T-Bone: Electric Stake in the Blues
T is for Texas
Rance Walker fathered Movelia Walker's baby, who inherited some American Indian blood in the mix, was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker in the northeast part of Texas. Living at home in the conservative enviroment at her parent's Christian home cramped her musical style and prompted her to move to Dallas with her one year old baby. There must have been nurture or nature involved, because he was just barely in grade school when he skipped to join Doctor Breeding's medicine show, and he ran away a few years later touring with Ida Cox's outfit until the officer's found him. He was just a lad when he became blues-father Blind Lemon Jefferson's aide, shaking the cup like a tamborine before he passed it around to would-be contributors. He loved music so much he would listen to the church choir sing, and the preacher preach...outside through the window, however. I suppose it was just to hard for people to pronounce Thibeaux, or it kind of sounds like T-Bone, and it stuck.
Juilliard of Hard Knox
Ten years into the youngster's life his mother remarried, into a family that was playing in a string band. T-Bone got a chance to learn all his new footwork has he was a feature to earn money for this family's passed-around-hat. A couple of years later his mother bought him his first axe, albeit the less desired banjo to his dreamed-of guitar, he used it to earn money playing weekend Church functions to reach his goal finally while he was a High Schooler. The first band he joined -- he was one of the sixteen pieces -- but, playing banjo; and when they took to the road, he stayed with his mother who was abandoned by her man, again. He crossed paths at this time for the first time with his replacement, Charlie Christian.
Won a Ride With a Cab
When the amateur show opportunity came in 1929, T-Bone took advantage of it, and to his good fortune he won the first prize -- a week touring with the famous Cab Calloway. While playing in Houston, Calloway gave the stage to T-Bone to spotlight his banjo expertise while performing the splits. His hamming it up antics that would become part of his trademark, and an example for others following such as Chuck Berry, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. He got the attention of the folks at Columbia records and next year he cut, Witchita Falls and Trinity River Blues, and gave himself a name based on his nickname and his mother's home: Oak Cliff T-bone. He was invited to tour with a Caucasian traveling band, and his presence in Oklahoma City caused some ruckus 'n caused him to be put on low profile. He wound up in Kansas City, anyway with a rowdy drinking crowd where his youthful head start with alcohol and its related ulcerating the stomach linings put him in the hospital for the first of many times through his life.
Vida Lee to L.A.
By 1934, because he had wanted to make future plans with his fiance, Miss Vida Lee, whom he met while in his quartet playing at Fort Worth's Gem Hotel, he knew that with the Depression, he would have to find greener pastures. He made it to Los Angeles, albeit with one greenback to his name, and fortunately he got a gig first dancing, then announcing, and finally playing guitar for the big band led by Big Jim Wynn. It was a time when he began experimenting with guitar amplification. And like Les Paul around this time playing with electromagnets.
It was around this time in 1939 that he, and jazz man Charlie Christian, were putting magnetic "Humbucker" pickups on their big wide-bodied arch-top Gibson guitars, and both are considered pioneers in this electrical amplification ,and in the single string style of playing. T-Bone is credited with having the first recorded blues electric guitar work (associated with the earlier acoustic bluesmen) with the: T-Bone Blues, (and he is one, along with next in line, Lonnie Johnson, and further along, Robert Lockwood in this genre that has much respect by jazz musicians.} He was being influenced by not only those before him, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others of the 'Texas' style, but was expanding his genre by the access to other's recordings like those of Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr out of Indianapolis and probably heard on
broadcasts. Another unique aspect of T-Bone's approach is how he perceived of the ensemble (that is, different individual stars together), or of being the front man in his own band (conceptualizing it in advance not by chance) and finally being a backup musician.
