Charlie Barnet – Leader of “The Blackest White Band of Them All”

Saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet was born into a wealthy family. His grandfather was Charles Frederick Daly, a vice-president for the New York Central Railroad, banker, and businessman. His father, a successful lawyer, wanted young Charlie to follow him into the family business. But Charlie had other plans.

As a boy, Barnet attended exclusive boarding schools New York and Chicago, where he learned to play piano and saxophone. He often skipped school to listen to local jazz bands play.

By the age of sixteen, Barnet had performed with Jean Goldkette’s band, and in New York where he joined Frank Winegar’s Pennsylvania Boys, playing tenor sax. By 1931 Barnet had relocated to Los Angeles with the hopes of landing work in local bands or in Hollywood films. He appeared as an extra in a movie while trying to obtain employment with local bands. Unable to find consistent work, in late in 1932 Charlie returned to the east coast and persuaded a friend at the CBS radio network’s artist bureau to try him out as an orchestra leader. He was just 18 years old.

Fueled by family resources, in 1933 Barnet decided to try his hand at leading his own band. In October of that year, he landed his first recording contract, but was not a great success for most of the early ‘30s, regularly changing style and reorganizing his band. In 1935, he attempted to premiere swing music at the Hotel Roosevelt in New Orleans, where Louisiana’s controversial Governor, Huey “The Kingfish” Long, disliked the new sound and literally had the band run out of town on false charges. Barnet was subsequently forced to disband, but arranged with fellow bandleader Joe Haymes to take several of his now unemployed sidemen, while Barnet went on an extended vacation to Havana.

1936 saw another swinging version of the Barnet band, featuring the up-and-coming vocal quartet The Modernaires (who later found success with Glenn Miller’s band) but that attempt quickly folded.

Ultimately finding success, Barnet was responsible for launching the careers of several notable artists, including pianist Bill Miller (who later accompanied Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra, Jr.  for decades) and singers Mary Ann McCall and Lena Horne. Additionally, his band at times included Buddy DeFranco, Neal Hefti, Barney Kessel, and Oscar Pettiford, while later versions of the band included Maynard Ferguson, Doc Severinsen, and Clark Terry. Trumpeter Billy May was an arranger in the Charlie Barnet Orchestra before joining Glenn Miller in 1940.

The height of Barnet’s popularity came between 1939 and 1944, a period that began with his hit recording of “Cherokee”, written by Ray Noble and arranged by Billy May. In 1944, Barnet had another huge hit with “Skyliner”. He also enjoyed success with recordings of “The Wrong Idea”, “Scotch & Soda”, and “In a Mizz”. His own saxophone style was influenced by Coleman Hawkins on tenor and Johnny Hodges on alto. Barnet was also noted for his beautiful and stylish soprano sax playing.

Barnet was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band, with more black musicians working for him than any of the other popular white bandleaders. Trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Frankie Newton and bassist John Kirby joined in 1937. Lena Horne was one of Barnet’s early vocalists. Barnet was even booked to perform at the Apollo Theater in Harlem which was unheard of for a mostly white band, and his performance there broke all attendance records. Barnet’s swinging style and personnel integration led other musicians to refer to his band as “The Blackest White Band of Them All”.

In 1939, The Barnet band was booked into the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. A scant four years earlier, the Palomar had been the site of Benny Goodman’s famous performances that are credited as being the ‘start’ of the Swing era. Over the summer, the Palomar been remodeled. A modern cooling system was installed, cocktail lounges and soda fountains were added and the dance floor enlarged. An advertisement announcing the gala reopening predicted “A premier audience of more than 20,000 persons – the expected attendance to be on hand for the gayest of all openings!.”

On the night of October 2, 1939, a fire accidentally started behind the bandstand shortly after the band had taken a break. The newly remodeled ballroom was reduced to ashes in what officials called “the most sensational fire of the decade.” The response of Los Angeles Fire Department was delayed by an address error. Incredibly, no one was killed. The Barnet band lost most of its equipment in the fire. Their tune “All Burned Up” was a dark-humor reference to the event. Count Basie (who coincidentally was booked to perform at the venue two days later), lent Barnet some of his charts after Barnet’s instruments, notes and arrangements had been destroyed in the flames.

Throughout his career, Barnet showed open distain for so-called ‘syrupy arrangements’. In the song “The Wrong Idea”, he lampooned the ‘sweet’ big band sound of the era. The song was written by Billy May, who later poked fun (in collaboration with Stan Freberg) at Lawrence Welk in the satirical recording of “Wunnerful! Wunnerful!.” The Barnet band was notorious for being a notorious “party band”, where drinking and carousing were not uncommon. While Glenn Miller enforced strict standards of behavior both on and off the bandstand, Barnet was more interested in “having fun”, according to his autobiography “Those Swinging Years.”

In 1949 Barnet retired, largely because of changing musical tastes of the record-buying public, and thanks to his access to family riches, being one of the few heirs of a very wealthy family. In September 1964, Barnet arranged a private party for Duke Ellington at a Palm Springs’ country club. At the door, a sign painted by Barnet read: “Any complaints about loud music or requests for excessive use of mutes will be grounds for instant expulsion (to a table in the parking lot). Any requests for folk music, twist, watusi, or rock and roll will result in instant execution by golf balls at 20 paces.” Barnet did not play at the gathering.

Coda: Barnet was married an astonishing eleven times (!) and stated in his autobiography “Those Swinging Years”, “I went through several marital fiascos, but they were mostly Mexican marriages and quickly annulled, because they weren’t legal in the first place.”

His final marriage, to Betty Thompson, lasted 33 years. It seems Charlie finally got it right in the marriage department.

Charlie Barnet died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia at San Diego’s Hillside hospital on September 4, 1991. He was 77.

The music of Charlie Barnet is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Lawrence Welk’s valet.