Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BARNET, Charlie

(b 26 October 1913, NYC; d 4 September 1991, San Diego CA) Saxophones, bandleader, sometime vocalist. Influenced by Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Johnny Hodges on alto; he led reed sections on soprano. A blatant admirer of Duke Ellington, the legend was that he played chimes on Ellington's 'Ring Dem Bells' '30, but he told Stanley Dance that he did not. He later covered Ellington tunes 'The Gal From Joe's', 'Echoes Of Harlem', 'Rockin' In Rhythm' and several more; he was one of the most musical and faithful to jazz of white leaders in Big Band Era.

From a wealthy background, he rejected a life as a corporation lawyer; his bands from '32 included trumpet/arrangers Eddie Sauter and Tutti Camarata. He worked with Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson in a Red Norvo small group '34; when he formed his own bands he hired black musicians as early as '37 (Frankie Newton, John Kirby). Ray Noble's 'Cherokee' was a big hit for Barnet '39; it became an enduring jazz standard and a favourite of bop musicians. Billy May joined as trumpet/arranger that year and the Palomar Ballroom in LA burned down: the band lost instruments and music, but Barnet said, 'Hell, it's better than being in Poland with bombs dropping on your head,' and recorded 'We're All Burnt Up'. (Ellington and Benny Carter lent him scores.) The classic Barnet band '39-41 did not have any world-famous soloists, but people (like May) who could hold their own, and superb ensemble playing, swinging dance music at its best: the band was obviously enjoying its work. Top ten hits '40-1 in the first Billboard pop charts were 'Where Was I?', 'I Hear A Rhapsody' and 'Pompton Turnpike' (named after a New Jersey highway that led to a lot of ballrooms); other titles were in frank admiration: 'The Count's Idea', 'The Duke's Idea', 'The Right Idea', 'The Wrong Idea' (the last a send-up of 'sweet' bands, a subtitle poking fun at Sammy Kaye's billing: 'Swing and Sweat with Charlie Barnet'). Barnet wrote tunes himself, using the nom-de-plume Dale Bennett; 'Redskin Rhumba' followed 'Cherokee' (a variation on 'Cherokee' published through BMI so it could be played on the radio during the ASCAP strike against the broadcasters). 'Leapin' At The Lincoln' was a delightful chart based on 'Lady Be Good'; May's 'Lumby' and Harlan Leonard's 'Southern Fried' were superb riffs. Always a great talent scout, he made four sides with Lena Horne '41 including 'Good For Nothin' Joe' and 'You're My Thrill'; as far as race was concerned, said Lena, the subject just didn't come up: it was typical of Barnet that he just wouldn't bother to play a place where there might have been a problem.

He switched from Bluebird (Victor) to Decca '42; over 25 chart hits '36-46 incl. 'Skyliner' '45, written by Barnet. Few leaders hired more talent: Barnet alumni included Neal Hefti, Buddy DeFranco, Dodo Marmarosa, Kay Starr, Ralph Burns, Trummy Young, Barney Kessel, Oscar Pettiford and Clark Terry. He capitulated to bop '49, though he thought bop better suited to small groups; as he was putting together a more progressive band, Capitol signed him to fill a gap left by Stan Kenton, who was taking time out for health reasons, and the band recorded excellent stuff (still waiting for reissue on CD at this writing) such as Gil Fuller's 'Cu-Ba', Kai Winding's 'Really' (aka 'Bop City' and 'Dishwater'), 'Claude Reigns' (with Claude Williamson on piano), and having replaced Swing Era drummer Cliff Leeman (who'd been with him on and off for a decade) with Tiny Kahn, he recorded Kahn's imaginative version of 'Over The Rainbow'. Johnny Richards's chart on 'Rhapsody In Blue', which Barnet liked, had to be withdrawn due to complaints from the publishers, as did a version of 'All The Things You Are' that featured trumpeter Maynard Ferguson in a frenzy, and which Barnet didn't like: he still admired Ellington and wanted to play dance music rather than concert music à la Kenton, and the dance halls and ballrooms were closing anyway.

During the '50s he assembled bands for specific gigs and continued recording almost every year, for RCA '52, Norman Granz labels and smaller labels like Everest (now on Evidence); radio airchecks have been issued on Joyce, Circle and Sandy Hook. He made a TV concert tape and an album Big Band '67 issued on Kenton's Creative Sounds label. Barnet led a band on an ocean liner at age 16 according to Leonard Feather; Phil Woods wrote, 'This could account for the time he tried to steal the Chesapeake Ferry late one night.' He was married six, ten, eleven times, depending which book is consulted; he lived life to the full, as did those who worked for him. When auditioning a musician, he would ask him if he drank; if the answer was no, he was either lying or the sort of fellow who never took a drink: in either case he didn't get the job. DeFranco said, 'The most enjoyable, in terms of fun fun, plus one of the greatest bands I ever worked with was Charlie Barnet. And the reason for that was Charlie himself.' His autobiography Those Swinging Years was written with Stanley Dance '84.