Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 2. THE CHRISTIAN CRUSADE
Before there was Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Elvis, or Frank Sinatra, there was Benny Goodman. With his horn-rimmed glasses and professorial air, the clarinet-playing bandleader from Chicago was perhaps an unlikely pop idol, but in 1939 he was an unstoppable force.
His meteoric rise to fame is often said to have begun on the night of August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood, California. After receiving a tepid response to the bland pop tunes and waltzes he thought his audience wanted to hear, Goodman and his fourteen-piece band decided to shake things up. Halfway through the night, Goodman called for his orchestra to perform “Sugar Foot Stomp,” a hot arrangement written by the African American composer and bandleader Fletcher Henderson.
The band attacked the chart with a thundering ferocity rarely heard from white musicians. It was strong medicine, but the kids who had been prepped for it via Los Angeles’s first celebrity disc jockey, Al Jarvis, and his radio show The Make Believe Ballroom, were ready and waiting. As the band exploded, so did the audience, who roared their approval. Goodman would later remember the response as “one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard in my life.”
Emboldened by the enthusiastic reception to “Sugar Foot Stomp,” Goodman and his band incorporated more Henderson material into their set, and by popular demand were invited to stay at the Palomar for an additional two months before traveling to Chicago, where they created a similar hysteria. The Windy City newspapers seized on the growing popularity of Goodman’s sound, describing his edgy, black-influenced dance music as “swing.”
After scoring fifteen Billboard Top 10 hits in 1936 alone, the mania reached a fever pitch in March 1937, when more than 21,000 young people came to New York’s Paramount Theater to see Goodman and his band, dancing in the aisles and rushing the stage. While tame by today’s mosh pit standards, the uninhibited outburst shocked parents of the day and inspired the New York Times to call it a “riot” (although the only evidence of real mayhem was at the refreshment stand, where Goodman set a Paramount record for the most nickel candy bars sold in a day).
By the end of the thirties, the media had crowned the clarinetist the King of Swing. But not all was well within the king’s castle. In the wake of the swing frenzy, other formidable orchestras started threatening Goodman’s domination. Additionally, in 1939 the bandleader lost three of his superstar sidemen in quick succession when trumpeter Harry James, drummer Gene Krupa, and pianist Teddy Wilson all jumped ship to start their own bands. For the first time since his rapid rise to fame, Benny felt threatened by the competition. He sent his talent scout and adviser, John Hammond, out in search of fresh new faces to fortify his big band—an ensemble that was growing smaller by the minute.
Hammond worked for Goodman, but the sharply dressed New Yorker—with a grin so generous it made his eyes squint and cheeks split in two—was no mere flunky. He was born to wealth, the great-grandson of railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, and his role as producer and music executive would make him one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music. Among Hammond’s early discoveries were jazz artists such as Count Basie and Billie Holiday, and later he would launch the careers of rock giants like Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But what really distinguished Hammond as a monumental figure in American culture was his work as a champion for African American musicians. He recognized that jazz was essentially a black art form and he preferred hiring black musicians over white ones, but racial integration in music, to say nothing of America’s social institutions, was still decades away. He was determined to change that paradigm.
“To bring recognition to the Negro’s supremacy in jazz was the most effective and constructive form of social protest I could think of,” said Hammond years later.
Goodman’s band was a perfect vehicle for his ambitions, and Hammond cannily used the clarinetist’s popularity as a battering ram to break down color lines in popular music. His determination to introduce African American artists such as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday, who had her first hits with Benny’s orchestra, to white mainstream audiences would not only lead to commercial success but also have far-reaching social consequences.
Despite Hammond’s patrician background (and his posh enunciation of words like “mah-velous” and “ghah-stly”), he was one of the few white record executives trusted by the black music community. It was for this reason that Mary Lou Williams, a highly respected black jazz pianist and arranger, reached out to Hammond in 1939, urging him to take a look at Charlie Christian, a twenty-two-year-old guitarist from Oklahoma whose pioneering work on the electric guitar was knocking them dead in the Midwest.
The idea of a virtuoso electric guitarist sounded novel, so in his mission to find Goodman the next big thing, Hammond hopped a plane to Oklahoma City. He would later recall the guitarist’s audition at Ruby’s Grill, a local jazz hot spot, as “one of the most exciting days of my life.” After hearing the skinny, six-foot-tall musician improvise more fluidly on his Gibson ES-150 than any guitarist he had ever encountered, he excitedly called Goodman to say he had found his next superstar.
