George Barnes (musician)

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George Barnes
George Barnes.JPG
Background information
Birth name George Warren Barnes
Born July 17, 1921
South Chicago Heights, Illinois, United States
Died September 5, 1977(1977-09-05) (aged 56)
Concord, California, United States
Genres Jazz, blues, swing, pop, rock, country
Occupation(s) Guitarist, composer, arranger, conductor, producer, author
Instruments Guitar
Years active 1931–1977
Labels Okeh, Keynote, Decca, Colortone, Grand Award, Mercury, United Artists, MMO, Carney, Columbia, A&R, Famous Door, Improv, RCA, Chiaroscuro, Concord Jazz
Associated acts Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, Carl Kress, Bucky Pizzarelli, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Bud Freeman, Ernie Varner, Tony Bennett, Art Ryerson, The Three Suns
Notable instruments
Gibson ES-300, Guild George Barnes Acousti-Lectric guitar, Guild George Barnes Guitar in F

George Warren Barnes (July 17, 1921 – September 5, 1977) was an American swing jazz guitarist, who is believed to have played the first electric guitar in 1931, preceding Charlie Christian by six years. Barnes made the first commercial recording of an electric guitar on March 1, 1938, in sessions with Big Bill Broonzy.


Barnes was born in South Chicago Heights, Illinois. He started his professional career at the age of 12, when he received his musicians' union card and toured throughout the Midwest. By the time he was 14, he was accompanying blues vocalists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Blind John Davis. On March 1, 1938, he recorded "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Lowdown Dirty Shame" with Broonzy, the first commercial recordings of an electric guitar. Later in 1938, he was hired as a staff musician for the NBC orchestra, and became a featured performer on the radio shows National Barn Dance and Plantation Party.

In 1940, Barnes released his first recording under his own name, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" backed with "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me", on Okeh Records.

Barnes was drafted into the Army in 1942, and served as an intercept operator in the basement of the Pentagon. Immediately after his discharge in 1946, he formed the George Barnes Octet and was given a 15-minute radio program on the ABC network.

He and Evelyn Lorraine Triplett were married in Chicago on January 17, 1947.

In 1951, Barnes was signed to Decca Records by Milt Gabler and moved from Chicago to New York City. In 1953, he joined the orchestra for the television show Your Hit Parade. The band was conducted by Raymond Scott, and Barnes was a featured soloist. Barnes, Scott, and vocalist Dorothy Collins (Scott's wife) also recorded together.[1]

In addition to being a well-known jazz musician, Barnes also made a living as a New York studio musician, playing on hundreds of albums and jingles from the early 1950s through the late 1960s. He played guitar on Patsy Cline's New York sessions in April 1957. Barnes was primarily a swing jazz guitarist, but he could play in any style, as evidenced by his work with the Jodimars.[2] Barnes participated in hundreds of pop, rock and R&B recording sessions: he was a regular guitar player on most of the Coasters' hit records produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, he provided the guitar solo for the Connie Francis hit "Lipstick on Your Collar", and he played on the Drifters' version of "This Magic Moment" and Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops".

Barnes recorded three albums for Mercury Records: Movin' Easy, with his Jazz Renaissance Quintet in 1960; Guitar Galaxies in 1960; and Guitars Galore in 1961. The latter two contained Barnes's unique orchestrations with 10 guitars, known as his guitar choir, which utilized guitars in place of a horn section. They were two in a series of Mercury albums that used an early 1960s state-of-the-art recording technique known as Perfect Presence Sound.

Albums he recorded with the guitarist Carl Kress received national acclaim in the early 1960s. The duo was invited to play at the White House staff Christmas party on December 17, 1964. For the occasion, Barnes wrote a song for First Daughter Luci Baines Johnson, "Watusi for Luci", as she was then famous for attending discothèques and dancing the Watusi with Hollywood celebrities. The recording was used as the theme for The Clay Cole Show in 1965, when the show was renamed Clay Cole's Discotek.

