Rock’s most amazing session guitarists.
UPDATED APRIL 30, 2022.
If you thought pop and rock’s most recorded session guitarist was the virtuoso who is Jimmy Page, think again. Certainly, Jimmy played guitar on an amazing amount of hits and in great sessions for top bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Lulu and the Luvvers, Them, Savoy Brown Blues Band, the Honeydrippers, Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, to name a few between 1963 and 1998. At the time, however, there was an even hotter session guitarist in London: Big Jim Sullivan (1941 – 2012).
Big Jim and Little Jim (as they called Page) were two of London’s most in-demand session guitarists in the 1960s and 1970s. Born James Tomkins in London, Big Jim played on over 1,000 charting UK singles, including 55 number one hits, and even taught his neighbor, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore how to play guitar. Along with Ritchie Blackmore and the Who’s Pete Townsend, Jim Sullivan persuaded Jim Marshall to make better and more affordable amplifiers. Artists whom Big Jim Sullivan played guitar for include Alexis Korner and Blues Incorporated, Bobby Darin, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield, the Everly Brothers, Frank Zappa, George Harrison, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Small Faces and Tom Jones.
But there was an earlier electric guitarist who even out-sessioned Page and Sullivan. His name was George Barnes (1921 – 1977), a teenage electric blues pioneer who so impresses me, I devoted an entire chapter to him in my book, ‘America’s Gift: The Untold Story of How Blues Evolved’.
The only other artist with their own chapter in the book, incidentally, was Lonnie Johnson (1899 – 1970), an African-American guitarist and singer whom I rate as the most influential blues artist ever. Check this (and other) posts to see why.
As an example of the amazing way karma works, it was black Lonnie Johnson who taught white 14-year-old George Barnes, how to play the blues. George was so good, he was soon in the recording studio playing pioneering electric blues. As Barnes once said, “In 1935, I started recording with the top black blues artists … I made over 100 blues records.” Indeed, for many years, many blues writers even thought George Barnes was black.
Charlie Christian, Chet Atkins and George Benson have all said they were influenced by him.
Naturally, I’ve done posts before on both George Barnes and Lonnie Johnson, but now it seems those posts on George Barnes have been pricking some readers interest. Writes Monto:
“I’d really love it if you put together a list of blues and rock and roll tracks George Barnes played on. I just learned it was him behind Janis Martin (1950s rockabilly singer) on Barefoot Baby. I’ve searched the net for a listing and can’t find the info anywhere. I imagine you could do a pretty thorough job of it.”
Well, I searched the internet, too, and Monto was right. There’s not much information on what rockabilly tracks George Barnes played on as a session guitarist. Fortunately, I was able to turn to George’s daughter, Alexandra, for help. Then I received another message regarding George Barnes.
“Please do info on his (GB’s) rockabilly recordings. I knew little on him until I saw your Chicago video. I got curious who played the killer lead on Lipstick On My Collar by Connie Francis – to my surprise it was ‘the Eddie Lang style jazz guy’ (George Barnes). When I saw your video, I got really interested. A few months ago, I first realized that it wasn’t Grady Martin playing lead behind some of my all time favorite RCA rockabilly recordings, it was him (George Barnes). I want to be able to find more of him in this era and context, and right now you’re the only good source I know of for the info. Long story long, I’d dig the shit out of that post!”
George Barnes was such a phenomenal session guitarist, he played on hundreds of blues, rock and roll, rockabilly, R&B, country, rock, jazz and pop records. Yet he was internationally famous for later being a top swing jazz guitar player.
But it’s George Barnes, as probably the most in-demand session guitarist ever known, that we’re talking about today. And, because this blog’s basically about vintage rock and historic blues, we won’t go into detail about the countless MOR and jazz records he played on: with such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, violinist Joe Venuti, drummers and bandleaders Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, sax player Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Fisher, Eddy Arnold, Debbie Reynolds, Dinah Washington, Perry Como, Les Paul, Cuban mambo bandleader Perez Prado, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, pianist and original Tonight Show host Steve Allen, Pearl Baily, jazz and pop harmony quartet the Mills Brothers, singer Steve Laurence, bandleaders Paul Whiteman, Sy Oliver and Tito Puente, and jazz songstress Chris Connor. That’s not to mention at least 34 albums he recorded with the popular American pop group of the 1940s and 1950s, Three Suns. Indeed, George was so integral to the Three Suns’ sound, the group arranged their recording sessions around George’s tight schedule.