The bandleader, who was not known for his patience, cut Hammond short. “Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?”
“I don’t know,” Hammond said, “but you won’t believe him until you hear him.”
AS THE WORLD’S first electric guitar hero, Charlie Christian, one could argue, forged the tragic archetype for the many six-string revolutionaries that followed him, among them Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kurt Cobain, musicians who radically changed the face of music and died too soon.
Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas, to a family of musicians—including his parents and his two older brothers. His father, Clarence, was particularly gifted. It was said he could play almost any instrument he set his hands on, but he favored strings and his first love was the guitar. He encouraged his sons to play music, teaching his older boys to play violin and mandolin. It was assumed when Charlie was born that he’d complete the family band.
Soon after Charlie came into the world, Clarence contracted an illness that made him gradually go blind. After dealing with the initial shock and depression of his condition, Clarence rallied, turning to music for therapy and a way to feed his family. There weren’t many formal jobs for musicians, black or otherwise, to be had in Bonham, so Clarence grabbed his sons, headed to the streets, and played in public places or door-to-door for change. Unable to make ends meet, and with starvation a very real threat, the Christians left Texas in 1918 for Oklahoma City, where they found support in their extended family.
Locating a job that accommodated his blindness was no easy task. Clarence was eventually hired to do the physically demanding work of unloading railcars. He moved his family close to the northeast Second Street area, known as Deep Second or Deep Deuce, a narrow but lively downtown district that served as Oklahoma City’s center of jazz music and black culture and commerce. Like Beale Street in Memphis or the French Quarter in New Orleans, Second Street was a buzzing hive of musical innovation and competition. It was the heart of black Oklahoma City, where respectable businessmen thrived by day and hustlers, pool sharks, and bootleggers ruled the noisy clubs at night.
One resident of the area and a childhood friend of Christian’s, Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 novel Invisible Man made him the first black author listed on the New York Times best-seller list, remembered lying awake at night listening to the music and wild excitement drifting down from Second Street. “You couldn’t escape it,” he said. “That was one of the delights.” In a more transcendent mood, Ellison, a lifelong jazz enthusiast, recalled standing on the street corner hearing a voice “miraculously unhindered by distance and earthbound things as is the body in youthful dreams of flying.” For Ellison, the music of Second Street evoked the heavens.
For Clarence, however, the Deuce represented something a bit more terrestrial. As in Texas, he and his three boys hit the streets and started playing for extra money. While the two elder brothers didn’t enjoy what amounted to panhandling, Charlie loved the music and action on Second Street, and soon became a fixture on the scene.
When Clarence passed away in 1926 at the age of thirty-six, he left his guitars to Charlie, who started seriously devoting himself to music. By the time he was thirteen he was studying theory with local jazz musicians and developing his signature sound: a sophisticated and idiosyncratic approach to soloing that, with its single-note melodies, owed more to local saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans than to country blues guitarists such as Lonnie Johnson, or even the influential gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
During his teen years, Second Street became Charlie’s second home: a place where he could skip school, play guitar, and make money as he honed his chops to a fine edge. There he became friendly with the then-unknown Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker, a hotshot guitarist six years older than Charlie. The Texas-born guitarist regularly traveled through Oklahoma City as a member of a sixteen-piece band. But Walker knew a good side-hustle when he saw one; he and Christian shared an interest in guitar, were blues and jazz enthusiasts, and were avid dancers. Together they were a dynamite act on the street.
“We was really dropouts,” Walker later recalled. “Because we were making money, we wouldn’t go to school. We’d go dance and pass the hat and make money. Charlie would play guitar awhile, and I’d play bass, and then we’d change, and he’d play bass, and I’d play the guitar. And then we’d go into our little dance.”
In many ways, the guitar was an unusual instrument for serious musicians to gravitate to. Still largely an acoustic instrument, it wasn’t loud enough to compete with horns. It usually was overshadowed as a rhythm instrument by the piano. But as Charlie and Walker discovered, it was perfect for street entertaining. It was portable, you could play the chords to all the popular songs of the day on it, and you could dance while performing.
Despite realizing the seeming limitations of the guitar, Christian was determined to become a master like his father and elevate the instrument in the process. The guitar was in the early stages of becoming a lead instrument in popular music, and though there were no guidelines and few six-string role models available, one thing Oklahoma City had no shortage of was musical inspiration and innovation.
