Famous South Carolinians | “Mr. Rhythm”~ Frederick “Freddie” William Green | By Kevin Alexander Gray

Charleston – ( March 31, 1911-March 1, 1987)

Rhythm guitar is like vanilla extract in cake.  You can’t taste it when it’s there,  but you know when it’s left out:” Freddie” Green, Master musician – Rhythm guitar

"Mr. Rhythm"

"Mr. Rhythm"

“Freddie” Green, born in Charleston, was the son of Oscar and Eloise Simmons Green.  He was exposed to music at an early age.  He learned the banjo before picking up the guitar around the age of 12.  Other than a few music lessons taken as a youngster, he taught himself to play guitar.

Sam Walker, a friend of Green’s father, first taught young Green how to read music, and encouraged him to keep up his guitar playing.  Walker gave Green what was perhaps his first gig, playing with a local community group – the Jenkins Orphanage Band – with whom Walker was an organizer. The band was a place for poor children to get musical training.  It was also a marching band. The band often traveled into Green’s neighborhood, and he would follow them all around the city. Although not an orphan himself, he became a band member – playing in Charleston, as well as inside and outside the state. Coincidentally, an orphaned friend of his in the group was young William “Cat” Anderson who went on to become an established trumpeter, working with notable figures such as Duke Ellington.

Green credited the musical influences of his youth to the music that he heard coming from New York into Charleston.  But he added: “As far as music is concerned, Charleston has always been musical.”

Green’s parents died around the time he became involved with The Orphanage Band.  He then moved to New York some time between 1924 and 1930 to live with his Aunt Mosley to attend high school and continue his education.  He also felt that he would not be able to make it as a musician in Charleston.  As a teen in New York he worked in an upholstery shop by day and at night picked up experience playing swing guitar at rent parties with various stride pianists.

As the time passed, Green played nightclubs in Harlem, earning money and a reputation.  He played at the Yeah Man with Lonnie Simmons and the two then moved on to the Exclusive Club. They, along with fellow Jenkins Orphanage Band alumni “Cat” Anderson, worked in a group known as The Nighthawks. The Nighthawks included several of the best players from the orphanage.  In one of these gigs in a Greenwich Village nightclub, Green, in his mid-twenties, was “discovered” by legendary record producer, music critic and talent scout John Hammond, who introduced him to Basie in 1937.  Basie immediately offered him a job after his audition at Roseland.  When Basie’s band finished their gig at Roseland and headed for Pittsburgh, Green was on the bus as an un-amplified guitar player. Green would remain a pivotal, loyal fixture of the Count Basie Band for a half century in what would become one of the longest-held jobs in jazz history. 

Green was not Basie’s first guitarist – Claude Williams had played a few dates and recorded one session with the group before he joined – but Green played with the group far longer than anybody else.  

The quiet, unassuming Green, nicknamed “Pep,” was “the heartbeat of the band” – and part of what band leader Paul Whiteman dubbed the “All-American Rhythm Section” which included Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, and Jo Jones on drums. The group remained intact from 1937 to 1948.  It came to be considered the finest jazz band ever assembled, garnering high praised for its sense of unity and rhythmic flow. Green was lauded for adding a sophisticated rhythm guitar to a big band sound.  

Yet, it wasn’t just his longevity with Basie’s band or the music business that makes him notable.

Green is a pioneer in the way the guitar is played in a big band setting.  His technique and the perfection of his sound and playing – that music critic George. T. Simon once described as “wondrously light yet propulsive” – makes him a standout. 

His technique was to play only certain important notes of each chord. Green would hit a pulsating “chimk!” or “chunk” on the second and fourth beats in “a skillful pitting of loose right-hand figures against heavy left-hand chords.”  The unsounded notes were dampened by the fingers of the left hand which gave rise to one of his many nicknames, “Basie’s Left Hand.”  Admirers said his technique “gave a “chunky” rhythm sound without creating unnecessary harmonic presence that might interfere with notes sounded by other members of the orchestra.”  And, throughout his career, Green only rarely played single note solos.

Yet, even without solo or front man status, the phrase “Freddie Green Comp” is used quite a bit in charts for professional musicians with gigs that require reading, such as show work and big band guitar playing.  It doesn’t simply refer to the person who shares that name, but rather to the style of “4 strum to the bar rhythm guitar”  or, holding down a chord with the left hand, and striking the strings with the right hand once per beat of the tune.

Green once said, “You should never hear the guitar by itself. It should be part of the drums so it sounds like the drummer is playing chords— like the snare is in A or the hi-hat in D minor.”  

Some describe the sound of Freddie Green comping as “chimk”, or “chunk” (sounded out – “chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk”) while others hear “choo-chit-choo-chit” with the “choo on 1 and 3, and chit on 2 and 4.”  There are variations depending on how fast or slow the tune is going, or how busy the drummer is, but 1 and 3 have a longer sound, and 2 and 4 have a much shorter sound.

Green was one of thousands of guitarists who have comped “Freddie Green” style.  He was not the first or the only player to comp in this style.  But he was certainly “a master of it, if not “the” master.” 

