock performers do as well, including Steve Howe of Yes and Pete Townshend of the Who. The latter even wrote a song, “To Barney Kessel” in 1975, though it wouldn’t be released until his demo’s collection, Scoop. Meanwhile, keyboardist Al Kooper has noted that the Blood, Sweat & Tears classic “Flute Thing,” covered by the likes of Seatrain and later sampled by the Beastie Boys, was influenced by a cadenza played by Kessel.
Additionally, apart from his music there is a world of other material available from Kessel. From 1957-1961 there were three signature model Kay Guitars issued: the Jazz Special, the Artist, and the Pro. He next switched allegiances to Gibson Guitars for a signature semi-acoustic model that was available from 1961-1974. In the early seventies he became a columnist for Guitar Player magazine, indeed, he was featured from the first issue. Kessel songbooks are also highly sought after.
When Kessel arrived in San Diego in 1991 he was still going full speed with a career as busy as ever. By early 1992 he had already toured through Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S., and was preparing for further work when on May 26, he suffered a stroke, ending a brilliant career.
If Kessel’s life were written as a fictional account of a single musician, no one would believe it. There’s just too much there. He received numerous citations during his lifetime including several Metronome, Downbeat, and Playboy awards, as well as entry into the Jazz Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. In 2000 he was also given the Lifetime Achievement honors at the San Diego Music Awards. It’s all very nice, yet hardly seems enough for a man whose work will continue to stand the test of time, inspiring and entertaining generations to come. It’s difficult to imagine what pop culture and its cascading effect on the quality of life would have been like without Barney Kessel, but it’s clear it wouldn’t have sounded anywhere near as good.