So, with the help of Alexandra Barnes Ley, here is one of the most complete discographies around showing the records George Barnes played on as a session guitarist. And that’s just a fraction of her father’s recordings, Alexandra says, as he made at least 33 albums under his own name. These are easily accessible online so not included below. She also says new singles or albums are always being discovered by fans or by Alexandra’s research”. So let’s start:
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS THE BLUES.
“George Barnes was a great guitarist. I would say George was in kind of a class to himself, because he played a lot of beautiful guitar. But he played some of everything; he just didn’t play the blues. He played just like I did – all the popular songs, numbers of that type … He was one of the first ones (to play an electric guitar).” Blind John Davis.
GEORGE BARNES with BIG BILL BROONZY (1903 – 1958). Historically, one of the greatest blues icons and one of the most prolific blues recording artists of all time. Big Bill influenced Eric Clapton, Ray Davies (Kinks), Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead), Tom Jones, Steve Howe (Yes), Memphis Slim and Muddy Waters amongst many others.
In 1938, 16-year-old George Barnes played electric lead guitar on blues recordings by Big Bill Broonzy including ‘Sweetheart Land’, ‘It’s a Lowdown Dirty Shame’ and ‘Night Time is the Right Time’.
GEORGE BARNES with BLIND JOHN DAVIS (1913 – 1985). The first American blues and boogie woogie pianist to tour Europe (with Big Bill Broonzy in 1952) where he enjoyed a higher profile than in the USA. Played and recorded with singer/guitarist Lonnie Johnson for at least ten years. In 1938, 16-year-old George Barnes played electric lead on Blind John Davis blues recordings including ‘Alley Woman Blues’. Barnes later played on Blind John Davis’ ‘Magic Carpet’ in 1951.
GEORGE BARNES with HATTIE BOLTEN (active 1920s – 1930s).
So little is known of Hattie Bolton/Hart, she’s not even in my Blues Who’s Who compendium. Memphishistory.org says Hattie ‘wrote gritty songs about love, sex, cocaine and voodoo’. She is thought to have been the Memphis blues singer Hattie Hart, who first recorded with the Memphis Jug Band in the 1920s. In 1938, 16-year-old George Barnes played on Hattie Bolton blues recordings including ‘Down Home Shake’.
GEORGE BARNES with JAZZ GILLUM (1902 -1966). William ‘Jazz’ Gillum was a blues harmonica player who was first to rearrange and record the classic ‘Key To The Highway’ (with Big Bill Broonzy on guitar). Broonzy covered Gillum’s composition a few months later, which is now the song’s accepted arrangement. Gillum was shot dead in 1966.
In 1938, 16-year-old George Barnes played electric lead on Gillum’s blues recordings including ‘Reefer Head Woman’ later covered by Aerosmith.
GEORGE BARNES with LORRAINE WALTON (active 1920s – 1940s). Another little known female blues singer who George Barnes accompanied in Chicago 1938, and who is not in my Blues Who’s Who. From the rare photographs I found of her, Lorraine could even be white or mixed race. George, 16, plays on songs including ‘Whiskey Blues’. And he wasn’t even old enough to drink whiskey.
GEORGE BARNES with LOUIS POWELL (active 1938). Hardly anything exists about Louis Powell online, nor in my Blues Who Who. However, I did come across an “extremely scarce” 78 rpm Vocalion record from 1938, by Louis Powell with the Jazz Wizards. It’s advertised for sale on POPSIKE.COM under ‘Gay Blues’. Featuring George Barnes, 16, on lead guitar, the record was titled ‘Mushmouth Blues’ backed with ‘Sissy’, which is described as jump blues/piano blues and of “Gay – homosexual subject matter”. Pretty progressive for 1938, eh?
GEORGE BARNES with MERLINE JOHNSON (active 1930s – 1940s). Merlene Johnson was called ‘The Yas Yas Girl’ – yas yas being a euphemism for buttocks in hokum (comically rude) blues songs like Blind Boy Fuller’s ‘Get Your Yas Yas Out’. Some might remember the Rolling Stones adapting this title for their album ‘Get Yer Yas Yas Out’. 16-year-old George plays on songs including 1938’s ‘About My Time to Check’.
