While Muskogee continues to produce great guitar players, arguably the greatest to come out of Muskogee may be Barney Kessel. Many jazz historians list Barney as one of the three most influential jazz guitarist of the 20th century, along with Django Rheinhardt and fellow Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Christian.
Born in Muskogee in 1923, Barney grew up near downtown Muskogee and operated a paper route. He regularly passed a music store on his route, so when he was 12, he had saved up enough to buy a guitar, teaching himself how to play by listening to western swing artists on the radio. At 14, he dropped out of school to tour as the only white musician in a band, working the region in black clubs.
Barney became acquainted with Charlie Christian, who inspired him to develop his own style. Barney eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1942 where he landed a job in the Chico Marx Orchestra. With some guidance from Charlie, he joined the Benny Goodman band, rooming with vocalist and fill-in drummer Mel Torme. From the mid-1940s to 1960, Barney made quiet a career in the music business, considered the No. 1 guitarist in many magazine jazz polls including Esquire, Downbeat, and Playboy. During this time, in addition to recording with Julie London, Billie Holliday, Kay Starr (another OMHOF inductee), Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby, Barney also wrote and produced Ricky Nelson in the early days of rock ‘n roll. Barney can be heard on early rock songs like Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” and “Over and Over.” Barney even had an uncredited role in the move “Some Like It Hot” with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe, playing guitar in the house band.
During the 1960s, Barney became a “first call” guitarist for LA recording sessions, working with musicians who were eventually labeled “The Wrecking Crew” due to their involvement with so many legendary recording sessions that were the driving force of rock ‘n roll and pop music. This group of musicians also featured OMHOF inductee Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Hall Blaine, and Tommy Tedesco. Eventually, Barney’s resume included recordings for Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Barbara Streisand, The Beach Boys, The Monkees, Liberace, Chet Baker (another Okie), and many more.
With credits on more than a half dozen Elvis records, Barney can be heard on “Return to Sender” and “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” Two of my favorite stories of Barney happened while recording with Sonny Bono. The first was during a long and boring session for “I’ve Got You Babe,” where the quiet and mannerly Barney told Sonny during a break that if he was ever told he only had two weeks to live, he wanted to spend it with Sonny….”because each moment is like an eternity.” The other story was during the recording of the one-chord tune “The Beat Goes On,” where Barney suddenly proclaimed “You know guys, this song has a great change,” then turned to Sonny and said, “Never have so many played so little for so much!”
Barney played guitar on many Beach Boys sessions such as “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” and “Good Vibrations.”
George Harrison once described Barney as “…definitely the best guitar player in this world, or any other world.” John Lennon and B.B. King both worshipped Barney’s playing.
Barney’s son Dan recounted in an interview that Kessel family dinner guests throughout the years included Audrey Hepburn, Spade Cooley, Fred Astaire, Steve McQueen, and Ella Fitzgerald.
In Barney’s later years, he performed at the White House for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, alongside his stepsons Mickey Rooney Jr., and Tim Rooney.
In 1999, Barney returned to Muskogee for his induction into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame along side Vince Gill and Byron Berline. In May 2004, Barney passed away at his home in San Diego after suffering from a brain tumor.