Wednesday, October 9, 2013
T-Bone Walker - Sing The Blues
Aaron Thibeaux Walker was born 103 years ago – May 28, 1910 – in the Bear Creek Community close by Linden, Texas. T-Bone’s father, Rance, and his mother, Movelia, were both musicians who separated not long after T-Bone was born. T-Bone once said that his earliest memory was hearing his mother playing blues guitar on the front porch. Music played a large role in his mother’s life and she undoubtedly influenced his development as a talented and versatile performer.
Aaron and his sisters were brought up in music like it was gospel. Before he was a teen, they all moved to Dallas because his mother wanted them to escape the drudgery of field work. In the big city, T-Bone was thrust into a musical community that included Blind Lemon Jefferson and Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. The young T-Bone guided Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas, absorbing Blind Lemon’s style and touch and perfecting a sensibility to blues melodic construction that would ultimately establish T-Bone himself as a master and an innovator, often imitated but never surpassed.
Before making his first recording, Walker began his professional career dancing and playing banjo with Doctor Breeding’s Big B Medicine Show and worked with blues artist Ida Cox. His big break came when he won first prize in an amateur show promoted by superstar entertainer Cab Calloway.
T-Bone’s popularity as a versatile song and dance man continued to grow in Dallas and throughout East Texas. After cutting his first record in 1929, he was on the fast track to develop a national audience. But with the Great Depression came hard times for musicians, and T-Bone supported himself as a street musician, working with his friend Charlie Christian. They worked the street corners in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas, passing the hat for tips.
T-Bone Walker was a triple-threat entertainer who could dance, sing, and play guitar with the best of them. Things picked up again when T-Bone toured the South with Calloway’s band, worked with several other notables, and in 1934 performed with the legendary blues artist Ma Rainey. That same year, he met and married his lifelong wife, Vida Lee, in Fort Worth. In 1935, he moved to Los Angeles and was a crowd-pleaser at popular black nightclubs such as Little Harlem and Club Alabam.
T-Bone tap-danced, played guitar and piano, impressing audiences with his physical agility, his musical skills, and his rich vocals. He was a sharp dresser, perhaps something picked up from touring with Cab Calloway. He became a star at the Trocadero Club in Hollywood, a hot spot that welcomed audiences of all races. Everyone wanted to see T-Bone. His sold-out performances attracted crowds everywhere he performed.
His excellent guitar work was in great demand by leading band leaders when they came to Los Angeles. By 1939, T-Bone had recorded with Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. That same year, he turned the blues world on its ear and laid the foundations for what would ultimately become rock and roll when he became one of the first blues guitarists to record playing electric.
He recorded “T-Bone Blues” on the Varsity Label in 1940, singing but, oddly enough, using another musician for the guitar solo. During this time he also played in the Les Hite band at the top spots around Los Angeles. Still experimenting with the electric guitar, he built his reputation as a unique, top-notch entertainer well enough that he could strike out on his own. He dazzled audiences by playing the guitar behind his head while doing the splits, and even picking the strings with his teeth. His sensational performances established him as a guaranteed draw wherever he appeared, and his audiences always included a throng of female admirers.
By 1942, T-Bone was recording for Capitol records, working with Freddie Sacks band, a fifteen piece ensemble. That year he cut two instant classics – “I Gotta Break Baby” and “Mean Old World” – featuring his outstanding work on a Gibson ES-250 electric guitar and matching EM-185 amplifier. He was firmly established as a great songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist.
Although he was at the top of his game, life was still full of challenges. His good friend Charlie Christian died. World War 2 practically shut down the recording business.
T- Bone did well performing though, and was a regular at Chicago’s Rhumboogie Club. When the war ended, the club closed and the owner established the Rhumboogie Records label. T-Bone recorded for the label before returning to Los Angeles to star at Club Alabam, the hottest nightspot on Central Avenue.
T-Bone changed record labels again in 1946, opting to sign with Black & White Records although he was vigorously pursued by much large companies. Lena Horne was also recording for the label, which also was active in country western music. T-Bone’s “Bobbie Sox Blues” went to Number 3 on the so-called “race” charts that year, and he followed that success with another classic – “Hard Pain Blues.”
In September, 1947, T-Bone went to work on his third recording session for Black and White and produced the song for which he will always be remembered – “Stormy Monday.” This all-time classic has been recorded by literally hundreds of artists and is performed by multiple artists at every blues festival or show in the world. Another ban on recording loomed and Black and White needed to stockpile as many recordings as possible, so T-Bone produced another thirty or so tracks in the last two months of that year.
His work in this period took more of a jazz direction than before. He had hits with “Inspiration Blues”, “T-Bone Shuffle,” and “Go Back to the One You Love.” It was a rich time for T-Bone. His last Black and White session, on December 29, 1947, produced “I’m Still in Love With You” and “West Side Baby.”
Capitol Records bought the Black & White tracks and aggressively worked the jukebox market, where T-Bone’s music was much sought after. All across the country in the late 1940s, T-Bone Walker’s rich voice and masterful guitar work echoed from the Wurlitzers and Rockolas in roadside taverns, cafes, and juke joints far and wide.
T-Bone put together his own 11 piece band and toured extensively from 1948 to 1955, playing to good audiences from coast to coast. He signed with Imperial Records in 1950, and by 1954 had recorded a large number of tracks, returning more to his rhythm and blues background, but with modern, new arrangements. He cut even more classics, including “The Hustle is On,” “Cold, Cold Feeling,” “Party Girl,” and one named for his wife “Vida Lee.” He also worked with legendary New Orleans songwriter and producer Dave Bartholomew, whose teamwork with Fats Domino produced a string of enduring hits. He went jazzy again on “Shufflin’ the Blues”, recording with his nephew and renowned jazz artist Barney Kessel. In most of the recordings made during this period,
T-Bone’s vocals and guitar work are front and center, the band is backing only. T-Bone Walker was at his peak.
Rock and Roll was beginning to take its toll on Rhythm & Blues just as it did with Jazz, Big Band, and other musical genres. T-Bone went on his first European trip in 1962, the American Folk Blues Festival that toured across Europe with T-Bone, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim and other luminaries. His popularity was rekindled by European fans, and he continued to tour Europe until persistent health problems worsened and his career gradually wound down. He suffered a stroke in 1974, and in 1975 Aaron T-Bone Walker died at the age of sixty-five.
The importance of T-Bone Walker’s career and his influence on legions of Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock and Roll artists who followed him cannot be overstated. He created the archetype of the performer with a guitar fronting his own band, and he did it as well as it has ever been done or will ever be done by anyone.
He is unparalleled as a singer/songwriter/musician – a triple threat who also had a naturally exuberant and energetic stage presence. T-Bone Walker was, to put it simply, as good as it gets.
Bio from T-Bone Walker Blues Fest.