Mary Lou Williams had told John Hammond, a well-known producer and talent scout for Columbia Records, nearly four months earlier about Charles Christian, when she was in New York playing piano and singing with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy. Hammond had expressed an interest in using electric guitar in a jazz ensemble. Floyd Smith was gaining attention with his playing of a Hawaiian electric guitar at the time, but Hammond said he found Smith’s electrified Hawaiian guitar sound “ghastly.” Mary Lou told Hammond that if he wanted to hear a great young electric guitar player, he should go to Oklahoma City and see Charles Christian.

“He’s the greatest guituh playuh I’ve evuh heard,” she said to the record producer and talent scout.

And after receiving a wire from Williams calling Charles a “guitar genius” and a “guitar wizard” who blew Floyd Smith right off the stage at Ruby’s Grill in Oklahoma City, Hammond decided he’d give the 23-year-old electric guitar player an audition. The record producer had to be in Los Angeles to supervise a recording date in late July with clarinetist Benny Goodman’s band, so he promised Mary Lou he’d make a stopover in Oklahoma City.

“What if you gotta chance to play with the Bennie Goodman Orchustruh; would yuh accept the oppuhtunitee?” Mary Lou asked Charles.

Charles appeared to be reluctant, but Williams’ persistent coaxing finally led him to answer, “Mary, I will, if you will, too.”

She wired Hammond back later that day to say the guitarist had enthusiastically accepted the audition invitation, which was perhaps a smidgen of a white lie.

Goodman had actually had featured guitarists Leonard Ware and George Rose on different recordings at different times, but wasn’t satisfied with the results, although he claimed to remain open to Hammond’s suggestion to try out guitarists to play in a band setting.

Hammond arrived in Oklahoma City on August 2 and trombonist Henry Butler and trumpet player Buddy Anderson picked up the record producer in an old 1926 Buick and took him to Huskin’s Hotel. Later that day, Hammond slipped in unannounced at Ruby’s Grill and listened to Charles’ band, but he did not appear, or give any overt indication that he was moved by the group’s overall performance. However, he called Charles over to his table and asked him to sit.

“Mary Lou told me about you, Charles. If I can get you an audition with Benny Goodman, would you be interested in going to Los Angeles so he can hear you?”

“Yesuh, I wood,” Charles quietly replied, trying to hide his nervousness of talking to a famous record producer and talent scout.

“Don’t you have an electric guitar?” Hammond asked, noting that Charles had used an Epiphone acoustic with a small microphone taped to the soundboard and ran it through an old amplifier and a twelve-inch speaker.

“It got repossessed by duh Jenkins Music Company,” Charles said frankly.

“Where are they located?” Hammond asked.

“Ovuh on Main Street,” Charles answered.

“Jenkins Music on Main Street. I’ll take a taxi there and get your guitar and have it sent here at the hotel. Also, I’ll wire you some money to cover your expenses to come to Los Angeles in a couple of weeks.”

“Thank yuh, Mr. Hammond,” Charles politely replied.

“It was very good to meet you,” Hammond said. “That’s the best damn guitar playing I’ve heard in a long time. I’ll be back in touch with you soon.”

Charles was speechless. Nevertheless, the word spread to every nook and corner of Deep Deuce, the segregated Negro business and entertainment district of Oklahoma City. One of their own had a shot at the big time, and consensus was that if anyone had the talent and deserved a chance to go to the top, it was certainly Charles Christian. A big party at Ruby’s Grill on the Sunday, August 13th, served as a send-off for Charles with Happy Fenton leading the band, and the jam session went on all night until breakfast time the next day.

Charles boarded the train for Los Angeles on the afternoon of August 14, and a picture of his departure was on the front page of the Black Dispatch five days later. The picture showed Charles shaking the hand of musician and entrepreneur James Simpson. On the men’s right was Edward Christian and on the men’s left was Henry Butler, and a train car porter looked on from the left as well. It took Charles a day and a half to get to Los Angeles and there had been a stopover in New Mexico. Charles had opted to travel by train as he had never travelled in an airplane and was too scared to do so.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, he was glad to see a familiar face: T. Bone Walker was playing in town and met his old friend at the station and drove Charles to his room, as per John Hammond’s instructions, aware that seeing his pal would make Charlie, the nervous 23-year-old guitarist, more relaxed.

At the CBS studios the following day, things appeared not to be going so well with the recording of Benny Goodman’s band, and Charles waited and waited and waited. Finally, John Hammond came and led Charles to a room where Goodman was sitting in a chair. The clarinetist told Charlie to chord behind him and they played “Tea for Two” for about two minutes, and then Goodman got up, put down his clarinet on a table, and walked out without saying a word.

“I don’ think he liked it,” Charles said, appearing fidgety and uncomfortable.

“It’s okay, Charles. Things are a little hectic right now and Benny and his band have got a gig tonight at the Victor Hugo. I’ll get you on stage tonight,” Hammond said, and Charles was taken back to his hotel room in a late-model Chrysler driven by Walker.

That evening, Hammond met the young guitarist at the front door of the hotel and escorted him to a table, being very polite and cordial, smiling all the while. When the band took a break, Hammond said to Charles, “Let’s go,” and they walked directly to the bandstand. Hammond got double bass player Artie Bernstein to carry the amp Charles would use on stage and he plugged it in, and Hammond told Charlie to go ahead and plug in his guitar.

“You’re sittin’ in with the rhythm section,” Bernstein said, and Charles connected his guitar, adjusted his tuning and excitedly awaited Goodman’s return to the stage.

As Goodman was coming back to the bandstand, he saw Charles on stage and glared at Hammond wondering what the hell was going on. Not wanting to cause a scene or any disruption when he got back on stage, Benny announced “Rose Room” and the band began the tune, a song that Charles—unknown to Goodman—had played many times.

When Goodman signaled for Charles to take a solo on the first chorus, the guitarist reached deep inside himself and poured out lines from the well spring of his very being; the spirit of music taking flight from his heart strings to guitar strings, flowing finally from his fingertips, shining on brightly, swooping and sweeping, linking legato phrases with chord-tone arpeggios. Yes, he was on. He was on, one chorus after another and the band leader let him go, melodic phrases unheard before, with no repetition, soaring over the rhythm with his own wing beat, flying perfectly euphonious, and the audience crowded the front of the stage urging him on and on, with claps, finger snaps, and “oh yeahs.” This cat was it.

When he finished his solo after what must have been 40 minutes, the bandleader had no place to go but to return to the main melody for four bars and then close out the tune.

“Charlie Christian, ladies and gentlemen,” Benny Goodman said into the microphone, waving a hand in the guitarist’s direction, tacitly christening the captain for a new voyage in the band’s musical journey.


“You’re hired, Charlie. You’re now a full-time member of the band.”

“Thanks, Mistuh Goodman.”

“Call me Benny. We’re going to be working close together, so we’d better be on a friendly first-name basis.”

“Ahrite, Bennie.”

“The salary’s $150 a week for touring and recording. The band’s going in a new direction now. You’re now a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet. Rehearsals begin tomorrow.”

“Dat’s grate, jus’ grate.” Charlie, as Benny called him, could hardly catch his breath from his excitement, as he was making $2.50 a night playing guitar and leading a band at Ruby’s Grill back in Oklahoma City.

“Let’s go out and meet the rest of the guys in the band. Like me, they’re floored by your playing. Hammond was right about you. You’ve really got some new sounds going on there with your instrument, young man.”

“Thanks, Mistuh Goodman. Thanks.”

“Benny. Call me Benny, and I’ll call you Charlie. Just sounds more friendly—Benny and Charlie. Our first gig is the Hollywood Bowl on the 19th, the evening after tomorrow. How do you feel about that, Charlie?”

“Solid man. Solid,” Charlie said in his own special way, and flashed his full-toothed smile. “Can I call my familee in Oklahoma City?”

“Sure, of course, but let’s go out and meet the other guys in the band first,” Benny said, placed a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, and led him out the office door of CBS Studios, Los Angeles.


This is an excerpt from A.R. Abernathy’s new novel, Boppin’ to the Blue Beatavailable now.