Born: May 28, 1910 in Linden, TX
Died: March 16, 1975 in Los Angeles CA
Blues guitarist T-Bone Walker is not only one of the most influential musicians to rise up from the fertile Texas blues scene, but his impact on blues guitar worldwide cannot be understated. One of, if not the first blues guitarist to plug his instrument into an amp and take it for a drive, Walker revolutionized electric blues and, in doing so, influenced artists from B.B. King and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown to contemporary bluesmen like Dave Specter, Joe Louis Walker, and Ronnie Earl.
T-Bone and Blind Lemon Jefferson
Born Aaron Thibeaux Walker in rural Linden, Texas near the Louisiana border, Walker's family moved to Dallas when he was two years old. Walker began performing with his stepfather, Marco Washington, bass player for the Dallas String Band, where he developed a rudimentary knowledge of various string instruments.
Walker received his education in the blues from Blind Lemon Jefferson, however. Jefferson befriended the young guitarist, who served as the sightless legend's eyes and collected his tips for him as he performed on street corners and in Dallas bars. In return, Jefferson taught Walker the basics of blues guitar. Walker was a quick study, and by his early teens he was touring with the Dr. Breeding Medicine Show and other carnivals.
Going to L.A.
By 1929, Walker's reputation was such that he was signed by Columbia Records and recorded two sides - "Wichita Falls Blues" and "Trinity River Blues" - under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone. In 1930, Walker won a talent contest in Dallas; first prize was the chance to perform with Cab Calloway's big band. Walker would subsequently perform with a number of jazz-styled, Texas-area bands, including the Lawson Brooks Band. During this time, Walker became friends with guitarist Charlie Christian, considered to be one of the fathers of jazz guitar.
Walker moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where he performed with a number of small bands. In 1935 or '46, Walker began playing around with one of the first electric guitars, and it is widely believed that he was the first to play one of the electrified instruments in public. In 1939, as a member of Les Hite's Cotton Club Orchestra, Walker recorded "T-Bone's Blues," one of the classic modern blues songs, with Walker singing. The song's success prompted Walker to leave Hite's band and form his own outfit.
Black & White Records
Walker began recording for Capitol Records in 1942, cutting songs like "Mean Old World" and "I Got A Break Baby" that displayed the emergence of Walker's individual style. Sometime during the early-1940s Walker relocated to Chicago, performing frequently at the city's Rhumboogie Club and recording for the club's label. A consummate showman, Walker was a dynamic performer that would thrill audiences by playing his guitar behind his back or between his legs, and doing splits and slides on stage. Walker's onstage performance style would influence artists like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1946 Walker would return to L.A. and sign with the Black & White Records label. It was with Black & White that Walker began to build his legacy, recording songs like his signature, "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad)" and "T-Bone Shuffle," which featured Walker's soulful vocals and elegant, jazz-flavored blues guitar. Several of the sides that Walker recorded for the label would later be released by Capitol after Black & White folded, but by that time he had signed with Imperial, where he would release classic material like "Vida Lee," "Cold Cold Feeling," and "Blue Mood" over the next five years.
Walker's Later Years
Walker signed with Atlantic Records in 1955, his first session for the label including the talents of players like Junior Wells and Jimmy Rogers. Subsequent sessions produced a number of songs, but by the end of the decade Walker's classy, jazzy blues style was pushed aside by audiences in favor of soul and rock 'n' roll. Walker's participation in the first American Folk Blues Festival alongside Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim in 1962 earned Walker a loyal European audience, and he would tour the continent frequently during his later years.
Walker recorded sporadically during the 1960s, and seldom to the standard of his 1940s and '50s work. Two stand-out albums include 1968's I Want A Little Girl and 1970's Good Feelin', for which Walker won a Grammy™ Award. Walker's live performances during this time would also become sporadic, as he would tour without a band, playing with whatever musicians the promoter could put together. Although the performances were often unpredictable, Walker's skills as a guitarist seldom failed to disappoint. Suffering from stomach problems caused by his long-term alcoholism, Walker would die in 1975 from pneumonia following a stroke.
Walker was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Walker was ranked #47 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Recommended Albums: T-Bone Walker's discography is a landmine of dubious releases, shabby repackaging, and half-baked compilations. Rhino's single-disc Blues Masters: The Very Best of T-Bone Walker spans the guitarist's productive 1945-1957 period and includes some of Walker's essential recordings, making it a perfect introduction to the artist's talents. For fans wanting an advance class, the two-CD The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954 offers 56 excellent performances.