Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the show we’re paying tribute to one of the most prolific guitar players in jazz, Barney Kessel. Kessel would have turned 100 years old last month. Kessel is a legend not just in the jazz world—he was a key studio player in the so-called “Wrecking Crew,” performing session work for acts as wide-ranging as the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, and Sam Cooke. But this hour, I’m going to focus on his incredible work accompanying jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, and more.
It’s Barney Kessel and the Singers, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - FRED ASTAIRE, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME"
Fred Astaire is 1952, from his legendary showcase four-disc LP for Clef Records called The Astaire Story, produced by Norman Granz. That was the George and Ira Gershwin song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Astaire introduced that song to the world 15 years earlier in the film musical Shall We Dance, co-starring Ginger Rogers. Accompanying him on that recording was an all-star lineup, including Oscar Peterson on piano, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Ray Brown on bass, and Barney Kessel on guitar. [:35]
MUSIC CLIP - BARNEY KESSEL, "I HEAR MUSIC"
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re highlighting the work of guitarist Barney Kessel [who would have turned 100 years old this year].
Barney Kessel was born October 17, 1923 in Oklahoma, and music was barely part of his upbringing. He only took three months of formal guitar lessons at age 12, but once he became a teenager, he quickly built up his chops, practicing for hours a day. He soon started performing professionally around the area.
By 1937, when he was only 14 years old, he was already a standout, not just because he was young, but also because he was the only white musician playing with the all-black bands in Oklahoma. He became an early adopter of the electric guitar, and then soon moved out to Los Angeles to find more work.
When he entered his 20s, he started playing in some bigger jazz bands, including the bands of Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw. And by 1947, Barney Kessel was already considered to be one of the best guitarists in the biz, winning number 1 in the annual Downbeat readers’ poll.
By the 1950s, he worked with more small ensembles, including a brief stint in the Oscar Peterson trio, as well as a trio with other Downbeat poll-winning musicians Ray Brown and Shelley Manne for an ensemble appropriately titled The Poll Winners.
MUSIC CLIP - THE POLL WINNERS, "SOFT WINDS"
In the mid 1950s, he also started to become well-known in the business as one of the most reliable session musicians. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff once said of him, quote, "He was a guy who could sit in and play with everybody. He had what jazz players call `big ears,' meaning he had a great capacity to listen and to respond musically to what he was hearing."
One of his more famous session contributions was his work with singer Julie London in 1955 on her debut album Julie Is Her Name. The session included just Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass, and Kessel’s sparse accompaniment gave London ample room to show off her deep, smoky voice.
The first track on the album, a new song written by one of London’s old friends Arthur Hamilton, was called “Cry Me A River.” It became London’s signature song, becoming a best-seller, and later landing on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Let’s hear it now. This is Julie London with guitarist Barney Kessel in 1955 with “Cry Me A River,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - JULIE LONDON, "CRY ME A RIVER"
MUSIC - JULIE LONDON, "I'M GLAD THERE IS YOU"
Two tracks from Julie London’s debut 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, both featuring Barney Kessel on guitar. Just now, we heard “I’m Glad There Is You” by Jimmy Dorsey and Paul Madeira, and before that, her most famous number, “Cry Me A River.”
By the late 1950s, Barney Kessel became part of the Verve Records universe, sitting in on many of the sessions with the many jazz artists who recorded for the label. This included Verve’s marquee singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Kessel was guitarist in the room on many, many sessions with Fitzgerald through the late 1950s and early 1960s, including sessions for her Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Rodgers and Hart songbook albums. Kessel was even featured as a soloist on a few of her notable recordings.
Let’s hear a few of those now. First up, here’s a recording from a February 1956 session that became part of her Cole Porter Song Book album. This is Ella Fitzgerald along with guitarist Barney Kessel and pianist Paul Smith with “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "LET'S DO IT (LET'S FALL IN LOVE)"
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "WAIT TILL YOU SEE HER"
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD"
Ella Fitzgerald, with three recordings featuring accompaniment from guitarist Barney Kessel. Just now, we heard Ella and Barney in September 1956 with “In A Sentimental Mood,” a track off of her Duke Ellington Songbook album. Before that, the duo in August 1956 with “Wait Til You See Her,” a track off of her Rodgers and Hart songbook album. And starting that set, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” from her Cole Porter Song Book album. We’ll hear another track from the duo at the end of the hour.
Barney Kessel continued to be a reliable session musician for other artists on the Verve label in the late 1950s. One of those artists was singer Anita O’Day. Kessel was part of the sessions for a few of her albums, including her 1956 album This Is Anita and her 1961 album Trav’lin Light. Let’s hear a track from each. The rhythm section on This Is Anita is basically the same rhythm section on some of the tracks from Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter album: Barney Kessel on guitar, Paul Smith on piano, Joe Mondragon on bass, and Alvin Stoller on drums. Let’s hear that now.
