RESTLESS, WILD AND WANDERING,
The Dirty Guitar of Junior Barnard
Fiddler and band leader Bob Wills was the big boss of his musical outfit, the Texas Playboys. Often times, he would take liberties with those in his employ, affixing unflattering nicknames, as well as speaking over his singers with relentless chatter and effusive hollers. These folksy adornments became Wills' trademark, his holler was legendary. But Wills carefully selected the best players in the kingdom of western and swing music in the 1930's and '40's to join his band for better pay, acclaim and a few friendly jibes. One such player was Lester Robert "Junior" Barnard, a guitarist from Oklahoma, who seemed to foretell the future of guitar music with his unusual playing and use of equipment.
By the 1950's the direction of music was Rock and Roll, and an early progenitor, Bill Haley had led a western swing band, much like Wills. Guitarists that predated Rock and Roll listened with a keen ear to the jazz and blues stylings of Junior Barnard, whose bluesy riffs and early use of distortion grew to become regular fare in coming rock bands.
Bob Wills took liberties with 230 pound Junior Barnard, referring to him as the "fat man," or the "Booger man," and other pejorative names. Restless, Junior Barnard, though apparently not resentful of Wills taunting, would play with the Texas Playboys, or other Wills family bands for a while, then leave. He would seek employment elsewhere and eventually find his way back. He was a guitarists in demand for his exciting original and innovative playing. But there was a dark side to Junior Barnard that few audience members saw in this audacious guitar player.
Guitarist and band leader Whit Smith, formerly of Hot Club of Cowtown, now leading the Hot Jazz Caravan, was also a listener of the guitar sounds of Barnard. In a recent interview, Smith referred to Junior Barnard's playing as "dirty guitar." "Throughout his troubled life," Smith said, "Junior Barnard's playing was rough-edged, always on time, but nervous, sharp and biting, like he was hiding something we couldn't see."
One of Bob Wills' more interesting songs from the "small combo" era band, after World War II, was "Fat Boy Rag." An instrumental song, it featured the left-handed fiddle virtuoso, Joe Holley, and the guitar of Junior Barnard. The song title came from a jam, where Bob turned to Barnard to signal a guitar solo, saying "Folks, here's that fat boy on the guitar."
Lester Robert Barnard, “Junior,” was born in Coweta, Oklahoma on December 17, 1920. He came from a musical family. His father Hurl Lester Barnard and his uncle Robert were both performing fiddle players in the area. Like a young Bob Wills, Junior Barnard, as a teenager, accompanied his father’s fiddle playing the guitar. Junior later learned to play the fiddle and began to sing.
By age 15, Junior Barnard was an accomplished musician, playing acoustic guitar with various bands in Tulsa. He had his own radio show at KTUL where he also worked as a staff musician, playing stints with such artists as Patty Page, and her Musical Pages from Claremore, Oklahoma. The Bob Wills organization in Tulsa plucked the young Barnard from Art Davis and the Rhythm Riders to play with “Uncle” John Wills, father of the Wills boys, and his band, the Lonestar Rangers.
In 1936, Barnard joined Will’s cousin, Son Lansford’s Sons of the West, based in Amarillo, Texas. He remained with the Sons for a year, as lead acoustic guitarist, before returning to Tulsa and radio station KTUL. In 1937, he bought his first electric guitar and by November, Junior Barnard had achieved enough skill and ability playing the electric guitar that he replaced legendary guitarist Eldon Shamblin playing in Dave Edward’s Original Alabama Boys. Shamblin had moved up to lead guitarist and arranger for Bob Will’s big band, the Texas Playboys in Tulsa.
