Friday, April 20, 2012

Jazz Guitar Masters Play Rockabilly: The 1950s

Most of those that follow the blog will have noticed I have been working on guitar players from the 1950's who work in blues, rockabilly or R&B formats. Of particular interest lately is the use of session guitarists from the period and their inclusion on certain recordings. As the popularity of rockabilly exploded in the mid 50's, premier session guitarists and their talents acquired new appreciation among producers whose quest for a breakthrough single might be enhanced by a nifty, clean and catchy guitar solo. My last post on Grady Martin demonstrated the wide range of material a consummate session guitarist like Martin could work in and how his fretboard skills could lift and shape a recording. Eventually, my research on session guitarists from the period led me to something I knew would eventually lead to this post: the use of avowed and dedicated jazz guitarists on rockabilly recordings during the mid to late 1950's. Although not overly common, the practice was fairly widespread and seemed to be driven by the guitarists affiliation with certain record labels and/or dedication to certain producers. Since session player information is so scant on many of these recordings, it is really difficult to know just how many jazz players might have been drafted to perform on 50's rockabilly recordings. Also. although Jimmy Bryant's work with Sammy Masters might well have been included, (Pink Cadillac) I have limited the post to the use of three well known jazz guitarists; Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel and George Barnes.

I. George Barnes: Has been a favorite of mine for almost forty years. Back in the 1970's my friend Robert Haynes and I re-issued his LP "Guitars Anyone" which he recorded with the legendary Carl Kress. His very early use of an electric guitar and recordings in the 1930's with Big Bill Broonzy afford him indisputable iconic status. Barnes was such a phenomenal jazz player it's almost hard to conceive of him playing rockabilly. Nonetheless, he apparently loved the music and was featured on several recordings by Janis Martin and a couple by Eddie Fontaine. His infectiously tasteful sound and flawless execution really stands out on these recordings and add to their historical importance.

Eddie Fontaine: Barnes has a searing, innovative solo on Nothin Shakin that begins at 1:38. This is a cut that was covered by the Billy Fury here and later by the Beatles, here. Barnes also has an outstanding solo on his Decca recording Cool It Baby in which his chops are jazzy and perfectly measured. His solo begins at 1:23.

Janis Martin's RCA recordings usually featured either Chet Atkins or George Barnes, depending on the recording site. All have a bit of a Texas Swing feel to them and are of exceptional quality. Barnes is in top form on most of the RCA numbers, his work on "Little Bit" is particularly good, his first solo begins at 0.56 and a second at 1.15. Also check out his remarkable solo beginning at 0.30 on Ooby Dooby. Finally, Barnes has a very nice solo on Barefoot Baby beginnig at 0.47.

II. Barney Kessell: An accomplished jazz musician, Kessell was also a truly versatile session player who worked with a wide range of musicians, from Mel Torme and Dean Martin to Sam Cooke. He could lay down some very tough sounding rockabilly guitar when called upon. . Although best known for his work on the Imperial recordings by Lew Williams, he has a fascinating role on obscure rockabilly artist Dodie Randle's "I Fell in Love Again from 1956." Solo begins at 1:37.

Kessell's most memorable rockabilly sessions are with the Texas rockabilly musician Lew Williams, also recorded in 1956. Most notable are Centipede, with classic rockabilly tone and phrasing. His solo begins at 1:17. Kessel also smokes on the classic Bop Bop Ba Doo Bop , a tune Bill Millar claims the Straycats plagiarized on their very similar Fishnet Stockings. Listen and be the judge.

III. Howard Roberts: Roberts was a session player extraordinaire who played on a very wide range of recordings. According to Bill Millar, Roberts was apparently used on the four Imperial recordings Roy Brown did in 1958, all of very high quality and fascinating in that they are some of the few examples of "black rockabilly," i.e., an African American musician working in the genre. Although all four are worthy, Roberts is in top form with two outstanding solos on Hip Shakin Baby. Roberts is also featured on Eddie Cochran's Sittin on the Balcony from 1957 in which he provides a fascinating solo that begins at 0.55.