Wes Montgomery Day

March 6, 1923 – June 15, 1968

A birthday tribute to the immortal guitarist

Guitarist John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

His brothers were vibraphonist and pianist Buddy Montgomery (1930-2009) and Monk Montgomery (1921-1982), who by the early 1950s had become the first significant electric bassist.

Wes was already 19 in 1942 before he started playing guitar, inspired by hearing Charlie Christian’s recording of “Solo Flight” with Benny Goodman.

Self-taught, Montgomery learned to use his thumb rather than a pick on his guitar to achieve a softer sound so he would not disturb neighbors when he practiced.

Montgomery toured with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra during 1948-50 but this was a false start, followed by a return to Indianapolis where he supported his family (which included seven children) by working at a day job as a welder for a radio parts manufacturer and frequently playing at two clubs each night, getting perhaps four hours of sleep a night.

By 1957, Buddy and Monk Montgomery were having success with their group the Mastersounds and Wes occasionally played with them, making a few lesser-known recordings during the next year.

In 1959 Wes Montgomery had his breakthrough when Cannonball Adderley heard him in an Indianapolis club and urged producer Orrin Keepnews to sign him to the Riverside label, resulting in some of his finest albums including one accurately titled The Incredible Jazz Guitar Of Wes Montgomery.

The guitarist, whose ability to play octaves became his trademark sound, wrote such songs as “Four On Six” and “West Coast Blues,” was featured on many brilliant recordings for Riverside during 1959-63 (including with Adderley, George Shearing and Milt Jackson), and had commercial success after the collapse of Riverside by signing with Verve.

The Verve albums (highlighted by live recordings with the Wynton Kelly Trio) included a hit in “Goin’ Out Of My Head” and a balance between commercial music that made Montgomery famous beyond the jazz world and more freewheeling sessions.

During 1967-68, Wes Montgomery recorded three poppish albums for the A&M label that were often little more than pretty melody statements; all were big sellers that gave the guitarist a bit of prosperity after so many years of struggle.

But it did not last long for Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1968.

Here is Wes Montgomery playing “Full House” on a British television show from 1965.

Personnel:

Wes Montgomery, guitar
Harold Mabern, piano
Arthur Harper, bass
Jimmy Lovelace, drums

-Scott Yanow