George Van Eps was born August 7, 1913 in Plainfield, New Jersey. His father, Fred Van Eps was a master of the 5-string banjo, his mother was a classically trained pianist and his three older brothers (Bobby, Freddy and John) were musicians. George started playing the banjo at age eleven and by age twelve he was out playing professionally with his family. After hearing Eddie Lang for the first time on the radio he made the switch to guitar. He quickly became good enough to tour with Lang, and then with Freddy Martin (1931-33), Benny Goodman (1934-35) and Ray Noble (1935-36) before moving on to a freelance career in Hollywood where he backed musicians like Frank Sinatra.
While there, he wrote a how-to guitar book and designed a seven string guitar, which Epiphone built for him (he later had a signature model Gretsch as well). In this area he was a pioneer, and later musicians who cite him as influences and who adopted his guitar include Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden.
After returning to Noble in 1940-41, Van Eps worked in his father's recording lab for two years before returning to the freelance arena, where, among other things, he worked for Paul Weston and took part in the 1950s film and TV series Pete Kelly's Blues.
Until the 1960's, however, Van Eps' primary role was keeping time in a rhythm section. One exception during this period was the series of recordings he made in the mid-1940's on the Jump label with the LaVere Chicago Loopers and as a part of a trio with Eddie Miller and Stan Wrightsman. These recordings put the Van Eps guitar front and center, but due to the limited distribution of the Jump label, did not earn Van Eps much recognition outside of music circles.
He then released several outstanding albums as a leader, but a bout of serious illness in the early 1970s, plus a 1977 hand injury that resulted in three broken fingers, reduced his activities. He returned as a leader in 1991 in an album with his student Howard Alden and then recorded two more albums before his death from pneumonia on November 29, 1998.
While not a household name in the way some other jazz musicians were, he is highly regarded as an innovator in jazz guitar circles. A list of artists he has backed reads like a "who's who" of jazz music: Frank Sinatra, Bix Beiderbecke, Doris Day, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, and Sarah Vaughan, to name just a few.
Even before his newer recordings, Guitar Player magazine's Jim Ferguson wrote: "No guitarist has taken chordal-based playing to a higher conceptual or technical plane than 7-string master George Van Eps, whose last major recording was released more that two decades ago...the passage of time has only cemented his remarkable technique and harmonic conception."
His albums as a leader on major labels:
A complete list of his recordings is very hard to assemble; most early jazz is incompletely documented and out of print, and often difficult to find information about, especially on the web (hey, the man had already released his last album by the time the internet became commercial and mainstream). This is a list of a few recordings he appeared on before his major-label releases:
- Adrian Rollini and His Orchestra (1934, Decca)
- Ray Noble American Dance Band (1935, Jazz Archives)
- Red Norvo and His All Stars (1935, Epic)
- Ray Noble and His Orchestra (1940, Columbia)
- La Vere's Chicago Loopers (several late 40's albums - Jump)
- Manny Klein and His Orchestra (1946 - Keynote)
- Jess Stacy - Piano Solos (1951, Swaggie Records)
- The Rampart Street Paraders - Texas! (1957, Columbia)
Naturally this list is far from complete; if anyone owns or knows of albums missing feel free to /msg me and i'll gladly add them.
All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com)