In the thirties, despite the Depression and the unprecedented Dust Bowl drought that sent thousands scurrying to other regions, Oklahoma City’s music scene was thriving. The town played host to the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, an extraordinary Southwestern jazz band featuring future jazz giants such as Count Basie, drummer Jo Jones, and Charlie’s hero, Lester Young. Equally important were Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, one of the very first country bands to synthesize big-city swing jazz with folk instruments like fiddles and steel guitars.
Off the streets, inventions like the radio and phonograph filled the air with exciting new jazz, blues, and country sounds, and Charlie soaked it all in. By the time he was eighteen, in 1934, his talent was undeniable. He was performing in clubs and proper paying gigs, and the elder jazz community recognized his talent. Over the next four years he was allowed to sit in and learn from the best at clubs such as the Hole, the Goody-Goody Cafe, the Ritz, and on local radio stations like WXFR and KGFG.
The young man enjoyed his life as a professional musician, but what he most relished was being inducted into jazz’s not-so-secret society: the exotic and intense world of the late-night jam session. Any musician visiting the area—black or white—knew that the only place to be after the clubs closed was Second Street, where musical showdowns erupted like knife fights almost every night in ballrooms, public halls, and even hotel rooms.
Most of the jamming was for fun—an opportunity for players to learn from each other, to stretch out and improvise without commercial restrictions. But just as often these midnight jams that lasted well into the morning were serious business: musicians clashed in order to win respect, local supremacy, and a chance to move up the club food chain. When a particularly hot battle broke out, word would spread like wildfire, drawing huge audiences who had no problem expressing their opinions by cheering or jeering.
If you ran out of ideas during a jam, you were a dead man. Steal them from your opponent and you were worse than dead. But if you could spin a new riff and twist it into something fresh over numerous choruses of a standard like “Sweet Georgia Brown,” you’d become the talk of the town overnight. The bandstand was all well and good, but it was these nightly challenges of skill, technique, and intellectual rigor that turned Charlie Christian into the phenomenon he would become. In a cutting contest, he usually had the sharpest knife, and he had no problem sticking it to any musician with any instrument.
It was one of these jams in 1939 that would cement Christian’s local hero status and set his trajectory toward world fame and fortune. Floyd Smith, who had a national reputation as a first-rate guitarist due to his hit “Floyd’s Guitar Blues,” was playing a one-nighter at the Oklahoma Ballroom when he was lured into a jam with Christian. Thinking he was facing off with a hick from the sticks, he burned through all of his best licks in his first couple of choruses, hoping to crush the young upstart at the outset.
Pianist Mary Lou Williams, an eyewitness to the event and the woman who later championed Christian to John Hammond, remembered: “For a while it was a close call, then Charlie decided to blow. He used his head on cutting sessions…taking it easy while other musicians played everything they knew, then cutting loose to blast them off the map. Never in my life had I heard such inspired and exciting music as Christian beat out of his guitar. Poor Floyd gave it up and walked off the stand. Charlie played for us till daybreak.”
While improvising guitarists were still pretty rare in the thirties, Christian wasn’t the only six-string gunslinger to come from Oklahoma City. The town—almost miraculously—would serve up two other giants who would eventually pioneer and revolutionize the use of the electric guitar in two completely different musical genres. Just as Charlie Christian would electrify jazz, his childhood friend “T-Bone” Walker would find fame by fusing blues and swing into his own highly polished sound (which would go on to influence B.B. King and rockers like Chuck Berry and the Allman Brothers). Eldon Shamblin, who starred in Bob Wills’s swing band, would help introduce amplification to country music.
Together, these three men would put the electric guitar on the map. But before they could take over the musical world, they needed an instrument that was a match for their talents.
GIBSON’S ES-150 is regularly referred to as the world’s first commercially successful Spanish-style electric guitar (the ES stood for Electric Spanish; 150 reflected an instrument/amplifier bundle priced at around $150). Designwise, it is a hollow-body guitar with two sound holes, each in the shape of a cursive “f” (known fittingly as f-holes) cut into its top. The top itself has a subtly arched contour, reaching its highest point where the strings pass over the body; this feature, along with the f-holes, came out of traditional violin design. The combination of features—the hollow body, the contoured top, the distinctive sound holes—came to constitute what is now collectively known as the “archtop” guitar. It would become the archetype for pretty much all jazz electrics to come.
