“While we’re doing that blues… thing… we’re gonna play an old Bobby Blue Bland song… actually it’s a T-Bone Walker song…” – Duane Allman, introducing “Stormy Monday” on At Fillmore East.
So, who was T-Bone Walker? This is what Rolling Stone magazine said (number 67 on their top 100 Guitarists list.) “When B.B. King heard T-Bone Walker, he “thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar.” Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it, building a new style on fluid phrasing, bluesy bends, and vibrato.
It was the clear tone and melodic invention of his 1942 single “Mean Old World” that blew everyone’s mind, and Walker refined his approach through hits like “Call It Stormy Monday.” “I came into this world a little too soon,” Walker said. “I’d say that I was about 30 years before my time.”
Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker was born in 1910 into a musical family in Linden, TX, way up in the northeast corner, closer to Shreveport, Louisiana than to Dallas. Walker never got much schoolin’ past 10 years old and by 1925 he was playing professionally on the blues circuit. It’s well-known that Walker learned blues guitar from Blind Lemon Jefferson with Walker, in turn, often being his guide.
Some sources say Jefferson was a family friend, others that the two met in Dallas. Regardless, both wound up in Dallas playing blues on the circuit. For at least some part of that time they lived in the Oak Cliff section, later home to the Vaughan brothers Jimmie and Stevie Ray. In fact, for a while Walker played acoustic blues and called himself Oak Cliff T-bone.
By 1942, T-Bone had made his way to the Rhumboogie Cafe in Chicago where he played frequently with other bands. (The Rhumboogie only lasted a few years but in that time also saw performances by Sarah Vaughan, Wynonie Harris, Charlie Parker and the fabulously-named, Little Miss Cornshucks.)
If you ever saw videos of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar behind his back or while doing splits, know that he was not the first. I can’t say for sure if T-Bone came up with this stuff but he was certainly one of the originals. And along with jazz guitarist Charlie Christian – with whom he had played – was one of the first to amplify his guitar over the din of the band.
According to the info on YouTube, this video is from German TV in the early ’60’s. I think it’s a rare treat to actually see one of the masters at work. I don’t know why so much it is shot in front of a car and behind a fake railing but so be it.
The great majority of T-Bone’s recorded output comes from the mid-40’s and ’50’s. Lest you think that somehow he was on the level of fame of, say, Little Richard or any of the early rock ‘n roll greats, he was not. He made a living but it was in that underground chitlin circuit, the same one that B.B. later traveled.
Even though he played frequently in jump blues bands, much of T-Bone’s recorded output seems to be slow blues. I liked this tune “T-Bone Blues Special” with some nice harp in it that I believe is Junior Wells.
I remember reading an interview with Steve Miller years ago about his musical upbringing. Miller’s father was a jazz aficionado and amateur recording engineer. Not only were Les Paul and Mary Ford family friends, Dr. Miller and his wife were best man and maid of honor at the Pauls’ wedding! When the Millers moved to Dallas, young Steve met Charles Mingus and T-Bone, from whom he learned to play behind his back and with his teeth.
By the early ’60’s, T-Bone’s career – if not T-Bone himself – started to slow down. He did some European touring from which we are graced with the video. He still recorded, but I personally don’t remember hearing much about him till the Allmans did “Stormy Monday.” I went back and listened to his stuff and really dug it – bluesly, smoky, soulful – and smooth. T-Bone didn’t have any angles – he was like smooth bourbon all the way down.
And so, what about “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just As Bad)?” T-Bone wrote this in the ’40’s. The lyrics to this song, while simple, are great. They tell a story that’s so old Aristotle could have sung it while playing his lyre. (Or whatever.)
T-Bone Walker died in 1975 after suffering several strokes. Chuck Berry named T-Bone and Louis Jourdan as his main influences. Walker was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. I’ll leave the last word to All Music:
“No amount of written accolades can fully convey the monumental importance of what T-Bone Walker gave to the blues. He was the idiom’s first true lead guitarist, and undeniably one of its very best.”