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(1923-10-17)October 17, 1923 Muskogee, Oklahoma, U.S.
Barney Kessel (October 17, 1923 - May 6, 2004) was an American jazz guitarist born in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Noted in particular for his knowledge of chords and inversions and chord-based melodies, he was a member of many prominent jazz groups as well as a "first call" guitarist for studio, film, and television recording sessions. Kessel was a member of the group of session musicians informally known as the Wrecking Crew.
Kessel began his career as a teenager touring with local dance bands. When he was 16, he started playing with the Oklahoma A & M band, "Hal Price & the Varsitonians". The band members lovingly nicknamed him "Fruitcake" because he used to practice up to 16 hours a day. He then moved on to bands such as that led by Chico Marx. He quickly established himself as a key post-Charlie Christian jazz guitarist.
Kessel was known for his innovative work in the guitar trio setting. In the 1950s, he made a series of four albums called The Poll Winners with Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums. He was also the guitarist on the album Julie Is Her Name (1955) by Julie London, which includes the standard "Cry Me a River"; this million-selling song features a guitar part from Kessel which illustrates his melodic chordal approach in a minimal jazz group. Also from the 1950s, his three Kessel Plays Standards volumes contain some of his most polished work.
Barney Kessel was the winner of the prestigious Down Beat magazine readers poll in 1956, 1957 and 1958 and played the Kay Jazz Special K8700 exclusively during that era. In 1960, Barney left Kay but the production of these guitars continued without his signature.
Kessel was a "first call" guitarist at Columbia Pictures during the 1960s, and became one of the most in-demand session guitarists in America, and is considered a key member of the group of first-call session musicians now usually known as The Wrecking Crew. At one point after a two and a half hour session to record a one-chord song, "The Beat Goes On", Kessel is reported to have stood up and proclaimed, "Never have so many played so little for so much."
Kessel was married to B. J. Baker. They were divorced in 1980. Kessel's sons Dan and David also became record producers and session musicians, working with Phil Spector, John Lennon, Cher and Leonard Cohen.