GEORGE BARNES with WASHBOARD SAM (1903 – 1966). Reputedly Big Bill Broonzy’s half-brother, Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) was one of Chicago’s favourite blues players, playing to packed audiences and selling truckloads of records during the 1930s and 1940s. Having difficulty adapting to the fashion for electric blues, Sam retired in 1949, becoming a Chicago cop in the 1950s. George plays rhythm guitar on Sam’s ‘Don’t Leave Me Here’, ‘Towboat Blues’ and others in this 1938 session.
GEORGE BARNES with DELLA REESE (1931 – 2017). Della formed her own gospel group, the Meditation Singers after being discovered at 13 by Mahalia Jackson. Motown’s Martha Reeves named the Vandellas after Detroit’s Van Dyke Street and Della Reese. A popular U.S. film and TV actress, as well as a noted jazz singer, Della Reese recorded ‘The Story of the Blues’ LP with George Barnes on guitar in 1957.
GEORGE BARNES WITH LAWSON-HAGGART JAZZ BAND (30s – 70s).
Trumpeter John ‘Yank’ Lawson played with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart with Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Ella FitzGerald. Lawson and Haggart formed the World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1950 and George Barnes played guitar on at least seven of their albums including 1952’s ‘Blues On The River’, a collection of classic old blues by the likes of W.C. Handy and Clarence Williams.
GEORGE BARNES WITH ANDY GRIFFTH (1926 – 2012).
Andy Griffith was a U.S. TV star and producer, comedian and gospel singer who starred in the movie ‘A Face in the Crowd’ amongst many others. George Barnes played on the film’s soundtrack of the same name in 1957; and in 1959 on ‘Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs’ also featuring blues legends, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS ROCK AND ROLL.
GEORGE BARNES WITH THE JODIMARS (1950s). When half of Bill Haley’s Comets split to become rockabilly band The Jodimars around 1955, they initially called on session man George Barnes to play lead guitar.
GEORGE BARNES with BOB DYLAN (active 1960s – present). Bob Dylan didn’t first go electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival, as everyone thinks. Bob’s first single release, in December, 1962 was a rock and roll track he wrote called ‘Mixed Up Confusion’ and he was backed by an electric band including George Barnes.
At the same session, recorded in NYC on October 26, 1962, George Barnes also played on Dylan’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s 1946 release ‘That’s All Right’. (The song was re-released by Crudup in 1949 under the revised title ‘That’s All Right Mama.) Demonstrating another string to his bow, George Barnes played electric bass guitar on the 1963 album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’.
GEORGE BARNES with BUDDY HOLLY (1936 – 1959). Charles ‘Buddy’ Holley (as his name was originally spent) was one of rock and roll’s great pioneers, of course. AllMusic called him “the single most creative force in rock and roll”. George Barnes played on the Buddy Holly tracks ‘Early in the Morning’ and ‘Now We’re The One’, recorded solo in New York, without the Crickets.
GEORGE BARNES with THE COASTERS (active 1955 – present). George Barnes kicked of his association with the Coasters by playing on their 1958 track ‘Crocodile’ written by Leiber and Stoller. George then played on three of the most covered songs in rock and roll, again written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller: 1959’s ‘I’m a Hog For You Baby’, ‘Along Came Jones’ and ‘Poison Ivy’, on which George played the famous ‘boing’ at the start of the chorus.
GEORGE BARNES with EDDIE FONTAINE (1927 – 1992). Did you know George Barnes directly influenced George Harrison? In 1958, Barnes played hot rockabilly guitar on Eddie Fontaine’s ‘Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves On the Trees)’. This was the version George Harrison learned to play when the Beatles covered it at the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1962. The Beatles also played ‘Nothin’ Shakin’ on the UK’s BBC. Described as “one of the great rockabilly cuts’ by rateyourmusic.com, George Barnes was also on the record’s ‘B’ rockabilly side, ‘Don’t Ya Know’.
GEORGE BARNES with LITTLE RICHARD (1932 – 2020). Little Richard Penniman, one of the pioneers of rock and roll, of course, was so admired in the UK, the Beatles asked to open for him in 1962. Indeed, Richard had taught Lennon and McCartney how to hit the vocal high notes when they played at the same Hamburg club a year or two earlier.