After the death of Kress in 1965, Barnes formed another guitar duo with Bucky Pizzarelli. Their partnership lasted from 1969 to 1972, and they recorded two albums.

In 1973, Barnes formed a partnership with cornetist Ruby Braff. The Ruby Braff–George Barnes Quartet made its debut at Carnegie Hall with the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. The quartet recorded several albums, including Live at the New School, released by Chiaroscuro Records in 1974, and To Fred Astaire with Love, released by RCA in 1975. They also recorded a double album with Tony Bennett in 1973, The Rodgers and Hart Songbook.

From 1973 until 1977, Barnes recorded several well-received albums for Concord Jazz under his own name and with the quartet he had formed with Braff. He also recorded two albums for Concord Jazz with jazz violinist Joe Venuti.

Barnes and his wife, Evelyn, left New York City after his last European tour in 1975 to live and work in the San Francisco Bay area. Barnes died of a heart attack in Concord, California, in 1977, at the age of 56.

First recording with electric guitar[edit]

Barnes played an electric guitar on two songs, "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame", recorded by Big Bill Broonzy and produced by Lester Melrose in Chicago on March 1, 1938. Some historians incorrectly attribute the first recording with electric guitar to Eddie Durham, but Durham's recording with the Kansas City Five was not until 15 days later, on March 16, 1938. Several recordings of an electric lap steel guitar precede both, including recordings by Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies with Bob Dunn on electric lap steel as early as January 1935. But Broonzy's 1938 session with Barnes is the first to feature an electrically amplified (non–lap steel) guitar.

Style and technique[edit]

Barnes's style took shape before the development of bebop, and he remained a swing stylist throughout his career. His lines were usually short, melodic, bluesy and "inside" (i.e., diatonic), compared to the chromaticism and long lines of bop-era guitarists. His improvisations often employed call and response phrases, and his tone was clearer, cleaner and brighter than many other jazz guitarists (such as Joe Pass or Jim Hall) and reflected his "happy" approach to music.

Not long before his death, he recorded three live albums—two produced from a concert at the San Francisco club Bimbo's 365, the other at the Willows Theatre in Concord, California. The albums are good examples of his swinging, happy and often mischievous style. The albums also include his banter with the audience and his introductions of tunes and his band, giving the listener a glimpse of his sense of humor.

In a review of the album Don't Get Around Much Anymore (material from a 1977 concert in Concord, California, recorded a little more than a month before Barnes's sudden death at the age of 56), Jim Ferguson wrote, "Often overlooked in a sea of more modern-sounding, bebop-oriented guitarists, George Barnes could swing like mad and spin out intricate, frequently bluesy phrases with awesome precision and musicality.... From start to finish, this well-recorded performance demonstrates the qualities that qualify Barnes for a position among the most elite players in the annals of jazz guitar."[3]

In 1942, Barnes wrote the first electric guitar method, The George Barnes Electric Guitar Method, published by Wm. J. Smith. In 1961, he wrote and recorded George Barnes' Living Guitar Method; The Easy Way to Learn All the Chords and Rhythms and Ten Duets for Two Guitars (recorded with his partner Carl Kress) for Music Minus One. In 1965, he wrote How to Arrange for Solo Guitar, published by Peermusic. He also produced the first guitar course offered on cassette tape, The Great George Barnes Guitar Course, published in 1970 by Prentice Hall.

