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'The Genius of the Electric Guitar' - A Review

By David Okamoto, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – [Disc 4, Track 4 - "Solo Flight"]

The Lone Star State has long been a launching pad for string-bending, bar-raising legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker and Freddie King. But those electric guitar slingers may not have had an instrument to play if it wasn't for a trailblazing Texan named Charlie Christian.

An idol among musicians and one of the few jazz players inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Christian all but invented the electric guitar solo as a spotlight-stealing sideman with Benny Goodman's sextet between 1939 and 1941. He died of tuberculosis in 1942 at age 25, leaving behind an abbreviated studio legacy that is presented with eye-opening context and stunning audio clarity on Columbia Legacy's new four-CD box set called "The Genius of the Electric Guitar."

Most reference books peg him as a Dallas native, but Christian was actually born July 29, 1916 in Bonham, Texas, 70 miles northeast of here. Raised in Oklahoma City, he was influenced not by other guitarists but by touring saxophonists and trumpet players en route to and from the jazz hotbed of neighboring Kansas City. In 1939, he caught the attention of visiting Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, who invited him to Los Angeles to audition for Goodman.

The cards were certainly stacked against him: In 1939, an amplified guitar was considered a novelty and Goodman, having lost such celebrated band members as Harry James, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, was banking more on such young, handpicked successors as Fletcher Henderson, Lester Young and a then-unknown Lionel Hampton. But even the skeptical King of Swing recognized a revolution when he heard it.

On the Columbia Legacy box, you can hear the guitar graduating not just from acoustic to electric, but from a rhythm-section anchor to a prominent lead voice. Even one of Christian's first studio sessions, the 78 rpm debut of "Flying Home," which would became synonymous with vibraphonist Hampton three years later, demonstrates his ability to command attention without hijacking the session. As the song begins, you can sense Christian peeking out in the arrangement, like a curious kid bobbing up and down in a crowd to see what the fuss is all about. He waits for Goodman and Hampton to establish the melody line, and then he gracefully steps forward.

[Disc 1, Track 1 - "Flying Home"]

It doesn't sound that jarring today, but six decades ago, most guitar players were strumming chords in the background. Christian, playing his Gibson ES-150 through an amplifier, not only could be heard, he also developed a distinctive single-string soloing style that matched the harmonic range and emotional pitch of a saxophone. He would spend the last year of his life putting his fingerprints on the blueprint of be-bop during after-hours jams with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. But these swinging Goodman sessions capture the raw energy of inspired improvisation tempered with a remarkable sense of taste and restraint that even today separates the geniuses from the showboats.

[Disc 3, Track 8 - "Air Mail Special"]

 

David Okamoto is a senior entertainment producer at Yahoo! Broadcast and a contributing editor to ICE magazine. If you have comments on this review, call 214-740-9338 or go to our website at kera.org.