Twenty-one years ago, in July 1999, I called music legend Barney Kessel who despite never viewing himself as an icon is certainly one of the greats. I had interviewed him years earlier for a radio show I hosted in the Bay Area but had since lost the original tape. This time around, I called just to let him know he was still being remembered for the amazing music he provided to us on records, television, and in the movies.
Barney Kessel was a jazz guitarist from the big band era who gained a reputation as a first-call studio musician in Los Angeles and was a member of the famed Wrecking Crew. Barney recorded with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Billie Holiday, and rock and pop icons including Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, and Cher. In the later part of his career, he recorded a series of albums under his own name with some of his special friends sitting in with him including Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis, Shelly Manne, and Monty Alexander.
In May 1992, Barney suffered a stroke that greatly affected his speech. After a few years of intense speech therapy and the loving support of his wife Phyllis, Barney regained some of his lost speech. His memory remained strong and because of that, his passion for music and life can be felt in this short but important interview. What I recorded over the phone in 1999 was only 11 minutes long, but it demonstrates so much of his incredible character. I hope you take the time to listen to the interview and appreciate the effort and emotion involved with every word he said.
When I became the Music Historian at NAMM, and my awesome staff helped me digitize my original radio interviews, I struggled with the idea of posting a short segment of Barney’s interview, let alone the full 11 minutes. I was concerned it would somehow reflect poorly on him or that someone might think we were being disrespectful due to his altered speech. I wanted to honor Barney, the musician, and the man.
The always supportive Maurice Summerfield (whom I’m blessed to have interviewed, learned from, and became friends with over the years) let me know that he appreciated the short segment I posted from Barney’s interview. Maurice shared the link with Phyllis Kessel who in turn reached out to me. She wanted to hear the full interview and I asked her if she thought it would be appropriate to post it. She replied with a resounding, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Phyllis proudly recalled that Barney was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 1999 in Muskogee, which he refers to in the interview. Her encouraging email was a reminder of the incredible support she provided her husband during his final years. They were adorable together, traveling when it must have been a struggle for both of them, but never missing an opportunity to see friends and hear music! On December 16, 2000, Phyllis and Barney visited the newly opened Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, located at NAMM headquarters. The enclosed photo of Barney and me was taken by Phyllis, and I cherish that moment. As a side note, my twin boys were born just a few hours later that evening and as they grew they enjoyed seeing the shirt I wore that day in looking at this now 20-year-old photograph.
Barney was one of a kind and it was an honor to know him. Please click here to listen to Barney's audio-only interview.
Dan Del Fiorentino