Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 July '16, Dallas TX; d 2 March '42). Electric guitar pioneer; a jazz giant before his early death from TB. His father was a blind guitarist/singer; he began on trumpet, guitar from age twelve, also bass and piano. He is said to have studied with the same guitar teacher as T-Bone Walker, who would have as profound an influence on rhythm & blues as Christian had on jazz. Christian probably heard amplified steel guitar played in jazz-influenced "Western Swing" bands; Bob Dunn recorded in 1935, and Leon McAuliffe with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys was extremely influential. When George Barnes was still a teenager he recorded on electric guitar with Big Bill Broonzy in Chicago on 1 March 1938; that same month and again in September Eddie Durham recorded for Commodore with Kansas City Five and Six combos. But it was Christian who established the electric guitar once and for all as a new jazz instrument, capable of sustained notes and of being heard solo in a group.

He played with a microphone taped to his guitar in 1936, acquired his Gibson ES150 guitar and amplifier in '37, toured with the Omaha-based singer and bandleader Anna Mae Winburn that year and with Alphonso Trent in '38. Les Paul, another electric guitar pioneer, was a friend. Christian was spotted by Mary Lou Williams when the Andy Kirk band came to Oklahoma City in July 1939; she talked up Christian to John Hammond, who of course got credit for 'discovering' him. In September '39 he joined Benny Goodman, who was convinced when Christian was sneaked on to the stand at a gig; he played mostly in the Goodman combo but also in the big band. His playing influenced modern jazz at Minton's, one of the places where bop was being invented; his favourite riffing figures became jazz standards: he shared composer credit on Goodman's 'Solo Flight', 'Seven Come Eleven', 'Air Mail Special'. He was one of those whose invention was so fertile that he never played a solo the same way twice, and he would probably have become an even greater soloist had he lived longer.

Almost all his recordings were on Columbia, mostly with Goodman sextets including Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams, Georgie Auld etc and including warm-up jams ('Blues In B', 'Waitin' For Benny') because USA Columbia recorded everything on 16-inch acetates, as well as a rehearsal session by a B.G. sextet including Lester Young, in fact an entirely Basie-ite session except for Goodman. There were a great many airchecks of Christian with the Goodman groups on the radio, and in September '39, a couple of weeks before his first studio recording with Goodman, three tracks had been cut informally by Jerry Newhouse in an after-hours spot in Minneapolis, with Jerry Jerome on tenor sax, Frankie Hines on piano and a very young Oscar Pettiford on bass; the following month Christian played lovely acoustic guitar on Ida Cox's comeback recordings. There was a Blue Note date with the Edmond Hall Quartet early '41 (including 'Profoundly Blue') and more informal recordings made at Minton's by Jerry Newman in May. All the Goodman studio tracks including alternates and scraps were collected in 2002 on a Columbia Legacy 4-CD set as Charlie Christian: The Genius Of Electric Guitar; the transfers were very good but the packaging reached a new low in CD marketing: the box fell apart when you picked it up. Most of the rest of Christian's recorded work has been collected on 4-CD sets on obscure labels; the tracks with Jerome were well transferred on Arbors.