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Influential Players

Research > History > Musical Styles and Venues in America > Influential Players

Eddie Lang

Eddie Lang, born Salvatore Massaro, is considered by many to be the first modern Jazz guitar virtuoso. See the Roaring Twenties above for more information. Eddie Lang (10/25/1902 – 3/26/1933) played a role in the development of the jazz sound of the 1920’s that became part of the mainstream through movies, radio and recordings. He worked with the greats of his era, such as Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Smith Ballew, Fred Rich, Red Nichols, Noel Taylor, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, King Oliver, Hoagy Carmichael, Don Vorhees, Adrian Rollini, and Lonnie (J.C.) Johnson. His most famous association was with violinist Joe Venuti, with whom he recorded under many different titles. In 1933 a botched operation unexpectedly ended Lang’s life.

Eddie Lang’s compositions (based on the Red Hot Jazz database) included “Wild Cat” with Joe Venuti, “Perfect” with Frank Signorelli, “April Kisses”, “Sunshine”, “Melody Man’s Dream”, “Goin’ Places”, “Black and Blue Bottom”, “Bull Frog Moan”, “Rainbow Dreams”, “Feelin’ My Way”, “Eddie’s Twister”, “Really Blue”, “Penn Beach Blues”, “Wild Dog”, “Pretty Trix”, “A Mug of Ale”, “Apple Blossoms”, “Beating the Dog”, “To To Blues”, “Running Ragged”, “Kicking the Cat”, “Cheese and Crackers”, “Doin’ Things”, “Blue Guitars”, “Guitar Blues” with Lonnie Johnson, “Hot Fingers”, “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues”, “A Handful of Riffs”, “Blue Room”, “Deep Minor Rhythm Stomp”, “Two-Tone Stomp”. “Midnight Call Blues”, “Four String Joe”, “Goin’ Home”, and “Pickin’ My Way” with Carl Kress.

Eddie Lang was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of an Italian-American banjo and guitar maker. He began studying violin and sight reading at age seven, and stuck with the lessons for 11 years. At age nine, his father fashioned a small guitar. The boy eagerly took to the new instrument. While in school he became friends with violinist Joe Venuti. The two hit it off musically and continued to work together throughout Lang’s carrier.  Their work over the next decade as a jazz duet would set the stage for a young Django Reinhardt in France to team with English classical violinist Stephan Grappelli and reshape the sound of swing in both Europe and the US.

By 1918 Lang was playing violin, banjo, and guitar semi-professionally. His focus at the time was tenor banjo, but this expanded to a hybrid 6-string guitar-banjo (the same way Django Reinhardt started).  By 1922 he was easily finding musical work and by 1923 he fully made the transition to guitar.

He worked with various bands in the American North-East, and briefly in London (late 1924 to early 1925), finally settling in New York City.  He worked steadily as accompaniment on recordings, radio and film – all new forms of public media.

On February 4th 1927, Lang was featured in the recording of “Singin’ the Blues” by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. Lang traded guitar licks with Beiderbecke on cornet.  The session became a landmark jazz recording of the 1920s.  It brought credibility to the guitar as a jazz solo instrument, capable of holding its own with any other instrument.  This was before the days of amplification.

In 1928 and 1929 Lang also played under the pseudonym Blind Willie Dunn on a number of blues records with New Orleans legendary guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In 1929 he joined Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and appeared in the movie ‘The King of Jazz’ (1930) – the first two-color feature film.

In 1930 Lang played guitar on the original recording of the jazz and pop standard “Georgia On My Mind,” recorded with Hoagy Carmichael and His Orchestra. Joe Venuti and Bix Beiderbecke also played on these sessions.

In 1931, Bing Crosby became the nation’s top vocalist and decided to leave the Whitman organization and strike-out on his own.  Eddie Lang left with him as his accompanist.

In 1932, Lang appeared with Crosby in the 1932 movie Big Broadcast.

Lang died following a tonsillectomy in New York City in 1933 at the age of 30. He had been urged by Crosby to have the tonsillectomy so that he might have speaking parts in Crosby’s films. Lang’s voice was chronically hoarse, and it was hoped that the operation would remedy this. The operation did not go well and Lang died of excessive bleeding.

