Skip to main content

Kessel, Barney (October 17, 1923-May 6, 2004)



  • Existence: October 17, 1923 - May 6, 2004


Barney Kessel was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 17, 1923. Kessel picked up the guitar when he was 12 years old. Two years later, he launched his professional career playing with an African American band led by Ellis Ezell. After touring with a territorial band, Kessel joined the Oklahoma A&M band, Hal Price & the Varsitonians. Guitarist Charlie Christian's recordings with the Benny Goodman band greatly influenced young Kessel. While playing with the Varsitonians in Oklahoma City, Kessel met and jammed with Christian. After jamming with Christian for three days, Kessel decided to develop his own distinctive hard swinging style.

In 1942, Kessel moved to California where he worked with bands led by Chico Marx, Ben Pollock, Hal McIntyre, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. In 1944, he performed in the film short Jammin' the Blues featuring saxophonist Lester Young and other jazz greats. Kessel, who was the only white musician in the group during that time of racial segregation, was filmed in a shadow to hide his skin color. In 1947, he played with Charlie Parker on the Relaxin’ at Camarillo sessions for the Dial label.

In 1951, Kessel joined the pianist Oscar Peterson's Trio. Kessel toured extensively with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic as a member of the Peterson Trio and as a sideman. In 1953, Kessel formed his own trio and recorded a string of critically acclaimed albums for the Contemporary label.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Kessel worked with a group of studio musicians, who later became known as the "Wrecking Crew." Phil Specter often employed the group for his "wall of sound" recordings. Kessel also played on recordings and movie soundtracks featuring Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher and other rock and roll icons. His iconic guitar was featured on Billie Holiday's Body And Soul (1957) and Julie London's Cry Me A River (1955). Over the years, he appeared as a sideman on hundreds of recordings.

During the 1970s and 1980s Kessel teamed up with fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd to form the Great Guitars, one of the most successful jazz guitar trios of all time. Their 1970s recordings, including Great Guitars: Straight Tracks (1978) and Great Guitars At The Winery (1980), are milestones in jazz guitar history. He later recorded Spontaneous Combustion (1987) with the Jamaican-born pianist Monty Alexander.

Kessel was also a respected music educator. He wrote a regular jazz tuition column in Guitar Playermagazine during the 1980s and produced several instruction videos for guitar players. He gave up playing after a major stroke in 1992. Barney Kessel died on May 6, 2004 from complications due to cancer.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Barney Kessel Collection

Identifier: MS-0295
Scope and Contents The Barney Kessel Collection was donated to LaBudde Special Collections in May 2016 by Phyllis Kessel.The manuscript collection contains a vast array of manuscripts and other materials spanning the length of Kessel's life and career. Materials contained in the collection range in date from the early 1920s to the mid-2010s. Content includes correspondence, business and personal documents, notes, interview transcripts, posters, promotional material, full scores, parts and...
Dates: 1910 - 2016