Barney Kessel

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Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel 2.jpg
Background information
Born (1923-10-17)October 17, 1923
Muskogee, Oklahoma, United States
Died May 6, 2004(2004-05-06) (aged 80)
San Diego, United States
Genres Jazz, pop, R&B, rock
Occupation(s) Musician, composer
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1940s–1992
Labels Columbia
Associated acts Chico Marx, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Sonny Rollins, Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Milt Jackson, The Wrecking Crew

Barney Kessel (October 17, 1923 – May 6, 2004) was an American jazz guitarist born in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Noted in particular for his knowledge of chords and inversions and chord-based melodies, he was a member of many prominent jazz groups as well as a "first call" guitarist for studio, film, and television recording sessions. Kessel was a member of the group of session musicians informally known as The Wrecking Crew.


Kessel began his career as a teenager touring with local dance bands before moving on to bands such as that led by Chico Marx. He quickly established himself as a key post-Charlie Christian jazz guitarist. In 1944 he participated in the film Jammin' the Blues, which featured Lester Young, and in 1947 he recorded with Charlie Parker's New Stars on the Relaxin' at Camarillo session for Dial Records.[1] He was rated the No. 1 guitarist in Esquire, Down Beat, and Playboy magazine polls between 1947 and 1960.[2]

Kessel is known for his innovative work in the guitar trio setting. In the 1950s, he made a series of albums called The Poll Winners with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. He was also the guitarist on the album Julie Is Her Name (1955) by Julie London, which includes the standard "Cry Me a River"; this million-selling song features a guitar part from Kessel which illustrates his melodic chordal approach in a minimal jazz group.[3] Also from the 1950s, his three Kessel Plays Standards volumes contain some of his most polished work.[citation needed]

Kessel was also a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio with Brown for a year, leaving in 1953. The guitar chair was called the hardest gig in show business since Peterson often liked to play at breakneck tempos.[citation needed] Herb Ellis took over from Kessel. Kessel also played with Sonny Rollins in the late 1950s and can be heard on the Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders album on songs like "How High the Moon".

Kessel was a "first call" guitarist at Columbia Pictures during the 1960s, and became one of the most in-demand session guitarists in America, and is considered a key member of the group of first-call session musicians now usually known as The Wrecking Crew.[citation needed] In this capacity he played on hundreds of famous pop recordings, including albums and singles by Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, The Monkees and many others. He appeared in an acting part playing a jazz guitarist named "Barney" in one episode of the Perry Mason TV show. He also wrote and arranged the source music, including a jazz version of "Here Comes the Bride", provided by the jazz combo that featured in the story.[citation needed]

Kessel playing a Guild guitar.

In 1961 The Gibson Guitar Corporation introduced The Barney Kessel model guitar onto the market and continued to make them until 1973. One custom instrument Kessel played was essentially a 12-string guitar neck attached to a mandolin body (similar to Vox's mando guitar), which may have been played on the intro to The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice".[citation needed]

He played Mr. Spock's theme on bass, which first appeared in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time".

During the 1970s, Kessel presented his seminar "The Effective Guitarist" in various locations around the world, and performed extensively with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as "The Great Guitars".

Kessel's sons David and Daniel also became session musicians, working with Spector during the 1970s.[4] Kessel was married to B. J. Baker. They were divorced in 1980.

On Pete Townshend's 1983 album Scoop, Townshend paid homage to the guitarist with the instrumental song "To Barney Kessel".

Kessel died of a brain tumor in San Diego. He had been in poor health after suffering a stroke in 1992.[5]


As leader[edit]

  • Vol. 1: Easy Like (Contemporary 1953/1955)
  • Vol. 2: Kessel Plays Standards (Contemporary 1954/1955)
  • Vol. 3: To Swing or Not to Swing (Contemporary 1955) with Sweets Edison, Georgie Auld, Jimmy Rowles
  • Music to Listen to Barney Kessel by (Contemporary 1956)
  • The Poll Winners (Contemporary 1957) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Let's Cook! (Contemporary 1957)
  • The Poll Winners Ride Again (Contemporary 1958) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Kessel plays Carmen (Contemporary 1958)
  • The Poll Winners Three! (Contemporary 1959) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Some Like It Hot (Contemporary 1959) with Art Pepper
  • The Poll Winners – Exploring the Scene! (Contemporary 1960) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Barney Kessel's Swingin' Party at Contemporary (Contemporary 1960)
  • Bossa Nova (1962)
  • Workin' Out with the Barney Kessel Quartet (Contemporary 1961)
  • Hair Is Beautiful (Atlantic 1968)
  • Feeling Free (Contemporary 1969) with Bobby Hutcherson, Elvin Jones
  • Autumn Leaves (Black Lion 1969)
  • The Poll Winners – Straight Ahead (Contemporary 1975) with Shelly Manne, Ray Brown
  • Soaring (Concord Jazz 1976)
  • Solo (Concord Jazz 1981)
  • Spontaneous Combustion (Contemporary 1987) with the Monty Alexander Trio
  • Red Hot and Blues (Contemporary 1988) with Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, Ben Riley

As sideman[edit]

With Georgie Auld

With Chet Baker

With Ella Fitzgerald

With Hampton Hawes

  • Four! (Contemporary, 1958)

With Billie Holiday

With Milt Jackson

With Oliver Nelson

With Anita O'Day

With Sonny Rollins



  1. ^ The Complete Charlie Parker on Dial at AllMusic
  2. ^ "Barney Kessel". June 12, 2004. Retrieved July 16, 2008. 
  3. ^ The Guinness Who's Who of Fifties Music. General Editor: Colin Larkin. First published 1993 (UK). ISBN 0-85112-732-0. Julie London, p. 210.
  4. ^ Brown, Mick (2008). Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. Vintage Books. ISBN 978-1400076611. 
  5. ^ Keepnews, Peter (May 8, 2004). "Barney Kessel, 80, a Guitarist With Legends of Jazz, Dies". The New York Times. 

External links[edit]