Born: May 28, 1910 | Died: March 16, 1975 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Aaron Thibeaux Walker was born in Linden, Texas on Amy 28. 1910, his parents were both musicians and he was an only child. His nickname T-Bone came from a twist on his middle name, as his mother used to call him Tebow. He was raised in Dallas, exposed to music as a youngster by his stepfather, who taught him guitar, as well as ukulele, banjo, violin, mandolin, and piano. The house was a constant source of music and inspiration, and he played locally with his stepfather as street musicians. He spent a lot of time listening to the radio and records of blues artists like Leroy Carr and his guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, and would go see bluesman Lonnie Johnson live in the Dallas area. His major influence would be close family friend Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was always at the house. The young T-Bone was his protégé and would guide him around town for his gigs.
By the 1920’s he had become proficient enough as an all around performer that he was playing talent shows, carnivals, street parties, local dances, and with touring shows that rolled through town. He hooked up with several of these and one had blues singer Ida Cox on the bill. By age sixteen he was a professional, and was making a decent living playing music. In 1929 he won a talent show under the auspice of Cab Calloway, and joined his band briefly. This led to enough local recognition, for Columbia to record his “Trinity River Blues” and “Wichita Falls Blues” under the name of Oak Cliff T-Bone. This was a spin on his Dallas neighborhood at the time. He started a band named Lawson Brooks, playing all over the Dallas area, and also had a little pick up band with friend Charlie Christian. By 1933 he was touring non stop with various bands and revues, and moved to California in 1934. He would go on to state that he was hearing about and got into amplified guitar in California around 1935 which is in line with the development of the same. T-Bone developed a unique method of playing, in that he would hold the guitar slanting it away from him. While a member of the Les Hite Orchestra in 1939 he developed his long hornlike guitar style, and had become quite an accomplished vocalist. It was while with Les Hite that he would record “T-Bone Blues”, the song that would catapult him into a major star of the 1940’s and change the course of popular music.
T-Bone Walker performed full time during the early ‘40’s and with many bands, in 1942 he recorded “Mean Ole World” for Capitol, which could very well be the first modern blues record. This he followed with “Call It Stormy Monday”. This is his signature tune and has become a durable blues standard. He went on to record for Capitol in the 1946-47 period, in what would be known as West Coast Blues, which was a cooler more sophisticated sound than was coming out of Chicago, which was still based on the rural and folk blues idiom. T-Bone had refined the blues and given it a more harmonious jazz sensibility. These are available as “The Complete Capitol/Black and White Recordings” and are essential in the documentation of post war blues.
By 1950 T-Bone Walker started a five year recording contract with the Imperial label, which would further establish the modern blues, and solidified his reputation as the most prolific bluesman of his era. “The Complete Imperial Recordings 1950-1954 are a perfect showcase of his dominance of the material at hand. These sessions included jazz musicians, the level of performance is unrivaled, and is still referred to today as the primer on the way this music should be played.
As if that wasn’t enough, he was on a constant touring schedule, and was the most popular artist on the Rhythm and Blues circuit. He was a consummate showman and would put on a display of guitar gyrations and positions, and was the first guitar slinger. His stage antics would be imitated by many especially Chuck Berry.
It was in 1955 he went over to the Atlantic label and recorded for them for two years, going between LA and Chicago for the sessions. In the LA sides he was accompanied by Barney Kessel on guitar and his constant piano player Lloyd Glenn. The Chicago sessions are with some of Muddy Waters band members, and they didn’t really fit in with T-Bone’s style, as he was far more advanced musically. These are available as “T-Bone Blues”, and are lot of remakes of his earlier work.
T-Bone kept up his performing regimen throughout the ‘50’s and into the ‘60’s. By 1962 he was touring Europe as part of a Blues Festival and recorded with pianist Memphis Slim in Germany. He was back in Europe from ’64 to ’72 and was prominent in the Blues Revival of the late ‘60’s, so he was able to benefit from this new audience, but then again he was always in demand, and never had a problem with gigs.He performed and was recorded at the 1972 Montreaux Jazz festival. He played at the top clubs in the US and across Europe. There are also recordings for a variety of labels in this period, some are better than others. His work for the Black and Blue label in France is well recorded, but he was starting to slow down, and it was starting to show.He was awarded a Grammy in 1970 for his record Good Feelin'(Polydor). He did some final sessions around 1973 for Reprise called “Very Rare” with an all star lineup of musicians, which was in part a tribute album. He suffered in an automobile accident, and began bouts with illness in 1974 and was in and out of hospitals. He died of bronchial pneumonia on March 16, 1975.
T-Bone walker is a giant of the blues. His influence on guitar players as B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Chuck Berry, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Albert Collins, and then the whole generation that followed those, is his testament and legacy. He took the rural blues of Texas in the 1920’s amplified and electrified it, and nurtured it into a major musical genre. Along the way he further fused blues into jazz, and was a principal in the conception of rock and roll. He has been inducted into the Blues and also the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. He is also in Downbeats Hall of Fame. T-Bone Walker participated in and contributed to every development in American popular music in the last half of the twentieth century.
Source: James Nadal