George Barnes played guitar on Little Richard’s 1963 tracks ‘Travelin’ Shoes’, ‘It Is No Secret’ and ‘Shake a Hand’
GEORGE BARNES with LITTLE WILLIE JOHN (1937 – 1968). An important 1950s R&B artist, William John was known for his alcohol abuse and short temper. James Brown, who used to open for John, recorded a Little Willie John tribute album. Willie died serving a prison sentence for manslaughter.
George Barnes played guitar on ‘Talk To Me’ which made #20 on the Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B chart.
GEORGE BARNES with CHUCK WILLIS (1926 – 1958). George played on several tracks for Chuck Willis, including the R&B chart topper ‘What Am I Looking For’ b/w ‘Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes’, which made number nine on the pop chart. Known in rock and roll circles as the Sheik of Shake, Chuck Willis died just two months after recording those tracks at the tender age of 32.
GEORGE BARNES with MICKEY & SYLVIA (active 1955 – 1965). Husband and wife R&B duo Micky Baker and Sylvia Vanterpool are best known for their 1956 version of ‘Love is Strange’ written by Bo Diddley under the name of his then wife. Mickey & Silvia’s version topped the R&B chart.
George Barnes played on Mickey & Silvia’s 1958 tracks ‘Can’t Get You On The Phone’ and ‘Woe Is Me’ and on Mickey Bakers’ solo tracks ‘My Reverie’ and ‘Buttercup’ in 1959.
GEORGE BARNES with JACKIE WILSON (1934 – 1984). Jackie Wilson was instrumental in the transition of soul music from R&B and rock and roll. George Barnes played guitar on Wilson’s ‘Lonely Teardrops’ album in 1959, the title track of which reached #7 on the U.S. pop charts and topped its R&B charts. ‘Lonely Teardrops’ was co-written by Berry Gordy who used the proceeds to help set up Motown records.
George Barnes also played on Jackie Wilson’s ‘Baby Workout’ album in 1963, the title track of which reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though soul, it also made Billboard’s Hip Hop chart.
GEORGE BARNES with KING CURTIS (1934 – 1971). Born Curtis Montgomery, King Curtis played saxophone riffs and solos on hits like Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, the Coasters’ ‘Yakety Yak’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album. King Curtis and George Barnes played together on many star recording sessions. King Curtis was also a band leader, with George playing guitar for Curtis on tracks including 1959’s ‘Heavenly Blue’, ‘The Honeydripper’ and ‘ Restless Guitar’.
GEORGE BARNES with LAVERN BAKER (1929 – 1997). Born Delores Evans, American R&B singer Lavern Baker had a string of moderate pop hits in the 1950s, singles that scored much higher on the R&B charts. George Barnes played guitar on her 1956 single ‘I’ll Do The Same For You’ by Lavern Baker and the Gliders, and ‘Miracles’ on her 1956 album ‘LaVern’. George played on ‘Tra-La-La’ and ‘Get Up, Get Up’ on 1957’s ‘LaVern Baker’ album, and on the singles ‘The Game of Love’, ‘Learning To Love’ and ‘Humpty Dumpty Heart’.
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS SOUL.
GEORGE BARNES with SOLOMON BURKE (circa 1938 – 2010). A preacher and R&B singer who pioneered soul, Solomon Burke was described as the greatest male soul singer of all time by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler. In 1959, George Barnes played on the Solomon Burke tracks ‘Doodle Dee Doo’, ‘This Little Ring’, ‘Be Bop Grandma’, ‘It’s All Right’ and ‘I’m Not Afraid’. When Burke signed for Atlantic in 1960, he refused to allow the label to market him as rhythm and blues because of its perceived “stigma of profanity” and reputation as devil’s music. He agreed to be called a soul singer. That year George played on Burke’s first chart success and million-seller ‘Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms)’ as well as ‘Keep the Magic Working’, ‘How Many Times’ and others.
GEORGE BARNES with SAM COOKE (1931 – 1964). George played guitar on a number of Sam Cooke records including ‘Chain Gang’ in 1960, which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and became Sam’s first UK top ten single. The influential soul pioneer, known as the ‘King of Soul’, was shot and killed in December, 1964, by a South Central Los Angeles motel manager, Bertha Franklin, who claimed it was in self-defence. A coroner’s jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Cooke was just 33.
