Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker 1910-1975
The inventor of urban, electrified blues
I still have a lot of vinyl records, but I don’t have a turntable anymore. Anne asks me, “Why do you keep all of these old records when you don’t have a record player? Can’t we get rid of them?” I just can’t bring myself to do it. I keep telling myself that eventually I’ll pick up a turntable on eBay or something…
I haven’t replaced all of my old collection with CDs, but there are some I have. One of my prized records, which I bought when I was about 18, was the complete set of recordings done by T-Bone Walker for the Imperial label between 1950 and 1954. The records were released on the Blue Note label. Recently I replaced these on CD - The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954.
T-Bone Walker was born in Texas in 1910 and raised in Dallas. The nickname “T-Bone” came form a corruption of his middle-name Thibeaux. He grew up listening to uncles and relatives who were musicians, and records by guitarists like Scrapper Blackwell and Lonnie Johnson. In Dallas, he served as the “lead boy” for family-friend and legendary blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, guiding him from tavern to tavern, where he would play for tips.
By the time he was a teenager, Walker had learned to play the guitar, banjo, and virtually every other stringed instrument he could get his hands on. Playing, singing, and dancing at carnivals and medicine shows around Texas and Oklahoma, he was earning his own keep. On this southwestern circuit, he became acquainted with the man who would later do for jazz guitar what he would do for blues guitar, Charlie Christian, who later became famous as a member of Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
Walker recalled, “Christian was playing his guitar and going to school. Whenever he’d go to school! We was really dropouts. Because we were making money, he wouldn’t go to school. We’d go dance and pass the hat and make money. We had a little routine of dancing that we did. Charlie would play guitar awhile and I’d play bass, and then we’d switch…. And then we’d go into our little dance. And his brother used to play piano with us, Edward Christian.”
Shortly before 1935, walker moved out to the west coast. It was there that he started playing amplified guitar. T-Bone Walker may not have been the first to record playing a true, amplified electric guitar, but he was among the first handful, and he claimed to have been the first to play one regularly in his act. ”I was out there four or five years on my own before they all started playing amplified… Oh, yes, I was before Charlie Christian on electric guitar. He was about the next one to have it.”
Walker’s exposure to the west coast also exposed him to a level of class and sophistication that he combined with his blues roots. Playing in Les Hite’s Cotton Club Band and with Cab Calloway, Walker learned to synthesize the Swing Band sound with the Blues.
Chicago is generally recognized as the Blues Mecca, but there were two distinctly different styles there. There was the South Side sound, harmonica driven, and characterized by bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson. It had its roots right in the Mississippi Delta. It was a country sound. The other was the West Side sound, guitar and horn driven, and characterized by bluesmen like B.B. King, Albert King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam. It was more polished, urban, slick, and jazz-influenced than its South Side counterpart. T-Bone Walker was the primary influence on the West Side set, and also on other Texas bluesmen like Freddy King, Clarence “Gatemouth Brown, and Albert Collins.
With his crackerjack horn section, amplified guitar (designed to be as powerful solo instrument as the saxophone), smooth vocals, and ice-cream suits, Walker brought a sophistication to the blues. His influence on all generations of electric players was huge. If you hear T-Bone walker, you can hear him in Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry can be heard in every Rock n’ Roll guitarist. His style might sound crude and simplistic with today’ ears, but at the time it was revolutionary, and bear in mind that he played with only two fingers on his fret hand. I also think he’s kind of fun to listen to because I can sort of sing along in the same key….
The song he is known best for is Call It Stormy Monday, which has been covered by innumerable bands.
Call It Stormy Monday
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's also sad
Yes the eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me
Lord have mercy, my heart's in misery
Crazy about my baby, yes, send her back to me
I don’t know if this Rhapsody playlist thing will work for you guys or not. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone who is interested can play it successfully. The songlist I’m trying to play is:
1) I Got the Blues
2) Strollin’ With Bone
3) The Sun went down
4) Lollie Lou
5) Welcome Blues (Say Pretty Baby)
6) Street Walkin’ woman
7) Got no Use For You
My Rhapsody Playlist
T-Bone Walker Guitar, Vocals
Edward Hale Alto Saxophone
Maxwell Davis Tenor Saxophone
Jim Wynn Baritone Saxophone
Eddie Hutcherson Trumpet
Zell Kindred Piano
R. S. Rankin Guitar
Buddy Woodson Bass
Robert Sims Drums
Baby Davis Vocals (Got No Use for You)
The showboat antics imitated later by others, like Jimi Hendrix.