Charlie Christian, pioneering jazz guitarist, was born Charles Henry Christian on July 29, 1916, in Bonham, Texas. He was the son of Clarence James and Willie Mae (Booker) Christian. In the fall of 1918 Clarence Christian moved the family to Oklahoma City in the effort to find work. (Clarence had recently gone blind.) Young Charlie grew up in a musical family and played in a quartet with his father and brothers.
He took to the guitar at a very young age and learned the principles of basic music theory under musical director Zelia N. Breaux at Douglass Elementary School and local guitarist Ralph “Big Foot Chuck” Hamilton, along with trumpeter James Simpson. By the time Charlie was a teenager he was already very proficient on the guitar. His influences included “Big Foot Chuck” Hamilton’s religious music, jazzist Lester Young, various jazz and blues bands that passed through Oklahoma City, and even Western swing pioneers such as Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys. In 1936 Christian played shows in Dallas during the Texas Centennial and reportedly purchased his first electric guitar, a Gibson, in 1937.
Christian had established a local following and was heralded for his unique single-note soloing style and masterful improvisation. Around 1937 he toured with Alphonso Trent and his orchestra and then traveled with Anna Mae Winburn and her orchestra. After this, Christian returned to his home in Oklahoma City. It was there in July 1939 when Mary Lou Williams, pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, heard Christian play and pronounced him the “greatest electric-guitar player” she’d ever heard. She was instrumental in persuading New York music producer John Hammond to give Christian an audition. Hammond was immediately impressed and orchestrated a surprise audition of Christian with bandleader Benny Goodman in California. Goodman employed Christian and so began a legendary musical partnership.
As a member of the improvisational combo, the Benny Goodman Sextet, Christian was immediately recognized throughout the professional jazz world for his innovative sounds and ideas. Musicologists and performers have acknowledged his creative contribution to modern jazz as an early pioneer of electric guitar on recordings. His picking technique, altered chords, melody lines, and, of course, solos represented a new approach to jazz. From 1939 through 1941 Christian won Down Beat magazine’s ratings as America’s best guitarist. Unfortunately, his brilliant career was cut short by tuberculosis. He died from the disease on March 2, 1942, in Staten Island, New York. He was buried at Gates Hill Cemetery in Bonham, Texas. During his life he had one daughter with Margretta Lorraine Christian in 1932.
“Solo Flight,” the Goodman hit featuring Christian, made the top of Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade in 1943. The legacy of Charlie Christian has inspired countless players in the years following his death, and the guitarist has been given numerous accolades. He was chosen for Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame in 1966 and inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1981. In 1990 Christian was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence of the genre. A documentary film, Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian, was released in 1992, and a Texas Historical Marker was erected in his honor at Gates Hill Cemetery in 1994. Numerous recordings and guitar books document his virtuosity, and into the 2000s new audio compilations such as Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar (2002), a four-CD box set, continued to introduce him to new audiences. The Fannin County Museum in Bonham maintains a permanent exhibit on the life and music of Charlie Christian.