Charlie Christian - The Originator of Solo Guitar
In the history of music. few great men have been so easily forgotten as Charlie Christian. It's easy to forget a man whose fame only lasted for three years of his natural life. But Charlie Christian created something that had never been before - he played solo lead guitar. Before he played the electric guitar it was a novelty, but after he was finished it was the only thing you could play. Charlie was the first man ever called "the greatest guitarist in the world" and the first black musician to ever perform in front of hundreds of segregated audiences. He is known as the father modern electric guitar - his style created a new generation of guitar heroes.
Charlie Henry Christian was born July 29th, 1916 in Bonham, Texas. The son of a part-time baseball player, musician, and railroad worker, Clarence Christian, and his mother Willie Mae. Charlie was born the youngest of three brothers.
As a child of three Charlie's father lost his job as a railroad worker when he slowly went blind due to glaucoma. Distraught over the circumstances, his father began to play "busts" around the streets of Bonham (a bust is when you play a street corner, and then pass around a hat). During those years Charlie did not learn an instrument, but danced along to his fathers' and older brothers playing. After World War I, the family relocated to Oklahoma City, where his father found work on the railroad. Seven years later his father died suddenly, leaving behind his wife and sons.
During those years, Charlie was mostly known as a baseball player. Everyone around him was sure that he would become a pro ballplayer in the Negro Leagues. When he reached the age of 14, after his coach refused to let him pitch every game, he quit to take up music.
At that time he met a couple of local musicians that taught him to read, write, and taught him what they knew about music. Charlie studied and learned almost in secret. No one in his family was even aware of his progression, until his first appearance at the age of 16 at a local music dive called Honey's After Hours Spot. Charlie was following his brother Edward to the club to watch the local musicians jam. When they arrived Charlie asked if he could do a song, but he was told no. After a few more songs he asked again. This time band leader Lester Young heard what he said and told his brother to let him perform.
Charlie took the stage with the other local players and suggested 'Rose Room'. When they got going, Lester Williams looked over at Charlie and said, "Go ahead and give it a try, son". Charlie did give it try, going through two songs that brought down the house. During the first song he played an unknown style of guitar at the time, the solo rhythm guitar, that astonished the audience. When it was over he stood to leave, but the other players refused to let him, so he decided to play "Tea For Two". Charlie instantly became the talk of the town.
After that, Lester Young would talk him into jamming with him for a few tunes. Soon the Selathia Sisters, a regional favorite, asked him to perform with them - the first time a black performer appeared with white musicians in the city's history. Charlie was offered many gigs, but his mother wouldn't permit her son to leave until September 1938, when Alphonso Trent talked her into it by promising to look after her son on the road. After a few months he returned to Oklahoma City to play several shows. A famous act of that time was touring the area, Andy Kirk's Group, and when both acts appeared together at the same club Charlie got top billing. After the show Mary Lou Williams asked Charlie to play against the band's guitarist, who thought very highly of himself. Charlie blew him away, and after a few minutes the guitarist got up and left.
When she returned to New York to record some new material, she met with John Hammond, who was telling her that he had never met a guitar player that really impressed him. It was then that she remembered Charlie and told Hammond of the young player. Hammond decided to stop in Oklahoma City to see for himself, while on the road to Los Angles to see Benny Goodman.
At the audition the band played, while Hammond listened to a few songs, and then left quickly without speaking to Charlie. When he arrived back at his hotel he called Goodman and said, "I've met the greatest guitar player since Django". Ten days later, on July 20th, 1939 Charlie received a telegram from Hammond telling him to come to Los Angeles to audition for Goodman. A few days later Hammond sent $300 for the trip, most of which Charlie used to pay off his first electric guitar with. When Charlie auditioned for Goodman, who was not having a good day, Goodman didn't seem too impressed. Hammond decided to audition Charlie in front of a crowd that night at the Victor Hugo Restaurant in Beverly Hills.
When Goodman saw Charlie making his way to the stage he called for a song he thought Charlie wouldn't know, "Rose Room". The song lasted 40 minutes and generated the greatest standing ovation of Goodman's career. After that, Charlie was invited to join Goodman for recordings and live radio broadcasts. Over the next few years Charlie recorded dozens of songs with Goodman and many on his own. On March 2nd, 1942 Charlie died of pneumonia and tuberculosis.
For all of his contributions Charlie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 as an "Early Influence." Charlie Christian was the first player of single note guitar style. In the years before Charlie, no one played lead guitar - the guitar was looked upon as a rhythm instrument. He was the man that changed it all. T-bone Walker, Chuck Berry, Les Paul, B.B. King, and Jimi Hendrix all credited him with the being the father of modern electric guitar and so does history.
(J. Charles Miller)