George Warren Barnes (July 17, 1921 – September 5, 1977) was an American swing jazz guitarist who played the first electric guitar in 1931. He made the first commercial recording of an electric guitar on March 1, 1938, in sessions with Big Bill Broonzy.
On March 1, 1938, he recorded the songs "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Lowdown Dirty Shame" with blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. In doing so, it has been claimed that he became the first person to make a record on electric guitar, fifteen days before Eddie Durham recorded on electric guitar with the Kansas City Five, though the claim has been contested. In 1938, when he was seventeen, Barnes was hired as staff guitarist for the NBC Orchestra. He was also staff guitarist and arranger for Decca and recorded with Blind John Davis, Jazz Gillum, Merline Johnson, Curtis Jones, and Washboard Sam.
In 1940, Barnes released his first solo recording, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" and "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" on Okeh Records. He was drafted in 1942 and served with the U.S. Army as an intercept operator in the Pentagon. After his discharge in 1946, he formed the George Barnes Octet and was given a fifteen-minute radio program on the ABC network. On January 17, 1947, he married Evelyn Lorraine Triplett in Chicago.
In 1951, he was signed to Decca by Milt Gabler and moved from Chicago to New York City. In 1953, he joined the orchestra for the television show Your Hit Parade. The band was conducted by Raymond Scott, and Barnes was a featured soloist. Barnes, Scott, and vocalist Dorothy Collins (Scott's wife) also recorded together.
Barnes worked often as a studio musician in New York City, playing on hundreds of albums and jingles from the early 1950s through the late 1960s. He played guitar on Patsy Cline's New York sessions in April 1957. Although he was primarily a swing jazz guitarist, he participated in hundreds of pop, rock, and R&B recording sessions. He played on many hit songs by the Coasters, on "This Magic Moment" by the Drifters, and on "Lonely Teardrops". His electric guitar can be heard in the movie A Face in the Crowd.
He recorded three albums for Mercury: Movin' Easy (1960) with his Jazz Renaissance Quintet, Guitar Galaxies (1960), and Guitars Galore (1961). The latter two contained his orchestrations for ten guitars, known as his guitar choir, which used guitars in place of a horn section. The two albums employed a recording technique known as Perfect Presence Sound.
Barnes received the most attention as a jazz guitarist when he recorded as a duo with Carl Kress from 1961–1965. He and Kress were invited to play at the White House Christmas party on December 17, 1964. For the occasion, Barnes wrote "Watusi for Luci" for First Daughter Luci Baines Johnson because she was famous for dancing the Watusi in clubs with Hollywood celebrities. The song was used as the theme for The Clay Cole Show in 1965 when the TV show was renamed Clay Cole's Discotek.
Barnes formed a duo with jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli that lasted from 1969–1972. In 1973, he and cornetist Ruby Braff formed the Ruby Braff–George Barnes Quartet. The quartet recorded several albums, including Live at the New School (Chiaroscuro, 1974), To Fred Astaire with Love (RCA, 1975), and The Rodgers and Hart Songbook (1973) with singer Tony Bennett. From 1973 until 1977, Barnes recorded several well-received solo albums for Concord Jazz and with the quartet he had formed with Braff. He also recorded two albums for jazz violinist Joe Venuti.
Barnes and his wife, Evelyn, left New York City after his last European tour in 1975 to live and work in the San Francisco Bay area. He died of a heart attack in Concord, California in 1977 at the age of 56.
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