Vinyl Treasures: George Barnes 'Be There at Five'

Be There at Five [Mercury, 1956] is a great example of the treasures one can find going through record bins.
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Be There at Five[Mercury, 1956] is a great example of the treasures one can find going through record bins. Twenty-five years ago, while shopping at a Salvation Army store, I bought this record for its cover—I wasn’t aware of George Barnes at the time—and I assumed the music might be lifeless corn. I was immediately knocked out by the great guitar playing, however, and after reading the liner notes, my appreciation for Mr. George Barnes began.

Born in Chicago, Barnes (1921-1977) may have been the first player to record with an electric, Spanish-style guitar when he backed Big Bill Broonzy in 1938 on the tracks “Sweetheart Land” and “Lowdown Dirty Shame.” He was just 17 years old. That same year, Barnes was hired as a staff musician and featured performer for the NBC orchestra. He was signed to Decca in 1951, and enjoyed a distinguished career doing sessions (including Patsy Cline, the Coasters, and Tony Bennett), performing and recording solo and as a duo (with Carl Kress), and writing lesson books until he died of a heart attack at just 56 years old.

All of the arrangements on Be There at Five are clever and precise, and there are moments of inspired guitar playing—particularly on “Louise,” where Barnes plays some great Django-like melodies. Most valuable, however, are the techniques that George taught me through this album. For example, he uses aggressive sweep picking quite often, which I employed on “Awful Pretty, Pretty Awful” from my 2010 record, Orange. Another essential thing I learned from Barnes was his use of subtle slurs, slides, and hammer-ons to embellish an otherwise simple melody. He really opened my eyes to the effects a guitarist can get with his or her hands alone. This realization distracted me from worrying about crafting “killer tone” with my gear, and focused me on working on more creative and virtuosic playing.

Be There at Five isn’t easy to find, and, since discovering him, my personal favorite of Barnes’ catalog is the super-rare Country Jazz. The LP cover shows a cowboy and his girlfriend affectionately snuggling while the cowboy plays guitar, but that’s for another article…