This is Anita O’Day with “Fine and Dandy,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ANITA O'DAY, "FINE AND DANDY"
MUSIC - ANITA O'DAY, "WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO"
Two songs featuring singer Anita O’Day and guitarist Barney Kessel. Just now, we heard “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” from her 1961 album Trav’lin Light, and before that “Fine And Dandy,” from her 1956 album This Is Anita.
MUSIC CLIP - BARNEY KESSEL, "LOVE IS HERE TO STAY"
We’ll hear more songs featuring Barney Kessel on guitar in just a bit. Stay with us. I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - THE POLL WINNERS, "DOODLIN'"
MUSIC CLIP - BARNEY KESSEL, "BARNEY'S BLUES"
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the work of guitarist Barney Kessel with singers this hour, in honor of his centennial this year.
I want to turn back the clock to hear one of the first sessions Kessel ever made with a singer, the 1952 Fred Astaire album The Astaire Story. This album came at a time when Kessel was briefly a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, so he’s featured on the album along with Peterson on piano and Ray Brown on bass (along with Flip Wilson on sax).
Let’s hear a track that features Kessel prominently. This is Fred Astaire in 1952 with Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRED ASTAIRE, "CHEEK TO CHEEK"
Fred Astaire in 1952 with “Cheek To Cheek,” featuring Barney Kessel on guitar.
One of Barney Kessel’s most frequent vocal collaborators was the great Billie Holiday. In the later part of Holiday’s career, Kessel was quite often her guitarist of choice. He performed with her on most of her albums for Clef and Verve records in the 1950s, as well as in many of her live Jazz At The Philharmonic sets.
I want to play a few Holiday tracks that feature Kessel on guitar. We’ll start with a session they did together in 1955. This is Billie Holiday with “What’s New,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, "WHAT'S NEW?"
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, "I DON'T WANT TO CRY ANYMORE"
Two tracks featuring Billie Holiday with guitarist Barney Kessel, both from August of 1955. Just now, that was the Victor Scherzinger song “I Don’t Want To Cry Any More.” Before that, the Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke tune “What’s New.”
In the 1960s, Barney Kessel’s career became more varied. His session work in Los Angeles became more in demand, and he was often the first call for many producers when they were looking for a guitarist, regardless of the style. He was a key member of the loose collection of first-call session musicians popularly known today as the Wrecking Crew, which played on many of the big pop and rock hit songs from the 1960s.
However, he never abandoned jazz during this time, and was still a featured guitarist on several albums for notable jazz and pop singers. Let’s hear his work with two such singers now.
We’ll start with a 1962 album he made with singer Sarah Vaughan and bassist Joe Comfort simply titled Sarah +2. This is Sarah Vaughan with “I Understand,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - SARAH VAUGHAN, "I UNDERSTAND"
MUSIC - DEAN MARTIN, "MY MELANCHOLY BABY"
Dean Martin in 1964 with the song “My Melancholy Baby.” That comes from his dreamy ballad album Dream With Dean, featuring guitarist Barney Kessel. Before that, we heard Sarah Vaughan in 1962 with the song “I Understand.” That comes from her jazz album titled Sarah +2… the two being Joe Comfort on bass and Barney Kessel on guitar.
Jazz remained central to Barney Kessel’s career throughout the 1960s and 1970s, although mostly in his solo and strictly instrumental work. He released dozens of instrumental jazz albums as a leader during this time. But (as I said earlier) his work as a session musician in the studio in the 1960s was more focused on rock and pop music, mostly because his skills as a guitarist could easily cross genre boundaries.
For instance—you may not realize this—but Barney Kessel’s guitar work can be heard on songs like “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny and Cher in 1967, a track that he remarked, quote, “Never have so many played so little for so much.”
MUSIC CLIP - SONNY AND CHER, "THE BEAT GOES ON"
His guitar playing can also be heard in the iconic opening notes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the first track off of the Beach Boys celebrated 1966 album Pet Sounds.
MUSIC CLIP - THE BEACH BOYS, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE"
His work in rock music even bled over into his work with some of the jazz artists he recorded with. And that’s what I want to play to close off this hour.
This next track is a 1965 single by Ella Fitzgerald, arranged and written by… you guessed it… guitarist Barney Kessel. It was the B-side to a record called “Ringo Beat,” a song that Ella wrote herself, inspired by Beatlemania sweeping the nation in 1964. The B-side “I’m Fallin’ In Love” is likewise one of Fitzgerald’s most rock ‘n’ roll influenced songs. It’s not a great song, really, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting novelties in her catalog.
This is Ella Fitzgerald in 1964 with Barney Kessel’s “I’m Fallin’ In Love,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, "I'M FALLIN' IN LOVE"
Ella Fitzgerald, recorded in 1964, with “I’m Fallin’ In Love,” one of her few rock ‘n’ roll inspired songs… a song that was written and arranged by guitarist Barney Kessel.
And thanks for tuning in to this Barney Kessel edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - BARNEY KESSEL, "NAGASAKI"
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow