Charlie Christian was a jazz guitarist who is considered to be one of the most important early performers to have ever used an electric guitar. He is also credited with a key role in the development of both bebop and cool jazz music.
Charles Henry Christian was born on July 29, 1916 in Bonham, Texas, but he was raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. One of three boys, he learned music from his father, Clarence. Clarence had been made blind by a fever and it forced him and the boys to work as “buskers” to support the family. Christian began with dancing but as he got older, he learned how to play the guitar. When Christian was twelve, Clarence died so Christian inherited his guitar. While attending school, his musical instructor tried to force him to play the saxophone. Uncomfortable with the instrument, he quit, and played baseball instead.
In 1931, Christian began learning guitar from James Simpson, a trumpeter in his brother’s band. On December 23, 1932, Christian had a daughter, Billie Jean, with a woman named Margaretta Downey. When he performed for the first time in Oklahoma City, he was such a standout that his mother had heard about it before he’d even gotten home. He then began performing in public, traveling to other states. In 1936, he was playing the electrical guitar, growing popular enough to play with Teddy Wilson.
In 1939, he auditioned for John Hammond and was hired to play with a band run by Benny Goodman, whom Christian impressed with his solo of “Rose Room” that lasted 40 minutes. By 1940, Christian was elected to the Metronome All Stars. At this time, he was dominating the jazz polls because of his notoriety. When Goodman reorganized the band, he kept Christian.
Sadly, Christian died young. His bad eating habits were widely known as were his marijuana and alcohol habits. In 1941, he was admitted to a sanitarium, probably due to stress related to his hectic lifestyle. On March 2, 1942, he died of tuberculosis. Christian was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and in his hometown of Oklahoma City, a street was renamed Charlie Christian Avenue. The city also holds an annual jazz festival in his honor.
Christian’s musical style is considered unique and he has influenced people like Herschel Evans and Lester Young. Many famous guitarists cite Christian as an influence in their own musical careers and he is credited with helping to make electric guitars like Gibson guitars popular. Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, B.B. King, Les Paul, and Jim Hall also list him as a major musical influence. Sadly, Christian never recorded as the headliner of a band. In fact, most released recordings feature him as a sideman where he plays the part of a soloist.