While Green recorded regularly with the Basie band he also did free-lance work with the Benny Goodman orchestra, Lionel Hampton, Pee Wee Russell and others.  He also recorded and played with Sammy Davis Jr., Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Emmett Berry, Benny Carter, Goodman, Hampton, Chauncey “Lord” Westbrook and many others. He made several records of his own, for Duke Records in 1945 and for RCA Victor in the late 1950’s. Yet he rarely took solos, preferring to devote his talents to playing in rhythm sections.

A notable recorded exception to the general rule that Green rarely took solos was at a January 16, 1938 Carnegie Hall concert that featured Benny Goodman’s big band.  In the jam session on Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”, Green played rhythm guitarist for the ensemble, which also featured Basie and Page, and musicians from Duke Ellington’s band. After Goodman’s own solo, he signaled to Green to take his own solo.  Green’s solo occurs between those of Goodman and trumpeter Harry James.  

Photographic evidence suggests that Green, a frugal man, didn’t own all that many guitars, or “boxes” (as he often referred to them), during his long and productive career. Green stuck to a few outstanding guitars in his career.  He played a sunburst Epiphone Emperor until 1940 – a guitar he still kept for his entire life.  He is seen playing a blonde Stromberg Master 400 during a number of recording sessions in the 40s.   In the late 1950’s Green stopped using his Stromberg on the road when the value of the guitar suddenly went way up after the deaths of Charles and Elmer Stromberg.  He then picked up a Gretsch Eldorado custom built 18″ guitar that he purchased in 1956 and had repaired twice.

Green had many nicknames.  He was called “Steady Freddie”, “Mr. Rhythm Guitar,” “Basie’s Left Hand”, “the heartbeat of the band” and “the pulse.”  The one that stuck shortly after joining the Basie band was “Pepperhead.” Over the years, “Pepperhead” was shortened to “Pepper” and then to “Pep.”It is not known who gave him his “Pepperhead” nickname, though Lester Young certainly is a prime suspect as he made up names for nearly every musician he knew, with the “Lady Day” moniker given Billie Holiday being his most widely known invention.

Some thought it was because Green added “pep” to the rhythm section or, that he liked hot sauce on his food.  His son Alfred Green said he never saw his father use hot sauce while eating or cooking.  Some thought it was because his hair looked like “pepper” but, he acquired the nickname before his hair started to turn gray.  Others assumed his band mates were “playing the dozen” ribbing Green by saying his head was shaped like a bell “pepper.”  In June 2006 at an American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) event in New York City honoring Green, saxophonist Frank Foster, and trumpeter Clark Terry, Terry offered an explanation for the nickname”: “When Freddie would get his hair cut short, the hair on the nape of his neck would curl up into little tiny balls that looked like peppercorns. He sat in front of the trumpet section so we’d be looking at the back of his neck all night. Someone in the trumpet section started calling him ‘Pepperhead’ and that’s how he got the nickname ‘Pep’.”

Green stayed with the band even after Basie death in 1984, first under the direction of the trumpet player Thad Jones and later under Frank Foster, a tenor saxophonist. In 1986, he received a Grammy Nomination for the album “Swing Reunion” with Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Red Norvo, Louis Bellson, Remo Palmer and George Duvivier. And, he recorded with Dianne Schuur and the Frank Foster-led orchestra in 1987. (Green composed “Corner Pocket” (later renamed “Until I Met You” for the vocal version) and “Down for Double” on the recording).

March 1, 1987, shortly after the ’87 recording session, Green was found dead in his Las Vegas hotel room of a heart attack. His final performance with the band was with singer Tony Bennett on Saturday night in Las Vegas. 

He passed a couple of week before his 50 years anniversary with the Basie group.  At 75 years old he was the last of the Basie rhythm section to go.  (The others, in order of departure, were Walter Page, bass; Count Basie, piano; and Jo Jones, drums.)

Green’s funeral service was held at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York on March 6, 1987. In addition to his family, participants in the Eulogistic Service included singer Carmen Bradford and the Count Basie Band led by Frank Foster. Green’s instrument was on display.

Green, who was twice widowed, was survived by two daughters, Miriam Nicolls and Ruby Green Holmes, both of New York City, his son Alfred of San Diego, California, two brothers, Clarence and Joseph Bennett and a sister, Jenny Bennett.

His grave is in Pinelawn Memorial Park, Farmingdale, N.Y.

On June 21, 2006, Green was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Jazz Wall of Fame at ASCAP headquarters in New York City, near Lincoln Center, hosted by Marilyn Bergman, President and Chairman. The award was presented by Dr. Billy Taylor and accepted by Green’s son Alfred, and his daughter Miriam.  Also inducted at the event were Fletcher Henderson, Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry, Frank Foster, and Horace Silver.

In February 2007, Green was honored in his hometown of Charleston during Black History Month by the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church.  The church awarded him the “Count Basie – Freddie Green Humanitarian Award.”   Alfred Green accepted the award on his father’s behalf. 

To his peers and friends Green was a sweet man. He was a very quiet person, “always helpful, always dropping little pearls of wisdom.”  Most friends can’t recall him ever being angry.

“He was a reserved kind of man who didn’t need the limelight, but who did his own thing and was happy doing it,” said his son, Al.

Fittingly, his epitaph is inscribed with “to our dad ‘Mr. Rhythm'”.


 (C) 2007 Kevin Alexander Gray and Freedom House Press & Media

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Filed under American Culture, Black Culture | United States, Famous South Carolinians, Historic Black Politics & Figures, Music History, South Carolina

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