By 1940 T-Bone was such a commodity that Marili Morden had him doing the ritzy hot night spots on the Sunset Strip, but Walker complained that his real fan base was being kept out. The experiment in co-mingling diversity Morden first pioneered was a financial boon. The next big break was with Les Hite and the Cotton Club Band, who wanted his vocal talents on their East Coast tour, and even though he was always honing his skills with the electric guitar, his singing is all that is recorded on his Hite's Varsity records session. As fast as he was back home in L.A. and he was requested to join a steady job with Milt Larkin's musicians in Chicago. Within the next two years he was asked back due to heavy demand, and he recorded some of what would become his standards on Rhumboogie in 1945; and then a little later back in California he signed with Comet's Black and White label led in the studio by a fan who happened to be the top A and R man, Ralph Bass of Dizzie Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray fame. He also was one of those show off musicians playing behind his back that was picked up by Howlin' Wolf before him from Robert Johnson, and followed by greats like Jimi Hendrix later. Up through 1947, T-Bone's most memorable work -- totalling fifty releases -- included the two greats: Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday's Just as Bad and T-Bone Shuffle, featuring Willard McDaniel's proto-reggae piano work. His great electric innovative guitar was getting him Top Ten airplay, now; and he was on the road with Lowell Fulson and a constant shuffle of the who's who of blues especially noteworthy --- Wynonie Harris, Ray Charles and Joe Turner. It became a tradition that no one wanted to follow T-Bone on stage, and he was convinced to close the shows. It was too bad that during this height of his fame, he could not stay away from friends that offered him stronger spirits than the Doctor's ordered goat milk; and this had the more deleterious effect -- his musicians disbanding while the fourth ulcer flared up and led to subsequent hospitalization with removal of the majority of his stomach.
The Fifties and a Blues Recession
T-Bone in the 1950s switched to Imperial records where even though he stayed as busy as ever writing and performing to good crowds, record sales though continuing, began to slip. His music became a relative relic: first compared to the Chicago Delta Blues on Chess record's, then to jump blues and finally to the increasingly predominant Rhythm and Blues. Just before the decade ended, he had moved to Atlantic but by then rock music and 'soul' cut into sales and gigs.
Sixties Blues Revival
His first break from the lull was with his hero, Count Basie until he was too awed following Joe Williams' and Jimmy Rushing's vocals. Fortunately for T-Bone at this time the English, and some hip Yanks, too were investigating blues music while its orginally base audience had moved on. Germany especially was interested and some promoters from there brought an ensemble of blues greats over to tour Europe, thus T-Bone joined John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Shakey Jake, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry. Recorded for posterity was the stupendous Original American Folk Blues Festival in 1962 featuring Walker backing John Lee Hooker on piano. After performing for these circuits --on both shores-- consistently during this decade, just before its end he went to Paris. He not only became club Les Trois Mailletz regular with Memphis Slim, but recorded on France's Black and Blue label, while spending his money there as fast as he earned it.
Winding Up and Then Down in the Seventies
After getting new managers he did an album for Polydor which upon his return to Los Angeles in 1972 he was welcomed by the news that his album had won a grammy. After hitting the road again with new hope, and a double album released by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with jams with jazz greats Dizzie Gillespie, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan; and with New Orleans pianist, James Booker and another, and a Texan, Charles Brown.
But taking a respite answering his wife Vi's pleas he took a car ride with his blues friend, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson that ended in a wreck that sent him to the hospital for more than eight weeks. Having financial problems again, he was at this time trying to not only get his disassembled group back together but find out about his royalties due him from Stormy Monday that the Allman Brothers were doing. By 1973 he was back and ready to tour, but the excitement of that New Year's Eve of 1974 left him with a stoke that forced his convalesence in a nursing home. He lived only for a little over a year, joining so many others into the Land of Legends on those Ides of March, the fifteenth, in 1975.
There are three compilations on CD's that are worth having:
- T-Bone Blues Atlantic (mid and late 50's)
- The Complete Imperial Recordings
- The Original American Folk Blues Festival (1962)
Talkin' Blues Guitar Series, Lightning Red (online)