Jazz, blues guitarist, songwriter
Arguably the first musician to employ an electric guitar, T-Bone Walker is without doubt the one who laid the foundation for what is known as modern urban blues. Walker’s sophisticated playing in the 1930s and 1940s bridged the gap between jazz and blues and created a style which has influenced every electric guitarist since. “He has a touch that nobody has been able to duplicate,” stated B.B. King in Guitar Player. “I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.” In Sheldon Harris’s Blues Who’s Who a list of artists Walker has influenced contains nearly every major blues (and quite a few rock) guitarists in the last four decades.
Walker’s meal ticket was his ability to play single string, hornphrased solos that brought the guitar out of its role as an accompanying, rhythm-oriented instrument. He was one of the first musicians who proved that a guitar could go head-to-head with brass, pianos, and woodwinds as a legitimate solo instrument.
Walker was obviously musically gifted, but electricity helped to bring that out and let him rise above his contemporaries. “It took Walker to exploit electricity,” wrote Robert Palmer in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. “By using his amplifier’s volume control to sustain pitches, and combining this technique with the single string-bending and finger vibrato practiced by traditional bluesmen, Walker in effect invented a new instrument.”
He was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker (the nickname T-Bone is a slang version of his middle name) in 1910 in Linden, Texas, and was raised in Dallas after 1912. Walker was bom into a musical family with both his parents working as musicians. He took up the guitar at age 13 but played various other stringed instruments as well. Walker’s earliest influences were Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Leroy Carr, and Blind Lemon Jefferson—all advanced stylists at the time. In his early years, Walker worked as “lead boy” for Jefferson, leading the blind guitarist around the city to play for crowds and pass the hat. By the time he was 16, Walker was making enough money on his own in Dallas to become a professional, working various dances and carnivals.
In 1929 he recorded two singles for Columbia Records, “Trinity River Blues” and “Witchita Falls Blues,” as Oak Cliff T-Bone (Walker lived in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff). He continued playing with a 16-piece band formed during his school days with Lawson Brooks until 1934, when he quit and moved to Los Angeles. Walker turned his job over to another guitarist who went on to become as important and equally influential, Charlie Christian. The two had at one time performed a street act together that combined guitar and bass playing with some fancy footwork. Christian later rose to stardom in the late 1930s as a featured soloist with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, but his brilliant career was cut short by tuberculosis in 1941.
Walker made his living on the West Coast playing with various small combos in the thriving jazz clubs of Los Angeles. In 1939 he joined Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra as a singer, guitarist, and composer. It’s hard to say who was the first electric guitarist at this point, but Walker, Christian, Eddie Durham, and Floyd Smith were all beginning to see the advantages an amplified guitar’s volume had in a club setting when competing with the full horn section of a big band. “I was out there four or five years on my own before they all started playing amplified,” Walker stated in the liner notes of T-Bone Walker: Classics of Modern Blues. “I recorded my T-Bone Blues’ with Les Hite in 1939, but I’d been playing amplified guitar a long time before that.”
Regardless of who was first, it was Walker’s playing that made him great. “[He has] striking originality and expressive power,” wrote Pete Welding in Guitar World.
Full name, Aaron Thibeaux Walker; born May 28, 1910, in Linden, Tex.; son of Ranee Walker (a musician) and Movelia Jimerson (a musician); married Vida Lee in 1935; children: three; died of pneumonia March 16, 1975.
Worked as a professional musician at dances and carnivals in Dallas with such groups as the Cab Calloway Band, the Coley Jones Dallas String Band, and the Lawson Brooks Band, ? 1926-34; recorded two singles for Columbia Records, 1929, and recorded with many other bands in the 1940s; moved to the West Coast and performed at the Little Harlem Club, the Trocadero, and other clubs, 1934-40; moved to the East Coast and worked with the Les Hite Orchestra, 1940; formed and appeared with his own touring band, 1940-1975; traveled with the band in England, 1965, and throughout Europe, 1966, 1968, and 1969.
Awards: Grammy for best ethnic or traditional recording, for Good Fee/in’, 1971; Lifetime Achievement Award, Guitar Player, 1985.
Addresses: Record company —Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone, 10th and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.
“[His playing is] fleet, supercharged, harmonically resourceful, rhythmically adroit and, above all, immensely exciting.” Walker was a consummate showman to boot. He played a large Gibson hollowbody guitar, held straight out from his chest and parallel to the floor (which contributed in part to his unique tone) but would cut loose and play behind his back, between his legs or do the splits in an effort to get the crowd going. He had, as Dan Forte stated in Guitar Player, “the uncanny ability to burn and stay cool at the same time.”
By the 1940s Walker had made a name for himself and embarked on a solo career. He combined blues, shuffles, and jump tunes into his act and eventually scored a hit with “Mean Old World” in the mid-40s. However, it was in 1947 that Walker produced his most famous tune, “Stormy Monday,” which is probably the all-time blues standard. “It’s just like a national anthem; it tells the truth,” said vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon in The Guitar Player Book. “It tells the strife of working people getting paid on Friday, Saturday they go out and have a ball.” Walker later played on Witherspoon’s Evenin’ LP and obviously had a profound impact on the singer. “He’s one of the few people who put dignity into the blues,” continued Witherspoon. “He’s the Charlie Parker of guitars when it comes to blues…. No one else can touch T-Bone.”
Walker may have been the one to elevate the status of the blues, but the lifestyle it demanded certainly took its toll on him. He stayed in southern California during the 1950s and toured endlessly into the following decade. The stress of travel combined with heavy drinking, gambling, and bad business dealings, took their toll on him. On March 16, 1975, T-Bone Walker succumbed to pneumonia, bringing an end to one of the most spectacular and innovative musical careers ever.
Pete Welding wrote in the liner notes of the excellent and wide-ranging anthology, T-Bone Walker: Classics of Modern Blues, “In length of service, adaptability and continuous creative activity, perhaps only Coleman Hawkins or Duke Ellington [has] matched him.”
Singles for Columbia Records; as Oak Cliff T-Bone
“Trinity River Blues,” 1929.
“Witchita Falls Blues,” 1929.
LPs; with Jimmy Witherspoon
T-Bone Blues, Atlantic, 1956.
The Truth, Brunswick, 1968.
T-Bone Walker: Classics of Modern Blues, Blue Note, 1976.
T-Bone Jumps Again, tic, 1956.
Evenin’ Blues, Prestige, 1988.
The Guitar Player Book, editors of Guitar Player, Grove Press, Inc., 1979.
Guralnick, Peter, The Listener’s Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, 1982.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who, Da Capo, 1979.
Kozlnn, Allan, Pete Welding, Dan Forte, and Gene Santoro, The Guitar—The History The Music The Players, Quill, 1984.
Miller, Jim, editor, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
Guitar Player, March 1977; December 1985; January 1987;December 1987; February 1988.
Guitar World, December 1987.
—Calen D. Stone
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