T-Bone Walker - Biography
Though he didn’t have quite the commercial impact of such important contemporaries of the 1940s as Louis Jordan or Nat “King” Cole, T-Bone Walker was one of the trailblazing artists of the era. Walker brought electricity to the blues: The Texas guitarist was the first to record in the genre with an electric instrument. His revolutionary approach to the genre garnered him a host of imitators and acolytes; B.B. King is probably Walker’s most outspoken devotee, but it’s difficult to think of a blues guitarist that succeeded him who remained untouched by his innovations.
A brilliant stylist who straddled the boundary between blues and jazz and crafted several R&B hits (including his signatures “Call It Stormy Monday” and the instrumental “T-Bone Shuffle”), Walker was also an extroverted showman who was among the most popular live performers of his era.
“T-Bone had a wild stage act,” blues historian Giles Oakley writes evocatively in The Devil’s Music. “[H]e would do the splits, swing the guitar round his back, hold the guitar by the neck away from his body and still manage to squeeze out notes with just the one hand; he would kneel down, standing the guitar on the ground, still playing one-handed on the neck while waving the other to the crowd; he would gyrate his hips and build momentum with long-held and sustained notes on his electric guitar and then catch up with the rhythm of his band with a flurry of chords.”
Adept at playing a guitar with his teeth, or while dropping to the floor in a perfectly executed split, Walker influenced bluesmen like Guitar Slim and Buddy Guy and flashy rock ‘n’ roll performers from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix.
He was born Aaron Walker in Linden, Texas on May 28, 1910; his nickname was a corruption of his middle name, given variously as Thibeaux or Thibeault and pronounced “Tee-bow.” The son of a mill worker and his wife, Walker was two when his parents separated; his mother moved to Dallas, where she remarried. Her second husband was string bassist Marco Washington, who performed with singer-guitarist Coley Jones’ Dallas String Band. (It is believed that Washington also recorded with the group in 1927-29.)
Walker’s mother Movelia was also known as a formidable guitarist in Dallas musical circles, so the family’s home became a magnet for blues performers either based in the city or passing through. The Washingtons played host to Huddie Ledbetter, a/k/a Lead Belly; they also jammed with Blind Lemon Jefferson, who later became the first major star of recorded blues in the late 1920s. From the age of 8, young T-Bone acted as the street-singing Jefferson’s sidekick, guiding the sightless performer through Dallas and collecting his tips.
Walker was soon playing a homemade guitar; by the time he was 12, he was plucking the banjo. But he initially excelled as a dancer: Accompanying Coley Jones’ band when they made their rounds on the Dallas streets, he dazzled onlookers with his flashy footwork. At the age of 14, he left home for a spell with Dr. Breeding’s Medicine Show, a traveling outfit that pushed patent remedies. Returned to his parents by a provincial sheriff, he went on to appear with the vaudeville blues singers Ida Cox and Ma Rainey.
At 16, now a high school dropout and multi-instrumentalist, Walker joined Lawson Brooks’ 16-piece group. Touring through Texas and Oklahoma, he encountered another young musician in Oklahoma City who went on to replace him in Brooks’ band: Charlie Christian, the guitarist whose importance in the evolution of his instrument in jazz paralleled that of Walker in blues.
In 1929 – by which time he had begun to assimilate the influences of vocalist Leroy Carr, his guitar-playing partner Scrapper Blackwell, and the fluent guitarist Lonnie Johnson – Walker won a talent contest and toured Texas for a week with Cab Calloway’s band. Scouted by Columbia Records, he cut his debut 78, “Trinity River Blues”/”Wichita Falls Blues,” singing and playing guitar under the moniker Oak Cliff T-Bone; on this number, styled after Carr and Blackwell’s duet hits, he was accompanied by pianist Douglas Finnell. It would be 11 years before the guitarist cut his next recording.
After a spell in the early ‘30s in Oklahoma City – where he studied with Charlie Christian’s teacher Chuck Richardson and played in a guitar-bass duo with Christian – Walker returned to Dallas, which he used as his regional touring base. He met his wife Vida Lee in Fort Worth in 1934; not long thereafter, the couple moved to Los Angeles, home of her sister. There Walker began to make a name for himself in the jumping nightclubs – Little Harlem, Club Alabam, the Plantation – on the city’s black entertainment Mecca, Central Avenue. The noise in these establishments spurred Walker to buy a hollow-body Gibston ES-250 electric guitar and an amplifier; for the remainder of his career, he would play a large Gibson hollow-body.
