There are many fine guitar players in San Diego, but put them all together and it's unlikely that they've achieved the heights of guitar virtuoso Barney Kessel. Kessel is a relatively recent transplant to our city, having chased love here in 1991. Soon after arriving, however, Kessel suffered the ultimate injustice-a stroke rendered him unable to play his guitar.
Kessel was born on Oct. 17, 1923 in Muskogee, Okla. He picked up the guitar at a young age and by 14 was performing at dances with area bands. Legend has it that none other than Charlie Christian jammed with the young Kessel for three days straight and was so impressed that he promised to spread the word about Kessel's six-string prowess. From that point on, young Kessel never looked back.
We'd need much more space to detail all of Kessel's accomplishments, but even a cursory overview shows he was considered one of the best bop guitarists of his era. He played with numerous big bands, including those led by Chico Marx (1943), Charlie Barnet (1944) and Artie Shaw (1944-'45), finishing off his stint with Shaw by performing with his side group, The Gramercy Five. During this time, he also appeared in the 1944 film Jammin' the Blues. More importantly, Kessel-then living in Los Angeles-began to take on session work in studios around the city, quickly becoming one of the most in-demand guitarists in the music business.
He became omnipresent on TV, radio and especially recordings. His name was rarely in lights, but his subtle playing shaped countless great records. He toured for a year between 1952 and 1953 as part of the Oscar Peterson Trio and the following year began recording for Contemporary Records-both as a solo act and alongside Ray Brown and Shelly Manne in a trio dubbed The Pollwinners.
His debut album, Swing Guitars, would be the first of more than 50 releases. At the same time, his generally anonymous session work made him one of the architects of the new pop music. Kessel can be heard sculpting the sound of Julie London's "Cry Me A River" and many of Ricky Nelson's biggest hits, as well as the early Coasters records, songs by the Platters and almost two dozen Billie Holiday albums. He also contributed to multiple releases by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and Benny Goodman.
Even Frank Sinatra and Doris Day used him on their records, as did Elvis Presley. Return to Sender was one of the biggest records of 1962, and Kessel was the guitarist. He would also be the six-stringer for four Elvis films, including Girls, Girls, Girls. In 1963, he taped Night Beat with Sam Cooke and became an integral part of Phil Spector's famed producing technique known as the "wall of sound."
That's Kessel on the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" and many more popular tunes. He had an eclectic, phenomenally busy schedule, and, serendipitously, it was Kessel's sons who introduced Spector to the Ramones, resulting in the Road to Ruin album.
Among other session work and his own touring and recording, 1966 found him working on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album, performing that distinctive solo on "Good Vibrations." He then toured Europe in 1968 as part of the Newport All Stars, relocating to England for a short time. By 1973 he had a new touring trio, this time with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, appropriately dubbed Great Guitars.
Kessel was a regular guest on The Tonight Show and other variety programs of the day, and his music has shaped the jingles of numerous television commercials for the likes of Rice Krispies and der Wienerschnitzel. Orson Welles used Kessel's guitar to brilliant effect in the movie A Touch Of Evil. The guitarist can be heard in countless other films and, yes, even the occasional elevator.
Yet if they judge a man by the company he keeps, the list of artists that Kessel has recorded with (most on more than one occasion) reads like a true who's who of popular culture: Fred Astaire, The Jefferson Airplane, Bing Crosby, Charlie Parker, Tina Turner, Stan Getz, Cher, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughn and Quincy Jones are just a few.
He has also inspired countless guitarists along the way. The Who's main man, Pete Townshend, wrote "To Barney Kessel" in 1975, eventually releasing it on his Scoop album, while keyboardist Al Kooper has admitted that Blood, Sweat & Tears' classic "Flute Thing" was influenced by a cadenza played by Kessel.
Collectors now seek out Kessel songbooks and paraphernalia; Gibson guitars held him in such high esteem that, from 1961 to 1974, the company issued a Kessel signature semi-acoustic model. Surely one of the guitars rests in the Kessel home, probably within the vicinity of his numerous awards from institutions like Metronome, Downbeat and Playboy.
At the time of his move to San Diego, Kessel was still touring to great acclaim, and in early 1992 had already completed jaunts through Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. On May 26 of that year, however, he suffered a stroke. Things took a turn for the worst in November of 2001, as Kessel was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
It's a truly unfortunate situation for one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Looking back at Kessel's body of work over the past decades, it's almost inconceivable that a single person could have accomplished so much. The next time you hear "Unchained Melody," "Good Vibrations" or any other of the countless classics, give a kind thought to Barney, one of the great men of 20th century music.