Charlie Barnet was born in New York City. His parents divorced when he was two, and he was raised by his mother and her grandparents. His grandfather was Charles Frederick Daly, a vice-president for the New York Central Railroad, banker, and businessman.
Barnet attended various boarding schools, both in the New York and Chicago areas. He learned to play piano and saxophone as a child. He often left school to listen to music and to try to gain work as a musician.
Although he began his recording career in October 1933, Charlie Barnet was at the height of his popularity between 1939 and 1941, a period that began with his hit version of "Cherokee", written by Ray Noble and arranged by Billy May. In 1944, Barnet had another big hit with "Skyliner".
He was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band; the year is variously given as 1935 or 1937. He was also a champion of racial equality, hiring many black singers and musicians at a time when other bands were segregated. His use of African-American performers kept his orchestra out of several hotels and ballrooms and was also probably the reason why he was never picked for any big commercial radio series.
He was an outspoken admirer of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Ellington recorded the Charlie Barnet composition "In a Mizz". In
1939, Basie lent Barnet his charts after Barnet's had been destroyed in a fire at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Throughout his career he was an opponent of syrupy arrangements. In the song "The Wrong Idea", he lampooned the "sweet" Big Band sound of the era. Barnet's was a notorious party band where drinking and vandalism were not uncommon. While Glenn Miller enforced strict standards of dress and deportment, Barnet was more interested in having fun, according to his autobiography The Swinging Years.
In 1949 he retired, apparently because he had lost interest in music. He settled on the West Coast, occasionally leading a sextet or septet. Financially set, he never worried about making a living, dabbling in music publishing and the restaurant business in his retirement. He occasionally returned from retirement for brief tours but never returned to music full-time.
In September 1964, Barnet arranged a private party for his musical hero, Duke Ellington and orchestra to play at Palm Springs' San Jacinto country club. At the door, a small sign painted by Barnet said: "Any complaints about loud music or requests for excessive use of mutes will be grounds for instant expulsion (to a table in the parking lot). Any requests for folk music, twist, watusi, or rock and roll will result in instant execution by golf balls at 20 paces." Barnet did not play at the gathering.
Barnet was married eleven times and in his 1984 autobiography says, "I went through several more marital fiascos, but they were mostly Mexican marriages and quickly annulled, because they weren't legal in the first place." His final marriage to Betty was for 33 years. He had one son, Charles D. Barnet, Jr, from an earlier marriage. During retirement, Barnet resided at homes in Palm Springs and San Diego, California. He kept a 46-foot boat in San Diego.
Barnet died from complications of Alzheimer's disease and pneumonia at San Diego's Hillside hospital, September 4, 1991. (info mainly Wikipedia)