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS POP.
GEORGE BARNES with PAUL ANKA (1941 – present). Canadian songwriter Paul Anka was just 15 when he wrote ‘Diana’, a song that topped pop charts worldwide. Recorded in 1957, George Barnes played guitar on the ‘Diana’ session with his future musical partner, jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Barnes also played on Paul Anka’s ‘You Are My Destiny’, a number seven hit on the U.S. charts in 1957. In 1959, George also played on Anka’s number one U.S. hit ‘Lonely Boy, and ‘Put Your Head On My Shoulder’ that made number two. He played on other Paul Anka hits in 1960, including ‘Puppy Love’, the cover of which was a huge hit for Donny Osmond in 1972.
GEORGE BARNES with PATSY CLINE (1932 – 1963). Born Virginia Patterson Hensley, Patsy Cline was one of the first country singers to successfully crossover into pop music. She died in a plane crash in March, 1963, and received great posthumous success, so much so she is now considered one of the most influential vocalists of the twentieth century. George Barnes played guitar on Patsy’s 1957 tracks ‘That Wonderful Someone’, ‘Three Cigarettes (In An Ashtray)’, ‘Hungry for Love’ and ‘Fingerprints’.
GEORGE BARNES with BEN E. KING (1938 – 2015).
George recorded with Ben E. King when he sang with the Drifters in 1959, and also on King’s first solo album ‘Spanish Harlem’ in 1961. The single of the same name peaked at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100. George also played on Ben E. King’s 1961 single ‘Here Comes The Night’ b/w ‘Young Boy Blues’.
GEORGE BARNES with LITTLE ANTHONY & THE IMPERIALS (active 1958 – present). As recently as 2018, Anthony Gourdine and the Imperials were still performing live. George Barnes played guitar on Little Anthony & The Imperials’ debut single ‘Tears On My Pillow’, a doo-wop million-seller that reached #4 on the pop charts in 1958. In 1964, George played on the band’s pop-soul classics, ‘I’m On The Outside Looking In’ which charted at 15; and ‘Goin’ Out of My Head’ which made number six. George Barnes was also on Little Anthony & The Imperials’ 1965 top five hit balled ‘Hurt So Bad’.
GEORGE BARNES with BOBBY DARIN (1936 – 1973). Performing jazz, pop, rock and roll, folk swing and country and writing songs like ‘Mack the Knife’, ‘Splish Splash’ ‘Dream Lover’ and ‘Beyond the Sea’, Bobby Darin did the lot and died aged just 37. For contractual reasons, Bobby Darin recorded his ‘Early Morning Sessions’ under the pseudonym the Ding Dongs, in April, 1958. New York’s top session men were hired to back him, including George Barnes on guitar. Songs included ‘Now We’re One’, ‘Early in the Morning’, ‘Mighty Mighty Man’, and ‘You’re Mine’. In 1960, George played on Bobby Darin tracks ‘Similau’, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Look for My True Love’.
GEORGE BARNES with LESLEY GORE (1946 – 2015). George played guitar on Lesley Gore’s #1 hit ‘It’s My Party’ and #5 hit ‘Judy’s Turn To Cry’ in 1963, produced by Quincy Jones when she was only 16. They were from Gore’s ‘I’ll Cry if I Want to’ debut album. George also played ‘She’s a Fool’ and ‘Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows’ on ‘Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-up Hearts’, her second album, also in 1963.
GEORGE BARNES with CONNIE FRANCIS (active 1943 – 2018). Female pop singers didn’t come any hotter than Connie Francis in the 1950s and 1960s. George Barnes played on Connie 1958 hits ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ which reached #4 on the U.S. pop charts, and ‘Stupid Cupid’ which reached #15. Both songs, however, were #1 in the UK, with ‘Stupid Cupid’ spending six weeks there. George also played the famous electric guitar solo on Connie’s 1959 international smash hit ‘Lipstick On You Collar’, and 1960’s ‘Where The Boys Are’ which reached 4 in the U.S. If you fancy hearing George for yourself, check this link:
GEORGE BARNES with THE DRIFTERS (active 1953 – present). Specialising in doo-wop, R&B and soul, the Drifters had a string of pop hits in the 1950s and 1960s. George Barnes played on Drifters tracks ‘This Magic Moment’ and ‘Baltimore’ with Ben E. King in 1959; and with Rudy Lewis in 1961 on ‘Some Kind of Wonderful’, ‘Please Stay’ and ‘Sweets for My Sweet’.