Eddie Lang played a Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitar.  The L-5 was new, an ‘F’ hole archtop redesigned by Lloyd Loar for Gibson to increase the instrument’s volume and projection.  The guitar-buying public hadn’t yet come to appreciate the new developments until Eddie Lang gained prominence in film and recordings.  Suddenly, the new instrument design gained popularity as the Jazz instrument of choice. It was an ideal rhythm instrument (chording and comping), and a powerfully expressive solo instrument.  It worked equally well in an orchestral setting as a combo instrument, as a duet rhythm and solo instrument, and as single accompaniment to vocals.

George Van Eps said of the legacy of Eddie Lang, “It’s very fair to call Eddie Lang the father of jazz guitar.”

Barney Kessel said, “Eddie Lang first elevated the guitar and made it artistic in jazz.”

Les Paul also credited him. “Eddie Lang was the first and had a very modern technique.”

In 1977, Lang’s recording of “Singin’ the Blues” with Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1986, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

It can be said that Eddie Lang was the first ‘Jazz Guitar Star’ and the single most important jazz guitarist in the world until the rise of Django Reinhardt in 1934 and Charlie Christian in 1939.  Before Lang, the banjo was the stringed instrument of Jazz.  His prominence on the guitar and exposure by movie, radio and recording was a strong influence on many banjo players of the age to switch to guitar.  After all, he was the epitome of ‘cool’ at the time – he made the guitar seem to be the natural jazz instrument of the age.

By recording with Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, King Oliver and Lonnie Johnson, he helped expose the American public to the true roots of jazz and blues and helped diminish the race barrier of the day.

Nick Lucas

Nick Lucas (8/22/1897 – 7/28/1982) started his career as a guitar player at about the same time as Eddie Lange.  Born Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese, Nick Lucus was a singer and pioneer of jazz guitar. He has been remembered as “the grandfather of the jazz guitar” and experienced a peak of popularity from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s.

At the age of 25 in 1922, he became known for his renditions of “Picking the Guitar” and “Teasing the Frets” for Pathe Records. In 1923 the Gibson Company (looking for a professional endorser) worked with Lucus to detail a concert guitar with an extra deep body. Known as the “Nick Lucas Special”, it has been a sought-after vintage model with guitar collectors since. In the same year, he began a successful career in recording phonograph records for Brunswick and remained one of their exclusive artists until 1932.

By the late 1920s, the Brunswick recordings had been successful and Lucas had become well known as “The Crooning Troubadour”. In 1929, he co-starred in the Warner Brothers musical, ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’, in which he introduced the two hit songs “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”. The latter became known as Lucas’ official theme song. Lucas was also featured in ‘The Show of Shows’ (1929), the studio’s all-star revue, . Lucas turned down a Warner Bros.’ offer for a seven-year contract, which went instead to fellow crooner Dick Powell.

In April 1930, Warner Bros. bought Brunswick Records. Due to their appreciation of Nick Lucas, Warner Bros. provided him with his own orchestra The Crooning Troubadours. This arrangement lasted until December 1931, when Warner Bros. licensed Brunswick to the American Record Corporation. The new owners were not as extravagant as Warner Bros. and Lucas lost his orchestra. He eventually left Brunswick in 1932. He made 2 recordings for Durium Records in 1932 for their Hit of the Week series. These would prove to be his last major recordings.

Nick Lucas spent the rest of his career performing on radio, night clubs and dance halls. He made a number of recordings for various independent labels, including Cavalier Records, where he was billed as the “Cavalier Troubadour.” In 1944 he reprised some of his old hits in ‘Soundies’ movie musicals, and filmed another group of songs for Snader Telescriptions in 1951. In 1974, his renditions of the songs, “I’m Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston”, “When You and I Were Seventeen” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” were featured on the soundtrack of Paramount Pictures’ The Great Gatsby (1974) with Robert Redford.

An inspiration to Tiny Tim, who made Lucas’ “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” (written November 1929) his own theme song, Lucas became friends with the performer, and on December 17th, 1969, when Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Lucas was there to sing their trademark song.

Lucas would become the inspiration for players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Among his many contributions to the music of the 1920s were some of the first recorded guitar instrumentals.

Nick Lucas died in Colorado Springs in 1982 of double pneumonia, three weeks before his 85th birthday.

