Tal Farlow was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was brought up in a musical atmosphere. His father played several musical instruments, including some of the fretted ones, while the piano in the house was played by his mother and his sister, who became a fine classical pianist. Tal trained as a signwriter and continued with this work throughout his life in parallel with his music.
He listened to the radio and heard outside broadcasts of the big bands of the day, bands like Artie Shaw, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. It was then that he first heard Charlie Christian playing and started to copy the solos. During the war, he was stationed in Greensboro. He worked there with a lot of musicians who had come from up north.
It was sometime after this, while Tal was working for the vibraphonist Dardanelle, that he worked the Copacabana Lounge in New York. While he was there he regularly visited 52nd Street to soak up the sounds of some more of his favourite musicians, namely Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and some of the other members of the bop era. When Jimmy (Lyons) returned, Tal and bassist Lennie de Franco (Buddy's brother) all set off to New York to get their local 802 union cards.
Shortly afterwards Tal worked with the Marjorie Hyams trio. Again it was with vibes. For a while they worked at the Three Deuces opposite Charlie Parker's group, which featured Miles Davis and Al Haig. Tal seemed to have an affinity with vibraphone players - he worked with Milt Jackson when he joined Buddy de Franco's group and then, at the end of 1949, he finally joined Red Norvo's trio when he took Mundell Lowe's place. While in New York, Tal lived in an apartment house on West 93rd Street. It seems to have acted like a honey-pot on the jazz musicians in town. Guitarists Jimmy Raney and Sal Salvador lived there and others like Johnny Smith and John Collins would call by to join the frequent jam sessions held there. Various other musicians lived there from time to time, including Phil Woods, Joe Morello and Chuck Andrews. Tal probably never envisaged the success he was about to have, when he joined Red Norvo's trio. At first Tal struggled to keep up with Norvo's very fast tempos but soon improved his technique so much that he became one of the fastest guitarists in the world at that time. Within a year they were recording and soon became one of the most popular groups of the fifties, and the ideas Tal used brought him to the forefront among jazz musicians. He won the Down Beat New Star Award in 1954 and the Critics Poll in 1956.