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Marking The Centennial Of 2 Early Electric Guitarists: George Barnes And Mary Osborne

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember two early electric guitarists who were both born on July 17 a hundred years ago. George Barnes and Mary Osborne were both white Midwesterners who learned early on from their fathers, were mentored by African American pioneers and appeared on radio as teenagers before moving on to success in New York. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this appreciation, starting with some music from George Barnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE BARNES' "UNDECIDED")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: George Barnes, 1946, showing off the swoops and spiky attack that made him a favorite of pickers like jazzers Herb Ellis and country music's Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Barnes grew up in Chicago, learning to play from his father. An older brother built him a pickup and amplifier before any were commercially available, making George one of the first electric guitarists and a precocious one. African American picker Lonnie Johnson helped school him in the blues. When Barnes was 16, he played on a flurry of sessions with Black singers that helped set the template for Chicago band blues. Here's George Barnes in 1938 behind Big Bill Broonzy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME")

BIG BILL BROONZY: (Singing) Oh, baby, that's all right for you. Baby, that's all right, baby. I (unintelligible) you do.

WHITEHEAD: Still in his teens, George Barnes began playing and arranging music for radio - skills that served him well in New York studios later. Right after World War II, he led a whimsical Raymond Scott-like octet, playing musical clockworks like Intricacies Of A Threshing Machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE BARNES OCTET'S "INTRICACIES OF A THRESHING MACHINE")

WHITEHEAD: George Barnes moved to New York in the '50s and immediately got busy in recording and broadcast studios, playing on literally thousands of sessions. He's in the band on Bob Dylan's first single, 1962's "Mixed-Up Confusion." In the '60s, Barnes made a frantic multiple guitar album and played in guitar duos with Carl Kress or Bucky Pizzarelli. In his last years, in the '70s, Barnes co-lead a relaxed quartet with cornetist Ruby Braff.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE BARNES QUARTET'S "I WISH I WERE IN LOVE AGAIN")

WHITEHEAD: Our other 100th-birthday guitarist, Mary Osborne, came up in the boom town of Minot, N.D. She picked up her dad's facility with stringed instruments early and started appearing on radio, singing and playing guitar. The teenage Osborne played a little jazz on violin, until she heard Oklahoma's Charlie Christian play electric guitar with a band in Bismarck. In no time, she bought one of her own and was sitting in, learning at his side. She and Charlie became friends, despite differences in age and race in the 1930s heartland. Charlie Christian showed Mary Osborne how to solo as if guitar were a horn, a linear approach with some voicelike inflections.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MARY OSBORNE TRIO'S "BLUES IN MARY'S FLAT")

WHITEHEAD: Mary Osborne on "Blues In Mary's Flat," 1946. By the early '40s, she'd moved to New York, playing jam sessions and 52nd Street clubs. She got spotted by one jazz elder on the lookout for youngsters with new ideas, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. This is his "Spotlite" from 1946, when the guitarist was 24.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLEMAN HAWKINS' "SPOTLITE")

WHITEHEAD: In years to come, Mary Osborne turned up on records by, among others, singers Ethel Waters and Mel Torme, bluesman Wynonie Harris, pianist Mary Lou Williams and drummers Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson. Osborne later said she encountered little overt sexism on the New York scene, but she made too few records of her own - a batch of singles and a nice 1959 LP dubiously titled "A Girl And Her Guitar" with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Jo Jones on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY OSBORNE'S "I FOUND A NEW BABY")

WHITEHEAD: Mary Osborne was a regular on New York radio and played on some locally televised jam sessions in the 1950s. Some of those jams are on YouTube, including in "I Surrender, Dear," where she stretches out as Billie Holiday looks on. But in the '60s, Osborne felt burnt out, like she'd already played it all, and she and her husband moved to California. She still did gigs near home in Bakersfield or in Los Angeles, and on rare occasions, someone would coax her back East to play or record, as old friend Marian McPartland did in 1977. Mary Osborne died in 1992, 15 years after her contemporary George Barnes - two guitarists worth celebrating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book, "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Guitarists George Barnes and Mary Osborne were born a hundred years ago on July 17.

Coming up, Justin Chang samples some offerings from this year's Cannes Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.