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
all this moving in a whirlwind of continuous
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
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.)