11 March 2018
Modern Harmonic Website
When 17-year-old George Barnes joined the NBC Orchestra in Chicago in 1939 as staff musician and arranger, he had already proven he could play anything. His earliest work, as the 14-year-old leader of his own group, focused on the music of the Swing Era. In 1938, he was the first electric guitarist to record commercially—at the age of 16!—when he began playing with blues greats Big Bill Broonzy, Blind John Davis, Washboard Sam, Jazz Gillum, and Merline Johnson. And when NBC needed a guitarist for their National Barn Dance program, George was their 18-year-old man.
In a 1976 interview, George talked about his early days on radio: “Broader national exposure came [to me] in 1940 and 1941, from weekly radio performances on NBC’s WLS National Barn Dance and Plantation Party, with Louise Massey & The Westerners, Patsy Montana, and The Prairie Ramblers.” Described by The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio as “a country music show with corn pone humor,” Plantation Party was broadcast across the country, and was on the air from 1938 until 1942. George had a featured segment in every show; exuberant host Whitey Ford (“The Duke of Paducah”) gave George a unique introduction at the top of every spot. A perfect example is his intro to George’s performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’: “Y’know folks, that guitar George plays is a right modern contraption. It’s electric—‘course, George still has to do the work—but instead of all those fast notes comin’ out of the guitar, they come out of a little loudspeaker. So, by the time they get to your loudspeaker, as I call it, they’ll be twice as good. C’mon, George, let’s hear a demonstration!”
Even though George only had a minute and a half (at most) in each broadcast, his performances packed a punch: he received over 500 letters a week, collecting fans from all over the country (including a North Carolina girl named Evelyn Triplett who would later become Mrs. George Barnes). It was through his regular appearances on national radio that Chet Atkins—and a host of other guitarists, including Roy Clark and one of George’s future partners, Bucky Pizzarelli—became aware of, and inspired by, the young electric guitarist from Chicago.
George’s work in the studios with Bob Atcher, Homer & Jethro, and The Dinning Sisters further solidified his connection to country music—as did his 1948 appearance on Chet Atkins’ first recording in Chicago. Chet often told the story of his first face-to-face encounter with his idol; the anecdote appears in Chet’s autobiography, as well as in the obituary he wrote for the Country Music Association magazine when George died.
After moving to New York, George recorded again with Chet, and with country music stars Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold, who was a longtime fan. Rockabilly artists Janis Martin, Eddie Fontaine, Johnny Burnette & the Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio, and the legendary Buddy Holly, were also among those lucky enough to have George on their sessions. George can be heard on Jimmie Rodgers’ hits, as well as in A Face in the Crowd (Andy Griffith’s hot “Mama Guitar” solo is played by none other than George Barnes . . . the same year he recorded Country Jazz).
George’s connection to country music expanded into his published writings; his professional and personal relationship with Peer-Southern Music began when he and song promoter Roy Horton first became acquainted in New York. Roy’s admiration of George’s work, and their easy friendship, garnered a publishing deal with Peer-Southern. Ralph and Monique Peer became friends with George and Evelyn, and enjoyed many social engagements together. From 1960 on, George’s original compositions—and his “How to Arrange for Solo Guitar”—were published by Peer International. In a memo from a Peer executive prior to a concert tour of Japan by George and his partner, Carl Kress, George is referred to as “one of the top Country Music guitarists in the States”—even though he and Carl would be performing nothing but their customary jazz!
In the mid-1930’s, before George found fame on Plantation Party, Les Paul had been known as country guitarist “Rhubarb Red.” In his diary, 14-year-old George listed 19-year-old “Red” as one of the “Good Guitar Players” of 1935. And in a 1967 letter to George, written when the Barnes family was touring the country (George was developing the first guitar course to be offered on cassette tape), Les urged George to return to New York, signing off as “Rhubarb.”
It was inevitable that George and Les would become comrades and friendly competitors in Chicago. They continued their relationship after George moved to New York in 1951, when Milt Gabler of Decca Records signed George to a comprehensive contract. At the age of 30, George was already a “veteran,” and had experimented with overdubbing several years before Les became famous for it. George’s version for Decca of Clarinet Polka, backed with his original Hot Guitar Polka, were recorded a few months before George left Chicago by Bill Putnam—the engineer referred to as “the father of modern recording”—at Putnam’s studio, Universal Recording. It was ironic that Les developed his multi-track sound because he wanted to set himself apart from George, which he did successfully. There was also an irony in the fact that Decca’s agreement with George was announced in Billboard Magazine as a “‘Les Paul’ deal.”