Prior to the ES-150, Gibson had tried getting electric guitars onto the market as early as 1933. These initial attempts, however, were somewhat primitive, using pickups that relied on capturing vibrations off the top of the guitar rather than the strings. It was the introduction of George Beauchamp’s revolutionary electromagnetic pickup for the Rickenbacker Electro that gave guitar makers their most essential piece of inspiration. In the spring of 1935, Gibson commissioned an amateur radio operator named Walter Fuller to develop an electromagnetic pickup that would better Beauchamp’s. Remarkably, within a matter of weeks, Fuller had managed to create what is now commonly known as the “bar pickup” because of its long, hexagonal shape.
Destined to be known as the “Charlie Christian pickup,” it was a definite improvement over Beauchamp’s cumbersome pickup, which had a bulky magnet that arched over the strings and interfered with the picking hand. Instead, Fuller’s pickup sat comfortably and discreetly beneath the strings. The outer portion of the pickup consisted of a coil of copper wire wrapped around a rectangular plastic spool known as a bobbin, both of which fit around a slim, chrome-plated steel blade.* Attached to this were two slender bar magnets. Fuller designed the pickup so that the two magnets were located beneath the top of the guitar, tucked inside the instrument’s hollow body, like the bulk of an iceberg concealed under the surface. This design placed the magnets out of sight and, more important, out of the way of the player’s picking hand. While the mechanics of Fuller’s pickup were far from those of the compact version that would appear just a few short years later, the outward aesthetic set the tone for the way pickups would look throughout the modern era. The Fuller pickup was initially tested and installed in six-string lap steel guitars made of aluminum. While those instruments sounded just fine, Gibson was slow to deliver an equivalent Spanish model. It wasn’t until retail giants Montgomery Ward and Spiegel, May, Stern began applying pressure on the manufacturer to deliver an electric Spanish guitar for their catalogs that Gibson started producing a genuine ES model.
In late 1936 and early 1937, Gibson delivered their first instruments to the large chains. The company was reluctant to put its name on the somewhat hastily constructed guitars, which were made from inferior pressed plywood rather than solid wood. In compliance, Ward called their Gibson-built model the “1270” while Spiegel dubbed theirs the “Old Kraftsman,” and even though they were made with cheap materials, both guitars were genuine retail successes. Ward sold close to nine hundred of them through 1940.
After that, there was no ignoring the burgeoning popularity of these new instruments. Gibson decided to put some real muscle into creating an electric guitar worthy of its name—which had by now become synonymous with innovative, quality instruments.
While the company saw the value in Beauchamp’s developments, they had different ideas about what a guitar should look like and how it should be constructed (it should not resemble a frying pan, for one). Their first Gibson-branded electrics would be well-crafted acoustic instruments that could be played with or without an amplifier.
Before putting their name on the headstock, Gibson improved on the Ward/Spiegel model in almost every way. Their logo would be inlaid in pearl rather than stenciled on. The new ES-150 would have an adjustable truss rod (a steel rod running through the neck, used to adjust tension), a solid spruce arched top, solid maple back and sides, and tone and volume controls built into the guitar. Costing $72.50 with a cord, and $155 with a 15-watt amp and case (about $2,000 today), the revamped six-string would be, in Gibson’s own words, “the perfect Spanish guitar.”
Whether it was perfect is up for debate, but it was, and still is, a truly fine-sounding electric instrument. Gibson wisely decided to place the pickup toward the neck, away from the bridge, giving the guitar a rich, warm tone that blended well when accompanying other instruments, while still having enough “attack” that when played aggressively with a pick, it could hold its own against any horn or piano in a larger ensemble.
Charlie Christian had been searching for a bold guitar sound that would match the saxophone tones of players like Chu Berry and Dick Wilson, and the technology finally caught up to him. The ES-150 and Christian were a match made in heaven, and together they created a beautiful noise that changed the course of music and defined guitar jazz for years to come. Future greats such as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson would create their own signature sounds with the electric guitar, but they would all use Charlie’s essential building blocks.
It’s hard to say when Charlie first became aware of the ES-150, but it must have come as a revelation after years of struggling to be heard. Earlier accounts have him playing his acoustic guitars with a microphone balanced between his legs, or else fastened to his guitar with a network of rubber bands. With an ES-150 in his possession, it wasn’t long before he started blowing everyone away, as he did with John Hammond at Ruby’s Grill.
TWO ANXIOUS WEEKS after his audition with Hammond, Charlie finally received a telegram:
COME AT ONCE. HAVE POSITION WITH BENNY GOODMAN.
Upon receiving the news, Christian reportedly sat down and started laughing. When asked why, he replied, “That man’s in Los Angeles. How in the hell am I going to make it to Los Angeles if I ain’t got cab fare downtown?”