GEORGE BARNES with HOMER & JETHRO (active 1940s – 1960s). Known as the thinking man’s hillbillies, Henry ‘Homer’ Haynes and Kenneth ‘Jethro’ Burns specialised in singing parodies of country and pop hits and won a Best Comedy Performance Grammy in 1959. George Barnes played on their parodies of ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and others in 1954 and 1956.
GEORGE BARNES with PATSY PAGE (1927 – 2013). Born Clara Fowler, Patsy Page was America’s top-charting and best-selling female pop and country arts of the 1950s. Over six decades she reportedly sold over 100 million records, but in 1947 Patty was recording with George Barnes Trio. Their track ‘Confess’ featured the first multi-track recording of a vocal, a year before Les Paul and Mary Ford.
Other George and Patsy tracks included ‘The 12 O’clock Flight’, ‘I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say I’m Sorry’, ‘There’s A Man in My Life’, ‘The First Time I Kissed You’, ‘Goody Goodbye’, ‘You Turned the Tables On Me’, ‘Am I Blue’, ‘I Feel So Smoochy’, ‘Gotta Have More Money’, ‘Ready, Set, Go’, and ‘It’s the Bluest Kind of Blues’.
GEORGE BARNES with BARBRA STREISAND (active 1960 – present). With over 150 millions records sold word-wide, Barbra Streisand is one of the most successful recording artists of all time. George Barnes played guitar on her first album ‘The Barbra Streisand Album’ in 1963 which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He then played on ‘The Second Barbra Streisand Album’, also in 1963, which sold over a million copies. In 1964, George played on Barbra’s fourth album, ‘People’ her first number one on the Billboard album chart.
GEORGE BARNES with BOBBY VINTON (active 1959 – 2015). Former teen idol Bobby Vinton is now 86. George Barnes played on Bobby’s first big hit, ‘Roses Are Red (My Love) in 1962, a single which spent four weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped pop charts across the world.
The following year George played on Vinton’s number three hit ‘Blue on Blue’. In 1964, George played on ‘Mr Blue’, and in 1964 on ‘Mr Lonely’ which became one of Bobby Vinton’s signature songs.
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS COUNTRY.
George was just 17 when America’s national radio network, NBC, appointed him as their youngest conductor and arranger, leading the in-house orchestra. NBC also put George on Chicago radio’s National Barn Dance show, a programme aired across America and rating just behind Nashville’s famous Grand Old Opry. As George’s wife, Evelyn, once said:
“He was very big with the western crowd. He went to NBC when he was 17 years old and they put him right on the National Barn Dance. He played western style. He could play any style. A lot of jazz people don’t acknowledge him because he did play western. A lot of western pickers, as they call them, copied George’s style … George was getting 300 to 400 fan letters a week. Usually, he was given a minute-and-a-half (on air) and he really swung.”
No less than Les Paul and Chet Atkins called George Barnes a major inspiration
GEORGE BARNES with CHET ATKINS (1924 – 2001). Rolling Stone magazine credited Chet Atkins “with inventing the “pop-wise ‘Nashville sound’ that rescued country music from a commercial slump,” ranking him number 21 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. In 1947, George Barnes played Chet’s first album, ‘Chet Atkins and his Colorado Mountain Boys’.
In 1956, George played with Chet Atkins on ‘Song of the Wanderer’, ‘Royal Garden Blues’ and
‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ from the Country All-Stars LP.
GEORGE BARNES PLAYS ROCKABILLY.
If George Barnes had stuck simply to blues and rock guitar, I’m sure he’d be hailed as one of the greatest and most influential blues and rock guitarists of all time. If he had stuck to Country, George would surely be feted as one of the most influential Country guitarists.
George loved rockabilly, too, and had he just stuck to rockabilly, no doubt George would have gone down as one of the all-time great rockabilly guitarists, too. Instead, George Barnes seems known more as a world-class jazz guitarist these days at the expense of his earlier work.
