Charlie Christian and the Electric Guitar (1916-1942)
“Not long after Charles became proficient on guitar…there was a jam session up at Honey’s, an after hours spot, run by Honey Murphy. It was an exciting place when the jamming started….’Whole streets would just empty and go up to Honey’s.’…This night…included Edward Christian on piano and Ralph ‘Big Foot Chuck’ Hamilton on guitar. Young Charles Christian walked in with his brother, Clarence…Charles went up to the rest of the active musicians and pressed his brother, ‘Let me play one.’
“And Edward's reply was a classical, ‘Charles, don't nobody want to hear them old blues.’ Luckily Ralph Hamilton intervened on Charles’ behalf.…(and) he selected ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ The…band began to play with Edward setting the pace at piano….(Soon) it was Charles’ turn.
“...so he licked his thumb, and gripped his pick the way he wanted it. And Chuck told him, ‘Come on, Charlie, you can do it.’ Charles set there, and they encored him back for sixteen choruses, and every one was different. And (Charlie’s) oldest brother like to went through the ceiling. ‘Hey, hey man! This is my brother! This is my brother! Take another one, Charles. Take another one!’ You know he was going out, you know...”
Thus write Oklahoma authors Craig R. McKinney and Wayne E. Goins about the Oklahoman who became perhaps the most famous guitarist in the world. He rampaged through the first great solo performances on the amplified electric guitar. He catapulted Oklahoma City’s African American Deep Deuce neighborhood into even greater national fame as a musical incubator than before. He laid the foundation for the new genre of bebop, and he almost single-handedly tore the guitar out of the rhythm section of bands and orchestras and vaulted it to the front rank as a solo instrument.
He did all of this before passing from the scene like a white-hot comet blazing out at the age of 25.
Electric Guitar and Fame
The entire Christian clan played music by age 10, and often performed house to house on foot in fashionable OKC white neighborhoods. Charlie pursued the guitar, mastering it by age 12. Famed Oklahoma City novelist and Christian family friend Ralph Ellison recalled Charlie constructing his own instrument from cigar boxes in a manual training class at school.
In addition to Christian’s father Clarence and other family members, noted Douglass High School music teacher Zelia Breaux and the vibrant musical milieu of OKC’s Deep Deuce (Northeast Second Street) helped trigger his creative genius. In the mid and late-‘30s, Christian played with a series of bands, including Alphonso Trent. In 1940, celebrated Columbia music producer Johnny Hammond—brother-in-law of world-renowned swing music bandleader Benny Goodman—caught wind of Christian’s talent and flew to Oklahoma City to hear him.
Hammond found Christian’s guitar improvisations “as exciting as any I’d ever heard on any instrument,” and called him the “best setter of riffs in swing history.” Hammond determined to get the Oklahoman in front of Goodman. When he did, however, Christian was so nervous he dropped his guitar, and failed to impress the bandleader while playing acoustic.
Hammond persevered, placing Christian into Goodman’s own band without the latter’s knowledge that night at the swank Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills. Insulted, Goodman called for the band to play Rose Room, intending to humiliate Christian with a song he assumed the Oklahoman did not know. Little did the “King of Swing” imagine, however, that Christian had performed the song from the time he was a boy at Honey’s, and busking white neighborhoods with his family.
Christian wowed the audience on his Gibson ES-250 electric guitar for 40 minutes. By the end of that, he was a member of Goodman’s band and elite sextet, which also included Lionel Hampton and, later, Count Basie.
From 1939 through 1941, Christian won Down Beat magazine’s ranking as America’s best guitarist. Solo Flight, the Goodman hit featuring Christian, made the top of Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade in 1943. He also composed many of the Goodman Sextet’s original tunes, though not receiving credit for all of them. His electric guitar performances lit the way for later greats, including Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Carlos Santana, and Jimi Hendrix.
Hammond credited Christian for his key role in the success of Goodman’s nationally-broadcast Camel Caravan radio program. According to Christian biographer Anita Arnold, Oklahoma City’s Herbert Bailey recalled, “Back on ‘Deep Deuce’ the streets were always empty at 5:00 p.m. Everybody was home listening to Camel Caravan.”
Tuberculosis first struck Christian in the late 1930s, though historian Bob Burke sources it to the musician’s childhood years “in an Oklahoma City slum apartment house.” From 1940 onward, the disease plagued him. The end came soon after the United States entered World War II, on March 2, 1942, in a New York City sanitarium.
National Book Award Winner Ellison essayed the quintessential Christian valedictory in the Saturday Evening Review. In The Charlie Christian Story, Ellison chronicled Christian’s herculean conquest of the poverty, crime, and other dangerous conditions that surrounded him. He also depicted a sort of prophet without honor in his own country, remembering Christian’s dogged refusal to abandon his own unique gifting, voice, and passion, despite its rejection by many. These included influential African Americans in his own community. Ellison wrote:
“Jazz was regarded by most of the respectable Negroes…of the town as a backward, low-class form of expression, and there was a marked difference between those who accepted and lived close to their folk experience and those whose status strivings led them to reject and deny it. Charlie rejected this attitude in turn, along with those who held it…Ironically, what was perhaps his greatest special triumph came in death, when the respectable Negro middle-class not only joined in the public mourning, but acclaimed him here and took credit for his development.”
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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