The problem was quickly resolved. Goodman had a weekly radio show, Camel Caravan, with a $300 budget for guest artists, and Hammond persuaded Benny to use the money to pay for Christian’s flight to L.A.
The news sent huge ripples through Oklahoma’s music community. The Black Dispatch, an Oklahoma City black newspaper, described Charlie’s trip to the West Coast as “one of the biggest breaks ever received by a local musician.”
And it was—Goodman was gigantic, after all. His popularity was often compared to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. So when Christian walked in to perform for the bandleader in August of 1939, it was little wonder that he had a serious case of the jitters.
“I was so nervous and everything,” Christian said to Metronome magazine. “Benny sent everyone home from rehearsal, and then asked me to play for him. So there we were, just the two of us, and I was so nervous with him just sittin’ there and lookin’ at me. I couldn’t play hardly at all.”
It probably didn’t help that Benny was visibly irritated with the situation. He was still skeptical of the electric guitar, and he showed it by impatiently refusing to allow Christian time to plug his guitar into his amp. As the guitarist fumbled through a tepid version of “Tea for Two,” an unimpressed Goodman excused himself and hightailed it out of the room. But the clarinetist must have felt some small twinge of sympathy for the poor Oklahoma musician who had traveled all the way to California, because before he left he extended an invitation for Charlie to come see his band play that night at Victor Hugo’s, a swanky supper club.
Hammond was mortified by the news of Christian’s botched audition, but he was not deterred. He knew Charlie was the new star Goodman was desperately looking for. That night, in a last-ditch effort, Hammond snuck Charlie onstage during a dinner break, hoping to give the guitarist one last shot at impressing Goodman. When Benny returned, he was not at all pleased to find Charlie on the bandstand. He called “Rose Room,” a song he was certain the guitarist wouldn’t know. To Goodman’s surprise, it was a favorite of Christian’s, and he devoured the song, playing with the passion and innovation he reserved for his fiercest Second Street showdowns. Goodman was so mesmerized by Charlie’s ability to build long, complex hornlike lines that slid, bent, and slurred into sophisticated bluesy shapes that he allowed the guitarist to solo over an astounding twenty choruses. When the song finally ended, Christian had earned his spot in the band.
Within three weeks—largely due to Goodman’s full touring schedule and his high-profile radio show—Christian had become a star. And five months later he became one of music’s most respected names when Down Beat magazine, America’s most influential jazz publication, voted him #1 in their Best Guitarist poll. Christian dominated with 2,665 votes, compared to Django Reinhardt’s paltry 55 and Les Paul’s positively anemic 12.
As Charlie’s fame exploded, so did the electric guitar’s. Soon Epiphone, Kay Musical Instruments, Vega, Harmony, and Gretsch all introduced competing electrics. Gibson unabashedly promoted the ES-150 as having “Charlie Christian pickups.”
Goodman’s estimation of Charlie also grew. In a 1982 interview conducted a few years before the bandleader’s death, he remembered the guitarist as being rather shy and reserved. “But, by gosh, when he sat down and played the guitar, he was something! He was way ahead of his time and a joy to listen to.”
But not everybody was a Christian convert. Adding yet another black musician to the Goodman band (the other two having been vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson) rankled some observers; segregation was still a matter of state and local law in the South in the 1940s, and violations were punishable by imprisonment and death by hanging. But a combination of artistic integrity and arrogance (not to mention witnessing the band’s commercial success) made Goodman stand his ground.
“Benny didn’t have to have us in his band, and he put up with a lot,” said Hampton about his early days with Goodman.
Theater managers would tell him they were getting a lot of mail protesting Teddy and me, but Benny wouldn’t back down. He once bopped a guy in the head with his clarinet when the guy told him he should “get those niggers off his show.” Meanwhile, he was getting flak from some critics in the black community who accused him of using blacks. That was nonsense. He didn’t have to hire Teddy or me; he hired us because we made his kind of music. And this was in the North! Benny knew he was going to have to make some serious advance plans when we went south.
Goodman’s commitment to the African Americans in his band had been put to severe test in the summer of 1937, two years before Christian joined the band, when he was invited to perform at the Pan American Casino in Dallas. He knew it was going to be a rough gig for an integrated band; no integrated orchestra had ever played in the Deep South before, and Goodman planned his visit like a military campaign.
First, he made it a part of the orchestra’s contract that his black musicians would be able to stay with the rest of the band in the Statler Hotel in downtown Dallas, and that they would also be able to use the same entrance and elevators. While the hotel’s management wasn’t thrilled, they were willing to relent since it meant delivering the country’s biggest name in music.
