|In 1998 I went to San Diego and met with Barney Kessel for two days. He was living in a modest home with his wife Phyllis, who also happens to be an editor at San Diego Home & Garden Magazine.
He was still recovering from his stroke that he suffered in 1992. His guitar was hanging on the wall over his bed. The walls were covered with many photos and awards from over the years. The doctors told him that he would never regain his speech or play the guitar again. I can only imagine how devastating this was for him knowing that his entire life was touring, gigging and recording. (In fact, at the time of his stroke he had a yearıs worth of bookings that had to be canceled). For the first couple of years after the stroke he was bedridden, but gradually, with much physical therapy, support from his wife Phyllis, and his indomitable spirit Barney was able to get out of bed, walk around and go outside with the aid of a walker.
Over the course of these two days Barney told me his whole life story. Since one side of his body was paralyzed it was very difficult for him, but he did tell me some good stories beginning with Charlie Christian, his musical idol and major influence. Barney first met Charlie Christian in Oklahoma City, OK, where Charlie sat in with his college band, The Stillwater Oklahoma Orchestra, using Barneyıs guitar. Barney recalled Charlie not only sitting in, but also spending three days meeting him in the day to discuss music and playing the guitar and then returning each night with some local musicians to jam. Barney told me that the greatest lesson he learned from Charlie Christian was that you only take out your guitar if youıre going to learn something new, have fun or get paid.
Another was how he got the gig with Chico Marx in 1943. With his guitar, a change of clothes and a one-way bus ticket, at age 19 Barney boarded a Greyhound bus from Muskogee to L.A. Some local musicians told him about a rooming house for musicians not far from the bus station. After some coffee and securing a job washing dishes he checked into the rooming house. There was nobody there when the phone rang in the hall, so Barney answered. They were looking for the guitar player. Barney says, 'I am the guitar player'. Barney went down for the audition and landed his first job with the Chico Marx Orchestra. Mel Torme was the drummer in this band, by the way. Not a bad way to begin an amazing career that included stints with Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic. In fact, Barney told me that he was the house guitarist for Verve in the beginning and did many sessions for the label, including being the first guitarist for the Oscar Peterson Trio as well as having the distinction of being the only guitarist in the history of jazz to have recorded with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. His association with Norman Granz and Verve Records was how Barney got his appearance in the