T-Bone Walker Biography

Aaron Thibeaux Walker, 28 May 1910, Linden, Texas, USA, d. 16 March 1975, Los Angeles, California, USA. Walker, whose T-Bone acronym is a corruption of his middle name, was raised in Dallas where his parents operated an ‘open house’ to all the touring blues musicians. During his childhood, Walker was brought into contact with artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, and in fact he became Jefferson’s ‘eyes’ around the streets of Dallas whenever the blind musician was in town. Inspired by the more sophisticated blues and singing style of pianist Leroy Carr, Walker took up the guitar, and began performing himself. During the mid-20s he toured Texas as a musician/comedian/dancer with Dr. Breeding’s Big B Tonic Show, before joining a travelling revue led by singer Ida Cox. By 1929 he had made a solitary country blues record for Columbia Records as ‘Oak Cliff T-Bone’. His recording career may very well have started and finished there, had he not travelled to Oklahoma City and met Chuck Richardson, the man who was teaching young Charlie Christian (a boyhood friend of Walker’s) to play single string solos on the new electrified instrument - ‘T-Bone’ began his instruction alongside Christian that same day. Developing his act as a singer and dancer in the style of Cab Calloway (with whose band he toured for a week in 1930 as first prize in a talent contest), Walker was introduced to the slick world of jazz and big band swing. He moved to Los Angeles in 1934 and obtained a job with ‘Big’ Jim Wynn’s band in Little Harlem.

Walker’s popularity steadily grew throughout the late 30s and in 1940 he took a job with Les Hite’s Orchestra. His amplified guitar, still a novelty, brought a distinctive touch to the ensemble’s overall sound while an undoubted showmanship increased the attention lavished upon the artist. Upon arriving in New York with Hite, Varsity Records recorded the orchestra, and Walker’s feature, ‘T-Bone Blues’, became a great success - although Frank Pasley and not ‘T-Bone’ played the electric guitar accompaniment. Leaving Hite, upon his return to California, Walker co-led a band with ‘Big’ Jim Wynn at the top Los Angeles nightspots, honing his provocative act which included playing the guitar behind his head while doing the splits - a sense of showmanship that would later influence Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.

From 1942-44 Walker recorded for Capitol Records with Freddie Slack’s band. Slack repaid the compliment by supporting Walker on the first release under the guitarist’s name. The two tracks, ‘Mean Old World’ and ‘I Got A Break Baby’, rapidly became standards for the next generation of electric blues guitarists. During 1945/6 Walker was in Chicago, starring at the Rhumboogie Club with Milt Larkins’ or Marl Young’s Orchestras (Young’s band accompanied Walker on the recordings he made in Chicago for the club’s own Rhumboogie label and for disc jockey Al Benson’s Swingmaster Records). Upon his return to the west coast, Walker was in great demand, both in concert and with his new records released on the Black & White label and its jazz subsidiary Comet (1946-47 - later purchased and released by Capitol Records). These included classics such as ‘I’m Gonna Find My Baby’, ‘T-Bone Shuffle’ and ‘Call It Stormy Monday’. The latter melancholic ballad, also known as ‘Stormy Monday’ and ‘Stormy Monday Blues’, has since been the subject of numerous interpretations by artists as disparate as Chris Farlowe (as Little Joe Cook), Bobby Bland and the Allman Brothers.

In the late 40s the second musician’s union ban and a heavy touring schedule with his old partner Big Jim Wynn prevented Walker from recording, but in 1950 he secured a four-year contract with Imperial Records where he demonstrated a harder, funkier style of blues, with sessions utilizing T.J. Fowler’s band in Detroit and Dave Bartholomew’s band in New Orleans, as well as his own working unit from Los Angeles. These experiments continued after moving to Atlantic Records from 1955-59, where he teamed up with blues harmonica player Junior Wells in Chicago and modern jazz guitarist Barney Kessel in Los Angeles. Although nominally versed in blues, Walker often sought the accompaniment of jazz musicians who allowed free rein for the guitarist’s fluid style. He continued to record prolifically throughout the early 50s, but gradually eased such strictures in favour of regular concert appearances. He visited Europe on several occasions and performed successfully at many large-scale jazz and blues festivals. Later albums, including The Truth and Funky Town, showcased a virtually undiminished talent, still capable of incisive playing. However, by the early 70s his powers were diminished through ill health, and at personal appearances he often played piano instead of his guitar. In 1974 he suffered a severe stroke from which he never made a recovery. T-Bone Walker died of bronchial pneumonia on 16 March 1975, his reputation as a giant of blues music assured. The continuing reissue of compilations confirms his stature.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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