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Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar

Few musicians have the archetypal stature of Charlie Christian, and none obtained it like the guitarist: exclusively as a sideman. Certainly, had the pioneering electric guitarist not died of tuberculosis in 1942 at 25, Christian’s impact would have been even more profound, as he was positioned to become a leading exponent of emergent bebop. Had Christian lived even to the age of 50, the guitar may not have been the second-tier instrument that some consider it. Still, Christian has a musical legacy and a mystique (albeit a far less exploited one) in the same ballpark as Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.

The amazing aspect of Christian’s legacy is that the bulk of his official recordings were made in the employ of Benny Goodman, the unlikely teen idol of white America. Despite the fading of his youth culture stock by their initial 1939 sessions, Goodman still enjoyed such King of Swing perks as a weekly national radio show. Goodman’s plucking of Christian from territory band obscurity-credit John Hammond with the assist-was every bit as daring as his barrier-breaking hiring of Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson a few years before. Christian gave both Goodman’s Sextet and Orchestra sides an earthy, edgy voice that complemented the soar and swoon of Goodman’s clarinet.

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