This Historic Day In Music: Wes Montgomery

During my high school days – I am a proud member of the Class of ’71 – my friend, Tom, and I would every now and then get out of New Hampshire and spend a day in downtown Boston.

We enjoyed everything about being in the city, but most of all we loved going to all of the music stores: record stores, musical instrument stores, stereo equipment stores.

Two of our favorite stops were on the block of Boylston St. that runs along a short edge of the Boston Common, in between Tremont St. and Charles St. One of those stores, Carl Fischer Music, specialized in sheet music, songbooks and the like. The other, Boston Music, sold musical instruments and accessories.

I should also mention that there was a Brigham’s Restaurant in this part of town, too, and no visit was complete without our indulging in a pair of their large and scrumptious hot fudge sundaes.

Hopping on the Red Line at the nearby Park St. MBTA station, the Tech Hi-Fi in Harvard Square and the incredible record department at the Harvard Coop were always on our itinerary and well worth the time it took to get to and from Cambridge. 

(After graduation, flush with the gift money I’d received from my Godparents, I bought a Kenwood stereo amplifier and a Kenwood stereo reel-to-reel tape deck from that same Tech Hi-Fi.)

Tom and I made many additions to our record collections on these excursions. And though I can’t remember which it was, I do remember that one of those stores on Boylston St. also sold records and I bought my first Wes Montgomery album in the one that did.

The LP was entitled Wes Montgomery: March 6, 1925 – June 15, 1968. It was a compilation released by Riverside Records in October of 1968. Its nine tracks featured the electric Jazz guitarist with a variety of small ensembles doing distinctive takes on seven standards – including “Satin Doll,” “Groove Yard” and “Body and Soul” – and Wes’ own “Jingles.”

My favorite track though, was Wes’ solo rendition of the F. Coots & H. Gillespie song, “While We’re Young.”

(For some reason, the music was recorded at a rather low level, so you may have to turn up the volume to catch all of the gorgeousness. Better yet, slip on your headphones!)

That was recorded on August 4, 1961 at Plaza Sound Studios in New York City.

John Leslie Montgomery was born on March 6, 1925 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

He started playing on a 4-string tenor guitar around the age of 12. When he was 19 and just married, he bought an electric 6-string guitar and an amplifier. His inspiration? “Charlie Christian, like all other guitar players. There was no way out. That cat tore everybody’s head up.”

With his new guitar, a record player, a stack of the records that Christian made with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra, infinite patience and an incredibly good ear, Wes taught himself to play all of Charlie Christian’s guitar solos note-for-note. Wes later explained: “I knew that everything done on his guitar could be done on mine… so I just determined that I would do it.” 

It took him about eight months. And because much of the time he would be practicing late at night while his wife was sleeping, he got into the habit of plucking the strings with his thumb, which produced a softer sound than he would get if he used a guitar pick.

Wes’ ability to play Charlie’s solos got him his first gig around 1945 in Indianapolis. As Wes described it: “I got a job in a club just playing them. I’d play Charlie Christian’s solos, then lay out.”

As Wes improved and began to develop his own style, word spread. He was hired by vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and went on the road with Hampton’s big band from 1948-50. Later, in the mid-50’s, Wes played with his brothers Buddy and Monk in a group called The Mastersounds.

In 1957, Wes signed with Riverside Records and recorded his first album Fingerpickin’ that was released in 1958. After Riverside went out of business, Wes recorded for Verve Records and finally for A&M. His last album, released in 1968, was entitled Road Song.

Over the years, I added other Wes Montgomery albums to my collection. And then, thanks to the catalogue from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, I discovered a video of Wes performing live, in concert, in Belgium in 1965.

As enjoyable as listening to Wes is, hearing and seeing him play is… well, see for yourself.

Wes Montgomery was, and still stands as, one of the greatest guitarists in the history of Jazz.

Wes passed away on June 15, 1968.

My sources for the information and quotes in this post were: The Guitar Players: One Instrument & Its Masters In American Music (1982) by James Sallis; music journalist Ralph J. Gleason’s 1958 interview with Wes, as published in the July/August 1973 issue of Guitar Player Magazine; and Wikipedia.

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One Response to This Historic Day In Music: Wes Montgomery

  1. TPS says:

    I’ve got to re-visit Wes Montgomery, haven’t listened to him in ages….
    Great memories of those trips we made to Boston. Always a fun time – picking up bootleg Beatles vinyl in Harvard Square, buying a 12 string guitar for $5…sizzled louder than bacon….
    Let’s not forget the nights at the Sword In The Stone.

    Always had great times with you….

    TPS

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