Partial discography[edit]

  • "Sweetheart Land"/"It's a Low Down Dirty Shame" – Big Bill Broonzy (March 1, 1938), with Bill Owsley (ts), BJ Davis (p), George Barnes (el/g)
  • "It's Too Late Now"/"Down at the Old Village Store"/"The Gal I Love" – Washboard Sam (March 14, 1938), with Big Bill (g), George Barnes (el/g), Black Bob (b)
  • "New Shake 'Em on Down"/"Night Time Is the Right Time" – Big Bill Broonzy (May 5, 1938), with Bill Owsley (cl, ts), Joshua Altheimer (p), George Barnes (el/g), unknown (b)
  • "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles"/"I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" – George Barnes (g) (February 1940), with Duney Warren (ts), Bill Huntington (g), Ernie Newton (b)
  • "Lula from Honolulu" – Sweet Violet Boys (February 15, 1940), with Alan Crockett (vocal, fiddle), Augie Klein (accordion), George Barnes (electric guitar), Chick Hurt (mandolin), Salty Holmes (guitar), Bob Long (guitar), Jack Taylor (string bass), Vocalion
  • "Kilroy Is Here"/"Zebra's Derby"/"At the Jazz Band Ball"/"Starlight Interlude" – George Barnes Octet (1946), with various woodwinds
  • "A Good Night for Murder"/"Suite for Octette" – George Barnes Octet (1946)
  • "Movin' Easy"/"Pick Yourself Up" – George Barnes (g), Billy Bauer (g), Hank D'Amico (cl), Jack Lesberg (b), Cliff Leeman (d) (1959)
  • "Something Tender"/"The Eel's Nephew" – George Barnes (g), Carl Kress (g), Bud Freeman (ts) (1962)
  • "Watusi for Luci"/"The Jazzman Blues" – George Barnes (g), Carl Kress (g) (1965)
  • "Blue Skies"/"Eleanor Rigby"/"Here There and Everywhere"/"Rose Room"/"Love Story Theme" – George Barnes (g), Bucky Pizzarelli (g) (1971), Town Hall concert
  • "Blue Moon"/"The Lady Is a Tramp" – Tony Bennett (1973), with George Barnes (g), Ruby Braff (cornet), Wayne Wright (g), John Giuffrida (b)
  • "I Want to Be Happy"/"I'm Coming Virginia" – Joe Venuti (1975), Joe Venuti (v), George Barnes (g), Bob Gibbons (g), Herb Mickman (b), Jake Hanna (d)
  • "Moonglow"/"Fascinatin' Rhythm" – George Barnes (g), Duncan James (g), Dean Reilly (b), Benny Barth (d) (1977)


  • Kilroy Is Here
  • Starlight Interlude
  • South Side Blues
  • Suite for Octette Parts 1–4
  • Zebra's Derby
  • Frolic for Basses
  • It's Like the Fourth of July
  • Floatin'
  • Duet for the Three Guitars
  • Dawn at Midnight
  • Jumpin' Jack
  • Sunday Drive
  • Misty Morn
  • Girl in a Picture Hat (lyric by Evelyn Barnes)
  • A Good Night for Murder
  • Guitars Galore
  • Movin' Easy
  • Something Tender (lyric by Evelyn Barnes)
  • Frisky
  • Fast and Fancy
  • Hot Guitar Polka
  • Hawaiian Hop
  • The Purple Monster
  • Private Blend
  • Sugar Loaf
  • Sunny Day in May
  • Wait With Me
  • Love (lyric by Evelyn Barnes)
  • Lack-a-Day (lyric by Alec Wilder)
  • Watusi for Luci
  • Jazz Man Blues
  • Pickin' Plenty
  • Doctor Paycer's Dilemma (w/Bud Freeman & Carl Kress)
  • Priority on a Moonbeam
  • Banjo Hop
  • Bass Guitar Blues
  • Rockabilly Boogie
  • Strollin' Slow
  • Blues Going Up


  1. ^ "Dorothy Collins – Crazy Rhythm (1953)". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  2. ^ "Rock-a-billy Hall". Rock-a-billy Hall. Retrieved 2011-11-01. 
  3. ^ JazzTimes review of Don't Get Around Much Anymore (George Barnes Quartet) by Jim Ferguson (retrieved 3 October 2011)

External links[edit]