Under his rockabilly alias Dean Hightower, George Barnes recorded the album ‘GUITAR: Twangy with a Beat’ in 1959 and probably guested on rockabilly albums unknown. Other albums by George Barnes that have influenced rockabilly artists over the decades, says his daughter, Alexandra, include ‘Guitars – By George!’ in 1952 and ‘Country Jazz’ in 1957.
Here are just some of the rockabilly tracks we do know George Barnes played on.
George Barnes with the Female Elvis (Janice Martin). Virginia’s Janice Martin (1940 – 2007), a rare girl in the testosterone-fuelled world of 1950s rock and roll, joined RCA aged 15, a couple of months after Elvis Presley in 1955. Martin’s dance moves on stage were so similar to Elvis’s, RCA, and Presley himself, were soon calling Janis the ‘Female Elvis’. At 16, Janis Martin recorded ‘Barefoot Baby’, ‘My Boy Elvis’ and ‘Ooby Dooby’ with George Barnes on guitar in 1956. George’s electric guitar was again backing Janice when she cut ‘Love and Kisses’ and ‘All Right Baby’ in 1957. In all, George Barnes put his rockabilly guitar on about 15 Janice Martin tracks from 1955 to 1960.
George Barnes with the Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio featuring Johnny Burnette. Rockabilly legend Johnny Burnette (1934 – 1964), killed in a boating accident aged 30, formed the Rhythm Rangers rock band in Memphis in 1951, with brother Dorsey Burnette on bass and friend Paul Burlison on lead guitar. All three were Golden Gloves boxing champions. Around 1956, they became the Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio, and on May 7, 1956, in New York City, recorded six tracks with George Barnes on rhythm guitar. The Trio’s Paul Burlison played lead guitar. The tracks recorded were ‘Tear It Up’, ‘You’re Undecided’, ‘Oh Baby Babe’, ‘Midnight Train’ and ‘Shattered Dreams’. Johnny Burnette is the father of Rocky Burnette whose single ‘Tired of Toein’ the Line’ was a number eight pop in the USA and topped the charts in Australia.
Jimmy Page once said, “Lonnie Donegan inspired everyone (to play rock and roll in Britain) … But who really moved it out of just playing acoustic to electric was all those people playing in the 1950s. Initially it was the rockabilly-style guitar, the Johnny Burnette Rock and Roll Trio.”
George Barnes with Jaycee Hill. Ohio rockabilly singer Jaycee Hill (1931 – 2013) cut three tracks in New York on October 29, 1956: ‘Bump’, ‘Crash-Out’, and ‘She’s Gone’, backed by the city’s best session musicians. These were George Barnes, guitar; Danni Perri, guitar; Milt Hilton, bass; and Panama Francis, drums. Born Hillman Baker near Nashville, Tennessee, Jaycee moved to Cleveland in 1945, aged 14, then Valley View, Ohio.
George Barnes with the Rhythm Orchids: Bobby Knox, Jimmy Bowen and Don Lanier. Singer/guitarist Buddy Knox (1933 – 1999) formed the pioneering Texas rockabilly group the Rhythm Orchids in 1956, with singer/bassist Jimmy Bowen (born 1937), and lead guitarist Don Lanier (1936 – 2014). Dave Alldred later joined the trio on drums. After a concert in Texas, Elvis Presley suggested they record, and Roy Orbison said record at Norman Petty’s studio in New Mexico.
Depending on who was singing, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen took turns having their names on their records followed by ‘with the Rhythm Orchids’. Knox, Bowen and Lanier all worked with George Barnes and went on to enjoy stellar music industry careers.
‘Party Doll’, released by Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids, shot to number one on the Cashbox single chart in 1957, and was used on the soundtrack on the 1973 film, American Graffiti. ‘Party Doll’ was listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’. The similarities with Buddy Holly’s band, suggest both the Rhythm Orchids and the Crickets were pioneering a unique Texas rockabilly sound. This is backed up by the Handbook of Texas Music which says: “Buddy Holly’s Crickets were brought in on many sessions, including Holly himself on ‘All For You’. A cardboard box was used for Alldred’s drums on ‘Party Doll’, which Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison said was the inspiration for the sound he used on ‘Not Fade Away’, later covered by the Rolling Stones. Knox is said to have written ‘Party Doll’ in 1948 on his parents’ wheat farm aged 15, although the track is usually credited to Knox and Bowen. Over time the Rhythm Orchids included several session guitarists (i.e. George Barnes) and guest artists like Bobby Darin Darren on the piano”.