Walker’s jazzy playing and showboating style took him from Central Avenue to Hollywood night spots like the Trocadero and Billy Berg’s. In 1940, he joined Les Hite’s Los Angeles Cotton Club Orchestra and made his first recording as a featured vocalist, “T-Bone Blues.” However, despite its title, Walker did not play guitar on the side – instead, Hite’s guitarist Frank Pasley accompanied him in the “Hawaiian” slide style popular since the 1920s. The future of the blues would have to wait for a couple of years.
In July 1942, Walker played a session with a trio led by pianist Freddie Slack (who went on to cut a popular series of jivey boogie-woogie 78s with vocalist Ella Mae Morse). He played rhythm guitar on most of the sides, but he was featured on vocal and electric guitar on a single, “Mean Old World.” Though it was not a hit at the time, it became a blues standard, and one of the numbers with which Walker was most identified for the remainder of his career.
The same year, Walker began performing at Charlie Glenn’s Chicago club the Rhumboogie as part of an elaborate floor show, backed by a band that featured such prominent jazz men as Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Wild Bill Davis. In 1945 he recorded several numbers for the club’s in-house label, including a remake of “Mean Old World” and a ballad, “Evening,” that would remain part of his repertoire until the end of his life.
He began a period of chart eminence in 1946 with his arrival at Black & White Records; later in the decade Walker moved along to Capitol. His conversational singing style, jazz-influenced chording, and fluid single-string soloing made him a model for guitar-playing vocalists. His biggest hit came in 1947 with the droll No. 3 single “Bobby Sox Baby,” but his best-known song arrived a year later, when “Call It Stormy Monday” rose to No. 5; Walker would recut it repeatedly, and it became both a blues and rock standard. The much-covered instrumental “T-Bone Shuffle” was issued in 1949.
By 1950, interest in Walker’s sophisticated brand of blues was waning; he notched his last hit that February. He recorded his first session for Imperial Records two months later. For three years, the label recorded him with no success. In March 1953, he was dispatched to New Orleans for the first of three recording dates with Dave Bartholomew’s group; the bandleader-arranger had helped launch the career of pianist Fats Domino, one of R&B’s biggest stars of the early ‘50s. The collaboration produced no hits, but did generate such fascinating discographical anomalies as the teen-oriented “Pony Tail” and “Teen Age Baby.” (Walker’s music through this period was comprehensively compiled on The Complete Recordings of T-Bone Walker 1940-1954 , a six-CD limited-edition set on Mosaic Records.)
In 1955-57, Walker participated in three sessions for Atlantic Records, operated by the jazz and R&B connoisseurs Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who co-produced. The dates resulted in what is probably his best-known album, T-Bone Blues (1959). A studio stand in Chicago produced five tracks that featured harp player Junior Wells and guitarist Jimmy Rogers, then of Muddy Waters’ band; Rogers adapted Walker’s “Why Not” into his own “Walking By Myself,” a top 15 R&B hit in 1957. The two Los Angeles sessions mated Walker with sympathetic players like guitarist Barney Kessel and pianist Lloyd Glenn (a frequent accompanist) on remakes of some of his ‘40s classics.
Walker’s recording career reached an impasse in the early ‘60s, but he began a touring association that greatly broadened the overseas audience for his music. In 1962, he joined the American Folk Blues Festival, a caravan organized by German promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau that brought some top American names to the UK and the continent. Walker’s performances on the AFBF can be heard on Evidence’s five-CD boxed set American Folk Blues Festival ’62 to ’65 (1995) and the Hip-O CD The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 (2003). He toured extensively in Europe throughout the ‘60s; sadly, his 1966 appearance with an all-star band that included Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Zoot Sims at a Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic show in London has not made it to CD.
After a stint with Texas producer Huey Meaux, Walker had his last long-term association with a major American label in the late ‘60s, when he was signed to ABC-Paramount (whose blues acts were slotted on the short-lived Bluesway imprint). Producer Bob Thiele attempted to bring out the jazzier elements of Walker’s style on albums like Stormy Monday Blues (1967) and Funky Town (1968), but few observers found the results satisfying, despite Walker’s highly complementary pairing with Lloyd Glenn. Better received were a pair of French sessions: I Want a Little Girl (1968), featuring saxophonist Hal “Cornbread” Singer and pianist Georges Arvanitas, and Good Feelin’ (1969), a funky union with African saxophonist Manu Dibango. The latter album won Walker his only Grammy, for best ethnic/traditional recording.
The always hard-drinking Walker’s health went into serious decline in the early ‘70s. His guitar work appears on only five of the 20 tracks on the valedictory Very Rare (1973), a two-LP set produced by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, his singing is warm and mellow on this elaborately executed collection, which includes appearances by Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and a host of studio luminaries.
Walker suffered a stroke on New Year’s Eve 1974, and died on March 16, 1975. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as an early influence) in 1987.