By 1938, Johnnie Lee Wills, Bob’s younger brother formed his own band, the Rhythmaires, after playing rhythm banjo for years in the Texas Playboys. Barnard joined the Rhythmaires band where he stayed for six months before joining Will’s father again in a new iteration, Uncle Johnny and his Young Five. The Bob Wills’ organization operated the makings of two bands, a string band, and a horn band, interchanging players as needed. Barnard was soon moved to Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys band where he stayed off-and-on until the start of World War II. While with Johnnie Lee, Barnard and the band recorded with Decca in 1941. By this time, and after a huge hit with the recording of “New San Antonio Rose,” featuring the Texas Playboys horn band, Bob Wills was dividing time between Tulsa and Hollywood. As the war drained musicians from Wills band, he called on Junior Barnard. Barnard had received a draft deferment because of his excessive weight. In the fall of 1942, with Bing Crosby, who also had a hit with “New San Antonio Rose,” Bob Wills with Junior Barnard played in Hollywood for a war bond rally. Wills then enlisted in the Army, and the musical organization was put on hold, except for Johnnie Lee Wills and his Boys, who took over Bob’s work, including a regular weekly gig at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa.
Junior Barnard went to work in a defense plant in California. By 1943, he returned to Tulsa and joined Johnnie Lee, but left again to work as a welder for the war effort in Houston.
After Bob Wills was released from the Army in 1943, he located in the San Fernando Valley of California, in proximity to work in the film and recording industries. Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Junior Barnard, while drinking and driving, was involved in a hit and run auto accident. A Tulsa woman was killed, and the Wills’ organization with their local influence was able to get Barnard released. Bob sent for him to join the band in Hollywood for film work. Junior’s driver’s license had been revoked, so his younger brother, singer and guitarist Gene drove him to California. By early October, Junior Barnard was with Wills, as one of five string musicians appearing in films. Junior Barnard as a string band member appeared in five Russell Hayden Columbia western movies, “Saddles and Sagebrush,” “The Vigilantes Ride,” “Wyoming Hurricane,” and “The Last Horseman.” He also appeared with Bob Wills in a musical short film for Universal called “Frontier Frolic.”
While in Hollywood filming, and on weekends, Bob’s six-piece band was playing local venues including the Venice Pier, where in three nights played to fifteen-thousand people. In effort to re-create the success of his Tulsa years, and recognizing the audience potential of the dust-bowl immigrants in California, Wills relocated his musical organization to Fresno. He and the band would be right in the middle of the Okies, Arkies and Texans who now lived and worked in the San Joaquin Valley. Both the Barnard brothers landed in Fresno, and Gene was hired to join the band as well. Prior to the brother’s arrival in California, jazz guitar great Jimmy Wyble was playing with Wills until his move to Fresno. When Junior took over for Wyble, he joined Wills in both of his Fresno venues, the Fresno Barn, and “Bob Wills Round Up,” a fifteen-minute radio show on station KMJ. Meanwhile, the band was traveling to dates throughout California while also trying to stay close to home.
In 1946, Wills and the Texas Playboys, with Junior Barnard on lead guitar, were recoding the Tiffany Transcriptions in San Francisco. They were also appearing on network radio for the Fisher Flouring Mills, makers of Zoom wheat cereal, broadcasting from radio station KGO in Los Angeles. In September, the Texas Playboys were recording again in Hollywood. Bob wanted to duplicate the sound of his famous “big-band” horn section, with recordings, like “New San Antonio Rose,” and “Big Beaver,” but he was unable to find horn players. Wills instead used the guitar in place of horns, and based on the success of the smaller “string” band at venues like the Venice Pier, and the economy of less musicians, he moved to the smaller “all string-band” sound, what became known as the “small-combo era.” The guitar work of Junior Barnard took over choruses and provided much more exciting jazz improvisation. The guitar in place of horns duplicated the swing sound Wills’ fans were accustomed to, while allowing a repertory of much broader Wills’ music.
