Charlie Lee Byrd (September 16, 1925 – December 2, 1999) was an American guitarist. His earliest and strongest musical influence was Django Reinhardt, the gypsy guitarist. Byrd was best known for his association with Brazilian music, especially bossa nova. In 1962, Byrd collaborated with Stan Getz on the album Jazz Samba, a recording which brought bossa nova into the mainstream of North American music.
Byrd played fingerstyle on a classical guitar.
Charlie Byrd was born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1925 and grew up in the town of Chuckatuck, Virginia. His father, a mandolinist and guitarist, taught him how to play the acoustic steel guitar at age 10. Byrd had three brothers, Oscar, Jack, and Joe, who was a bass player. In 1942 Byrd entered the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and played in the school orchestra. In 1943 he was drafted into the United States Army for World War II, saw combat, then was stationed in Paris in 1945 where he played in an Army Special Services band and toured occupied Europe in the all-soldier production G.I. Carmen.
In 1957 Byrd met double bassist Keter Betts in a Washington, D.C., club called the Vineyard. The two began doing gigs together, and by October they were frequently performing at a club called the Showboat. In 1959 the pair joined Woody Herman‘s band and toured Europe for three weeks as part of a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour. The other members of the band were Vince Guaraldi, Bill Harris, Nat Adderley and drummer Jimmy Campbell. Byrd led his own groups that sometimes featured his brother Joe. Byrd was also active as a teacher in the late 1950s; he trained guitar students at his home in Washington, D.C., each required to audition before he agreed to be their teacher.
Byrd was introduced to Brazilian music by Felix Grant, a friend and radio host who had contacts in Brazil in the late 1950s, and who was well-known there by 1960 due to the efforts of Brazilian radio broadcaster Paulo Santos. Following a spring 1961 diplomatic tour of South America (including Brazil) for the State Department, Byrd returned home and met with Stan Getz at the Showboat Lounge. Byrd invited Getz back to his home to listen to some bossa nova recordings by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim which he had brought back. Getz liked what he heard and the two decided that they wanted to make an album of the songs. The task of creating an authentic sound, however, proved much more challenging than either had anticipated.
Getz convinced Creed Taylor at Verve Records to produce the album. Taylor and Byrd assembled a group of musicians they knew. These early sessions did not turn out to either man’s liking, so Byrd gathered a group of musicians that had been to Brazil with him previously and practiced with them in Washington, D.C. until he felt they were ready to record. The group included his brother Gene Byrd, as well as Keter Betts, Bill Reichenbach and Buddy Deppenschmidt. Reichenbach and Deppenschmidt were drummers, and the combination made it easier to achieve samba rhythm. Finally the group was deemed ready and Getz and Taylor arrived in Washington, D.C. on February 13, 1962. They recorded in a building adjacent to All Souls Unitarian Church because of the building’s excellent acoustics.
Jazz Samba was released in April 1962, and by September it had entered the Billboard pop album chart. By March of the following year the album had moved to number one. The term “bossa nova” wasn’t used until later. The album remained on the charts for seventy weeks, and Getz soon beat John Coltrane in a Down Beat poll. One of the album’s most popular tunes was a Jobim hit, titled “Desafinado“.