Merle Travis

Merle Robert Travis (11/29/1917 – 10/20/1983) was an American musician born in Rosewood, Kentucky. The lyrics of his songs frequently delved into the life and exploitation of coal miners.  Among his many well-known songs are “Sixteen Tons”, “Re-Enlistment Blues” and “Dark as a Dungeon”.  He is best known, however, for his masterful guitar playing and his interpretations of the rich musical traditions of his native Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He developed a syncopated style of finger picking that has become known as “Travis picking”.

Merle Travis is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential American guitarists of the twentieth century. His unique guitar style inspired many guitarists who followed. Chet Atkins, who first heard Travis’s radio broadcasts on Cincinnati’s WLW Boone County Jamboree in 1939 while living with his father in rural Georgia, credits Travis as a prime inspiration. Among the many other guitarists influenced by Travis are Scotty Moore, Earl Hooker and Marcel Dadi (France). Today, his son Thom Bresh continues his father’s tradition of playing and entertaining in Travis’s style.

Travis and his early tutors were among the first to use the thumb pick in guitar playing. It freed the fingers to pick melodies against the thumbs alternating bass line. Travis’s style, according to Chet Atkins, went on in musical directions “never dreamt about” by his predecessors. His trademark mature style incorporated elements from ragtime, blues, boogie, jazz and Western swing, and was marked by rich chord progressions, harmonics, slides and bends, and rapid changes of key. He could shift quickly from finger-picking to flatpicking in the midst of a number by gripping his thumb pick like a flat pick. In his hands, the guitar substituted for a full band. As his son Thom Bresh puts it, on first hearing his father as a child “I thought it was just the coolest sound, because it sounded like a whole bunch of instruments coming from one guitar. In it, I heard rhythm parts, I heard melodies, I heard chords and all this wrapped up in one.” Equally comfortable on acoustic and electric guitar, Travis was one of the first to exploit the full range of techniques and sound possibilities available on the electric guitar.

Though Chet Atkins was the most prominent guitarist to be inspired by Merle Travis, the two players’ styles were significantly different. As Atkins explained, “While I play alternate bass strings which sounds more like a stride piano style, Merle played two bass strings simultaneously on the one and three beats, producing a more exciting solo rhythm, in my opinion. It was somewhat reminiscent of the great old black players.” The resemblance was no coincidence; Travis himself acknowledged the influence of black guitarists such as Blind Blake, the foremost ragtime and blues guitarist of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Travis’s style is well explained and exemplified by Marcel Dadi on the DVD The Guitar of Merle Travis, which includes live video performances by Travis of classics such as “John Henry” and “Nine Pound Hammer” as well as transcriptions of Travis solos in tablature.

Merle Travis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.  Merle died at the age of 65 on October 20th, 1983 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

“The Country Gentleman” Chet Atkins

Chester Burton Atkins (June 20th, 1924 – June 30th, 2001), better known as Chet Atkins, was an American fingerstyle guitarist and record producer for RCA who helped create the country music style known as the ‘Nashville sound’, which broadly expanded country music’s national appeal.

Atkins’s picking style, inspired by Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Les Paul, brought him respect and admiration from fans and musicians across the globe.  Atkins produced records for Perry Como, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Jerry Reed, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, Waylon Jennings and many others.

Among the many honors Atkins received in the course of his long career included 14 Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, nine Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards, and Atkins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

C.G.P.

C.G.P. stands for Certified Guitar Player.  The title was an honor created by Chet Atkins largely for his personal amusement. The letters were used to follow his name – Phd, MA, AIA, MD or similar suffixes indicating earned degrees, membership or accomplishments.  “Chet Atkins C.G.P.” certainly indicated a hard-earned education in the music business and true life accomplishment.  Atkins bestowed the title, sparingly, as a show of affection and appreciation for other guitarists that he admired and that he felt contributed to the legacy of guitar playing.  He extended the honor in the form of a small oval gold pin with the letters “C.G.P.” inscribed in script.

C.G.P. was awarded during Chet Atkins’ lifetime to Jerry Reed, Steve Wariner, John Knowles, Guy Van Duser and Tommy Emmanuel.  Following Atkins’ death, the Atkins family provided a pin to Paul Yandell (Chet’s long-time accompanist and friend).  The estate of Chet Atkins then trademarked the designation and determined that there should be no other C.G.P. distinctions awarded.