The flip of ‘Party Doll’, ‘I’m Stickin’ With You’, by Jimmy Bowen with the Rhythm Orchids, had Bowen singing lead vocals. This reached number 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100, sold a million, and won Bowen a gold record. In 1957, George Barnes played guitar on ‘Hula Love’ a number nine hit for Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids, the instrumental ‘Rockabilly Walk’, ‘Don’t Make Me Cry’ and many others. George also played on ‘Rock Your Little Baby To Sleep’ a number 17 pop hit, by Lieutenant Buddy Knox with the Rhythm Orchids. Yes, Bobby had been drafted.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Buddy Knox “was the first in a long line of young West Texas-born rock singers that included Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. It was Knox who reportedly coined the term ‘rockabilly’ for his new sound, similar to rock and roll but with less instrumentation.”
Bobby Knox went on to cut 35 albums and be voted ‘The most Travelling Entertainer in the World’ by Billboard magazine.
Also in 1957, George Barnes rockabilly guitar played on tracks including ‘Aching Hearts’ and ‘Money Honey’ for Jimmy Bowen and the Rhythm Orchids, and 1958’s ‘I Trusted You’. Jimmy Bowen and the Rhythm Orchids had four songs in the Hot 100, before Bowen went into record production. Bowen then produced a string of singles for Dean Martin and, 1967, won three Grammys, including Record of the Year, for producing Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers In The Night’. Jimmy Bowen also wrote movie soundtracks including for Vanishing Point in 1971, and Smokey and the Bandit in 1980. Bowen was also president of a series of record labels with successes including Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McEntire, Kim Carnes and Garth Brooks.
George Barnes also played on Don Lanier’s singles ‘Private Property’ and ‘Pony Tail Girl’ in 1957, songs written by Lanier with Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen. Don Lanier went on to compose songs for Ray Charles, Dean Martin, the Everly Brothers, Hank Snow, and Norah Jones. Don also played guitar on many hits including Nancy Sinatra’s global chart topper, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’.
George Barnes with Eddie Fontaine. George Barnes also played guitar on Eddie Fontaine’s self-written ‘Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees)’ in 1958. This was a rockabilly hit covered by the Beatles in 1963 for BBC radio, with George Harrison was on lead vocals. The Beatles also recorded the track in Hamburg in 1962. Born Edward Reardon in Springfield, Massachusetts, Eddie Fontaine (1927 – 1992), was also an actor, appearing TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Happy Days and The Rockford Files.
George Barnes with Buddy Holly. George Barnes played electric guitar on Buddy Holly’s rockabilly ‘Early in the Morning, in 1958, which made number 32 on the US Hot 100 and number 17 in the UK. George also played on the flip side ‘Now We’re One’.
George Barnes with the Lane Brothers. Brothers Pete, Frank and Art Loconto were a 1940s/1950s rockabilly trio from Cambridge, Massachusetts, calling themselves the Lane Brothers. George Barnes played rockabilly guitar on the brothers’ ‘Uh Huh Honey’ and ‘Ding Dang Danglin’ in 1957. The Loconto brothers opened and named the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston in 1950, a venue later frequented by George W. Bush, when at Harvard Business School.
George Barnes with Charlie Phillips. Charlie Phillips was another in the long line of young West Texas-born rock and roll artists including Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the Rhythm Orchids and Roy Orbison. Indeed, Buddy Holly played guitar and sang back up on some of Phillips’ early sessions for producer Norman Petty. In 1958, George Barnes played guitar on the Charlie Phillips tracks ‘Be My Bride’ and ‘Too Many Tears’, which fared well on the country music charts.
George Barnes with Lonnie Donegan. The 1950s skiffle of Britain’s Lonnie Donegan (1931 – 2002) influenced everyone in the UK from the Beatles and Stones to Queen and Led Zeppelin. He was the first British male to score two U.S. top ten hits. In 1960, George Barnes played guitar on the Lonnie Donegan tracks: ‘Junco Partner’, ‘Lorelai’, ‘The Wreck of the John B’, ‘Sorry But I’m Gonna Have to Pass’.