On This Day In Music History: Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian was born Charles Henry Christian on this day, July 29, in 1916 in Bonham, Texas. The family moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma by the time Charlie turned three.

Charlie’s father, Clarence Henry Christian, played guitar and it is believed that he gave Charlie and his two older brothers their first music lessons. In 1958, novelist Ralph Ellison recalled that Charlie “and my younger brother were members of the same first grade class. I can remember no time when he was not admired for his skillful playing of stringed instruments.” Sometime in 1931, brother Edward, a pianist and bandleader, began schooling Charlie in playing Jazz and would occasionally have him sit in with his band.

There are various stories about when Charlie started playing electric guitar. One story says he was playing electric in Oklahoma City clubs in 1936. Another story was told by fellow electric Jazz guitarist Eddie Durham: In 1937, Eddie was in Oklahoma City playing with Count Basie. Charlie (who was playing piano at the time) approached Eddie and asked him for pointers on playing the electric guitar. According to Eddie, Charlie “wanted to know technical things, like how to use a pick a certain way. So I showed him how to sound like I did. I said, ‘Don’t ever use an upstroke, which makes a tag-a-tag-a-tag sound; use a downstroke.'”

Whatever the process was, by August of 1939, Charlie had definitely mastered the instrument. Singer/pianist Mary Lou Williams heard Charlie play and called Columbia Records talent scout and producer John Hammond in New York. John flew to Oklahoma, heard Charlie play and called bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman in Los Angeles and strongly recommended that he audition Charlie. John brought Charlie to LA and, on August 16, 1939, Charlie played with the Benny Goodman Quintet and passed the audition with flying colors.

The 23 month whirlwind had begun.

For starters, on August 19, the Benny Goodman Sextet played their first national radio broadcast from Detroit, Michigan. The show featured Charlie’s electric guitar solo on “Flying Home.” On October 2, Charlie made his first commercial recordings with the Sextet: “Flying Home,” “Rose Room” (his audition piece) and “Stardust.” On October 6, Charlie played with Benny at Carnegie Hall. Charlie went from earning $2.50 a night to $150.00 a week.

Historically, Charlie was not the first electric guitarist.

He was, however, the first electric guitarist who mattered.

As Scott Yanow wrote in the All Music Guide To Jazz: “Virtually every Jazz guitarist who emerged during 1940-1965 sounded like a relative of Charlie Christian.” There were and still are Jazz guitarists who call themselves Jazz guitarists solely because they can play some of Charlie’s solos. It is, I believe, very safe to say that any electric guitarist in any style of music who steps up to play a  solo owes something to Charlie Christian. Electric guitar started with him.

Charlie did his final recording on June 11, 1941. He was hospitalised in July of 1941 and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. 

Charlie Christian died in New York, NY, on March 2, 1942. He was 25 years old.

If you’ve never heard Charlie Christian, please do so soon. His playing is pure joy.

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