Over the years, there has been conflicting information about the date Country Jazz was released (even on discographies that George himself compiled!). Because his first album on Decca—Guitars by George!—was produced in 1952, and he used an overdub technique to record himself on multiple tracks (and because it was initially marketed as a Country & Western album), it was assumed by some that Country Jazz was the immediate follow-up to that recording.
But in 1957, George recorded and released Guitar in Velvet, an album of his acclaimed octet arrangements, on his new label, Grand Award. This was the same year he recorded Country Jazz on the Colortone label, a subsidiary of Grand Award. George produced both of these albums under the supervision of record company executive Enoch Light.
George had been in New York less than a year before he joined Raymond Scott’s orchestra on the popular weekly television show, Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade. This is where he, bassist Jack Lesberg, and drummer Cliff Leeman formed a solid rhythm section and began lifelong friendships. Jack and Cliff, both of whom had also built stellar reputations, were mainstays on almost all of George’s solo New York recordings, as was the superb guitarist Allen Hanlon. With those three musicians, and George on guitar, banjo, and bass guitar (on Bass Guitar Blues), his Country Jazz quartet was complete.
By the time George began preparing Country Jazz, he’d worked in every New York City recording studio, and had his pick of rooms and engineers. When George was signed to Decca, he often recorded at Decca’s two studios: one on West 57th Street, the other in Pythian Temple on West 70th Street. But when Enoch Light founded Grand Award Records in 1956, and asked George to join the fledgling label, Guitar in Velvet and Country Jazz were both recorded at Fine Sound on Fifth Avenue in the Columbia Pictures Building. Recording engineer Bob Fine was an innovator in his field and, along with Bill Putnam of Universal Recording in Chicago, and Phil Ramone of A&R Recording in New York, was one of George’s top three favorite engineers. Whether he was working with Putnam, Fine or Ramone, George knew he was collaborating with kindred pioneers.
The description on the back of the original album reads: “A wonderful collection of Western favorites that everyone will love—and played in the traditional Western style.” The front cover features a more accurate explanation: “Great guitar solos in modern country jazz style”—as if “modern country jazz” was an established category—though, if anyone could establish a new species of music, it was George. Country Jazz was not designed to explore a new iteration of country music, rockabilly—but when George added his own twist of jazz, the resulting influence was unmistakable. His arrangements of traditional folk and country songs represent the enjoyment he got out of crossing musical genres. After all, he could, and did, play anything—which made him invaluable in the studios of Chicago and New York City, but also meant he defied categorization, inadvertently denying himself a prestigious place in any one class of musician.
George retitled some of the folk classics to reflect his jazzy charts, and his innate sense of whimsy (“Bluetail Fly” became “Bluetail Buzz”). This is not the “cool jazz” that had found its voice around the time Country Jazz was released (although it’d be interesting to hear what Monk or Miles would have done with “Turkey in the Straw”). George’s arrangements acknowledged both country and swing (and some blues), which were strangely complimentary to each other—at least, to his unique ears.
Country Jazz was fun for George; little did he know it would become one of his most influential recordings. It’s been said that one Barnes fan, the terrific guitarist Danny Gatton, learned it note-for-note—and that it inspired Jimmy Bryant to record his Country Cabin Jazz in 1960. Young guitarists who hadn’t yet been born when George died in 1977 are as enthralled by Country Jazz as rock guitarists are of anything from Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, who referenced George in his autobiography: ” . . . I had always thought of guitar playing as being little more than an accompaniment to the singing, except in one or two rare cases that I had always noticed and wondered where the players were coming from. A good example of this was the Connie Francis number ‘Lipstick on Your Collar,’ which has an incredible guitar solo by George Barnes . . . ”
On Plantation Party, George played three songs he arranged almost two decades later for Country Jazz: “Turkey in the Straw,” “In the Gloaming,” and “Shortnin’ Bread.” NBC saved money by having their artists play songs that were in the public domain, so the selections were limited; but George always made the most of the repertoire he was asked to perform. It was easy for him; he simply took great pleasure in completely exploring a melody wherever he could find it.
In the late 1960’s (just before he and Bucky Pizzarelli formed their extraordinary duo), George was planning a series of concept packages, including “Nashville Hits,” “Western Guitar Favorites,” and a recreation of Country Jazz—but this time, he planned to record in Nashville, with his friends Buddy Emmons on steel guitar, and Jethro Burns on mandolin. George was obviously looking to have a good time—and to let us in on it!
Sadly, we can only imagine what he would have brought to a new incarnation of this legendary recording. Happily, we can enjoy the music he left behind.
-Alexandra Barnes Leh