When John Hammond (Columbia Records producer and talent scout extraordinaire) called Benny Goodman (Jazz clarinetist, band leader, Top Ten recording artist and “King of Swing”) in California one day in early August, 1939, to tell him that he’d just found a great young electric guitar player in Oklahoma who would be a perfect fit for his small combo, Goodman replied: “Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?”
When Hammond persisted, Goodman agreed to fly 23-year-old Charlie Christian out to Los Angeles for an audition.
But, on the afternoon of August 16, 1939, when the young Oklahoma guitarist walked into the Los Angeles recording studio where Hammond was recording Goodman’s big band for Columbia, Benny took one look and initially didn’t even want to hear him play. Charlie’s outfit featured pointed yellow shoes, a bright green suit, a purple shirt, a black string tie and a ten-gallon hat.
Eventually though, Goodman consented to let Charlie get out his guitar but dismissed the electirc guitarist after hearing one, unplugged chorus of “Tea For Two.” Hammond, however, with band members Artie Bernstein (bass) and Lionel Hampton (vibes), took pity on Christian and together they formulated a plan to give him another chance.
That night, the Benny Goodman Orchestra was performing at the Victor Hugo restaurant in Beverly Hills. The usual program consisted of the big band playing the first set then, after a break, the Benny Goodman Qunitet (or Quartet) would play a set. During the break, while Benny was having dinner, Hammond and company quickly snuck Charlie in through the kitchen and set him up on stage with his guitar and amplifier. The other four players took their places and, when Goodman came out in front of the audience to start the set, he saw the outlandishly-dressed electric guitarist and realized he couldn’t do a thing about it!
With barely supressed anger, Benny decided to call a tune that he figured there was no chance this young rube had ever heard before. “Rose Room,” he said to the band, and counted off the tempo. “Rose Room” (written in 1917 by Art Hickman & Harry Williams, recorded in 1920 by Art Hickman & His Orchestra) started.
“Rose Room” then proceeded to go on for more than 45 minutes.
When it was Charlie’s turn, the young electric guitarist produced solo after solo after brilliant solo, each different and more inventive than the one before. When Goodman and the others took their solos, Charlie fed them a continuous stream of riffs, chords and rhythms to support, compliment and inspire their playing.
As the incredible performance unfolded before them, the Hollywood crowd went crazy, screaming with amazement and, at the end, exhaustedly delivered an ovation unlike anything the Goodman Quintet or Orchestra had ever received before.
When “Rose Room” was over, the young electric guitarist from Oklahoma had decidedly passed the audition. That night, August 16, 1939, the Benny Goodman Quintet became the Benny Goodman Sextet featuring Charlie Christian.
P.S.: Charlie knew the tune. “Rose Room” was one of the three songs that Charlie learned as a teenager under the tutelage of his brother, Clarence, and Oklahoma City guitarist Ralph Hamilton when he first started playing Jazz.
Information for this post came from several sources. There were two books: “Charlie Christian” by Bill Simon from Jazz Guitars: An Anthology (1984) edited by James Salis and The Guitar Players: One Instrument & Its Masters In American Music (1982) by James Salis; one magazine article: “John Hammond: On Charlie Christian” as told to Jas Obrecht from the March 1982 issue of Guitar Player; and two websites: wikipedia.com and JazzStandards.com.