Junior Barnard’s guitar style was flamboyant, daring and aggressive. Wills often used Barnard, and old friend and band- mate, Eldon Shamblin for synchronized guitar rifts he called the “twin guitars.” With his strong sense of rhythm, Barnard quickly and precisely made his guitar progressions fit into Wills’ arrangements. Guitar Player Magazine, in a 1983 article about Barnard noted, “unlike Eldon Shamblin, who . . . play(ed) a more laid-back, jazz and swing style, Junior was a ‘go-for-broke’ soloist whose incredible technique featured startling runs, rapid hammer-ons, and pull-offs, and even contrapuntal lines.”
According to Jimmy Wyble, “Junior had the ability to turn it on and keep it there.” Barnard was a “loud guitarist who had an overdriven tube sound decades before it became popular with rock guitarists.” Junior Barnard played a “blond Epiphone Emperor arch-top, and a Gibson ES-150.” He used “DeArmond and National lap-steel pick ups, with the two wired out of phase, and each amplified through separate channels.” Barnard’s amplifier of choice was a Fender Pro with a 15-inch speaker, and an Epiphone amplifier. From both steel guitarists Leon McAuliffe and Noel Boggs, Barnard got the idea to use a volume pedal, in ready to come on strong when Bob Wills turned to him for a guitar solo.
Both Junior and brother Gene, in their formative years, were listeners of Charlie Christian, an early jazz-guitar pioneer who played with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Gene Barnard, in a 1982 interview with Buddy McPeters, said “Junior and I both heard Charlie and I copied him but Junior didn’t. He had his own approach which was more bluesy than my style.” Guitar Player Magazine, in a review of the “Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume Three,” in the April 2003 edition said “Barnard was a jazz player that had no problem sleeping in the blues gutter. His distorted solos sound more like rock and roll and blues than western swing, yet his technical proficiency with jazz stuff places his work several notches above the rest.”
In the latter part of 1946, Barnard left the Texas Playboys to join Luke Wills’ Rhytmbusters. Junior Barnard, in his wildest guitar playing, can be heard on the Rhythmbuster’s recordings. Barnard was back with Bob Wills when he relocated the band to Sacramento, and the riverside resort, “Wills’ Point.”
Long-time Playboys vocalist Tommy Duncan, tired of Bob Wills’ excessive drinking and absenteeism, quit the band to go out on his own. Barnard joined him when he played in Fresno. He also joined early Wills’ fiddler Jesse Ashlock, playing a short time with his outfit. Junior returned to Fresno in 1949 and formed his own band, The Radio Gang, playing at the Fresno Barn and other local venues, and radio stations KMJ, KYNO, and KSMA. Barnard and The Radio Gang, whose members included brother Gene playing twin guitar harmony, rhythm guitar, and singing, played successfully at the Fresno Barn until it was sold in 1951. The band moved over to Marigold Ballroom in Fresno, owned by the Local 210 of the Musician’s Union for a short time.
While scouting for other places for the band to play in the Riverdale area of rural Fresno County, on April 15, 1951, Barnard and his brother-in-law, Billie Earl Fitzgerald were killed in an automobile accident. Barnard, his wife Sue, his sister Betty, and Fitzgerald, a Fresno fireman, collided with a sedan filled with six members of the Cal Poly track team at the corner of Elm Avenue and Mt. Whitney Avenues. Fitzgerald, the driver, was killed instantly, Junior Barnard died five hours latter at Fresno County Hospital. Sue Barnard suffered head injuries. Lester R. “Junior” Barnard was survived by his wife, and two sons, Buddy Joe and Jerry Robert.
"Condition of Two Crash Survivors Remains Serious." The Fresno Bee. 16 April 1951. A-1/B-1.
McPeters, Buddy. "Hard-Driving Soloist of Western Swing." Guitar Player Magazine. Volume 17, Number 9. September 1983.
McPeters, Buddy. Harley Huggins & The Barn Dance Gang 1946: Liner Notes. East Sussex, England. Country Routes/Interstate Music Ltd. RFD CD27 LC5385. February 2002.
Smith, Whit. Personal Interview. 2 September 2005.
Townsend, Charles R. San Antonio Rose, The Life and Music of Bob Wills. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1976.