To further guarantee the safety and dignity of his musicians, he had his own car, a Packard, sent down to Dallas by train so they wouldn’t have to worry about taxi drivers refusing to pick them up. He also hired an escort to accompany the musicians from the hotel entrance to their rooms and back.
“I wasn’t worried about going south with Benny,” said Hampton. “People said to me, ‘Why you goin’ down south? Those white folks will kill you.’ And I’d say, ‘They’ll have to kill Benny Goodman first.’ ”
As it turned out, when it came to music, fans were often willing to look past color, a phenomenon that would recur many times throughout the decades—with the guitar playing a surprising role in softening racist attitudes.
For Charlie, playing for Goodman was life altering. He went from making $7.50 to $200 a week. He became one of Goodman’s favorite soloists, given ample room to blow on hits like “Flying Home,” “Six Appeal (My Daddy Rocks Me),” and “Good Enough to Keep (Air Mail Special).” But even with his newfound fame, the guitarist spent most of his time playing, practicing, and searching for the next after-hours jam session.
For years, Goodman had been plagued by terrible back pain, and in July 1940 he decided to have major surgery performed on his lower spine. When he returned to playing in October, the band was reassembled in New York City. This was both a blessing and a curse for Christian. Manhattan was the heaviest town in the world for a musician with his voracious appetites. The guitarist rarely turned down an opportunity to hang out and jam after gigs with Goodman, and he soon found his home away from home in a dingy club on 118th Street in Harlem called Minton’s Playhouse. It was there he made friends with club bandleader Kenny Clarke and house pianist Thelonious Monk, two of the founding fathers of modern jazz.
Soon the guitarist was the star attraction of Minton’s truly legendary after-hours jam sessions, where he presided over and helped fan the flames of the next revolutionary movement in jazz: bebop. The style was characterized by small ensembles playing at lightning-fast tempos with new levels of virtuosity and harmonic complexity, and this non-danceable music was a younger generation’s direct counter to big band swing like Benny Goodman’s. While Charlie by no means rejected Goodman’s influence, he simply could not resist the challenge of learning a new musical language and beating those Young Turks at their own game. He astonished cocky newcomers like Monk and Charlie Parker with his dexterity and deep understanding of chords and harmony.
But Goodman’s demanding schedule combined with Christian’s late-night activities started to take a toll on the guitarist’s health. Back in March of 1940, he had been hospitalized for exhaustion and doctors discovered scars on his lungs from tuberculosis. He was told to slow down and get rest, but that had never been his style. If anything, the excitement at Minton’s accelerated his pace.
On March 4, 1941, he recorded “Solo Flight,” a track that many aficionados consider his finest hour with Goodman. But that June, Charlie collapsed during a tour of the Midwest and was rushed back to New York, where he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital. His tuberculosis had returned.
Christian’s health continued to deteriorate. Well-meaning friends didn’t help matters much, sneaking girls and marijuana into his room when he was supposed to be recovering. In January of 1942, stuck in the ward at Sea View Hospital on Staten Island, he received news that he had won the Down Beat poll for the third straight year, gathering over 40 percent of the vote. It was probably the last good news he would hear. On March 3, at the young age of twenty-five, Christian contracted pneumonia and died.
IF IT TOOK a technological wizard like George Beauchamp to give the electric guitar legs, it took an artistic genius like Charlie Christian to give it meaning and purpose.
But what would happen if ingenuity and virtuosity could be found in the same person? Into what new and fantastic realms could the embryonic idea of the electric guitar be taken if you could marry the demands of a player with the problem-solving imagination of an engineer?
World War II slowed the evolution of the electric guitar. The government would order instrument companies to alter their production processes to focus on the war effort. But the electric guitar was an idea with its own momentum now, and its future lay around the corner. It would take the shape of a onetime child prodigy and prodigious showman from Wisconsin, a man who’d adopted the stage name Les Paul.
* Owing to the coil of wire wrapped around the bobbin and pole piece, this style of pickup would become known as a “single-coil pickup.” Later designs would feature two or more coil and bobbin assemblies, but the single-coil design has remained in use right up to the present day.
Les Paul holding a Rickenbacker SPC-1948 (top) and four-string tenor guitar (bottom). Other instruments (left to right): Gibson L-12 (on chair), Les Paul’s “Clunker,” headless aluminum guitar, the “Log,” Gibson L-2, Kalamazoo mandolin, Rickenbacker Bakelite ES