Monday, July 22, 2024

T-Bone Walker and the language of electric blues

TBONEThis is a chapter from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran (UNT Press, 2017)

At first Jimmie Vaughan seems a little overwhelmed by the question, as if he’s an Olympic swimmer who’s just been asked to describe the role of water in his sport.

“How significant was T-Bone Walker to the evolution of the blues?” he repeats the question. “Well,” he says after a long pause. “You look back at everyone who’s ever stood in front of a band playing the guitar and it all traces back to one man. T-Bone Walker was the first person to ever play blues on an electric guitar: How significant is that?”

But Vaughan knows Walker’s contributions go deeper than having access to new technology. Leaving it at that is like lauding a brilliant author for being the first to write a book using a word processor.

“T-Bone created a whole new language for the guitar,” says Vaughan, whose concise leads and impeccable sense of swing and rhythm show that his guitar speaks T-Bone fluently. He reaches for his 1951 Gibson hollow-body electric on the couch in his manager’s office on South Lamar; axe in hands he seems more comfortable talking about Walker, whose work in the 1940s was as major a musical influence as Texas has produced. Vaughan starts playing riffs you’ve heard on records by the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Vaughan’s former Fabulous Thunderbirds and the conversation comes alive.

tbone1“You’ve heard this one a hundred times before,” he says, playing the driving intro to “The Crawl,” a T-Bird mainstay. “That’s a T-Bone lick. Here’s another,” he says, strumming the harmonic chords that open Walker’s most enduring composition, “Call It Stormy Monday.” Vaughan then hits a note and sustains it with a finger wiggle a la B.B. King, performs a jazz-billy run like the ones Scotty Moore used to play with Elvis Presley, executes the bent-note double stops identified with Chuck Berry, then apes the choppy rhythms of nascent funk guitarist Jimmy Nolen of James Brown’s band. These licks all started with Walker, who was born in Linden and raised in Dallas. The electric guitar has been the defining instrument of the past 50 years and T-Bone Walker was the first guitar hero.

“You know how everyone was blown away when they first heard Jimi Hendrix?” Vaughan asks. “Well, imagine what it must’ve been like to hear T-Bone for the first time, when those riffs were brand new.” Hendrix had contemporaries who were doing amazing things — Clapton, Jeff Beck, Link Wray, Buddy Guy — but T-Bone was on an island. He was the template for so many great guitarists who would follow. In Texas, a Mecca of electric blues guitarists, you had Rockdale’s Pee Wee Crayton, Orange’s Gatemouth Brown, Beaumont’s Johnny Winter. Dallas gave us Freddie King and the Vaughan brothers and Houston could boast Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Johnny Copeland and Billy Gibbons, all carrying T-Bone’s torch.

Tuesday’s just as bad

Like Louis Armstrong, perhaps his only rival in terms of American musical innovation, Walker was a born entertainer who delivered flash with feeling. A former vaudeville dancer who shared stages with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, among others, Walker had the nimble feet to match his hands. A razor-sharp dresser and silky smooth vocalist, he epitomized the slick uptown sophisticate. He held his guitar like a baby, perpendicular to his body, and caressed the strings on slower numbers. But his blond, hollow-bodied Gibson would suddenly transform into an acrobatic instrument, as T-Bone played it behind his head while he did splits.

Unfortunately, there’s almost no film footage of Walker in his post-war prime. But witnesses have described an insatiable showman who bridged Cab Calloway’s wild-eyed swing with Chuck Berry’s propulsive strolls and Hendrix’s histrionics. T-Bone did almost everything Jimi did later — from exploiting feedback to playing with his teeth — but stopped at setting his guitar on fire. (An inveterate gambler, T-Bone didn’t want to blow his stake on replacements.)

A true case of being ahead of his time, or at least too early for adequate documentation, T-Bone remains a woefully overlooked figure in the history of popular music. Such Chicago bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are bigger icons. And B.B. King has made a healthy living from the bag of tricks he learned from Walker’s early recordings. Meanwhile, the Martin Scorsese-produced six-part documentary on “The Blues” made only passing mention of the genre’s most important guitarist.

“It’s impossible to spend an hour in a blues club and not hear a dozen T-Bone inventions,” says Vaughan. “And half the players have no idea who they’re copying.”

The way Vaughan found out about Walker in the early ’60s was the way he found out about all his heroes, by tracing backward. “I heard ‘Hideaway’ on the radio and bought a Freddie King record. And on the back of the record it said that he was influenced by T-Bone Walker, so I went out and got a T-Bone record.”

Jimmie Vaughan.
Jimmie Vaughan. Photo Tracy Hart.

A 12-year-old Vaughan flipped for Walker instantly, then was amazed to find out, months later, that the guitar god was from the same Oak Cliff neighborhood that the Vaughans lived in. Walker had moved to L.A. in 1935, at age 25, but he’d visit Dallas often.

One evening in the mid-’60s, Vaughan met his idol at the Empire Ballroom on Hall Street in Dallas. “He wasn’t even on the bill. It was B.B. King, Freddie King and Little Milton, but T-Bone had showed up to sit in on organ,” Vaughan recalls, with a giddiness that seems to never have subsided. “He was there at the back door with his two little granddaughters and my jaw dropped. He was dressed to the nines, as always, and I said, ‘Man, you’re T-Bone Walker!’ I love your records.’ ” The legend made the kid’s day, talking to him for about 10 minutes.

Vaughan would see T-Bone several times over the years, until the great pioneer suffered a stroke on New Year’s Eve 1974 and died of bronchial pneumonia three months later. “He could hit a note like this,” Vaughan says, striking the bottom string, “and sustain it, and the women would fly out of their seats. He was the first guy who could do that.”

And thus, a million would-be guitar heroes were hatched.

Jazz instincts, blues roots

Aaron Thibeaux Walker grew up around music. His mother, Movelia, picked the guitar and sang the blues, and his stepfather, Marco Washington, played a variety of stringed instruments. A regular guest at the family’s house was the country blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson, who enlisted an 8-year-old T-Bone as his “lead boy,” to guide him from juke joints to street corners in Deep Ellum. You can’t get an education like that at Juilliard.

“He had a jazz player’s instincts, but he was brought up in the blues,” says Vaughan.

T-Bone’s first instrument was the banjo, which he preferred to the guitar because it was louder. But he made more tip money as a dancer and left Dallas as a teen to tour the South with medicine shows. He also played banjo and guitar with the Cab Calloway orchestra for a week — the gig was first prize in a talent contest — which led to a record deal with Columbia in 1929. But T-Bone, sounding like a pale imitation of blues crooner Leroy Carr, hadn’t yet found his identity when he recorded “Trinity River Blues” and “Wichita Falls” as Oak Cliff T-Bone. The 78 didn’t make much noise outside of Dallas.

In the early ’30s, Walker had a street act with Charlie Christian, an ex-Dallasite living in Oklahoma City, who would be immortalized as jazz’s first great electric guitarist. Let that settle in: The two greatest guitar pioneers of the 20th century were a pair of Texans who played together for tips on street corners in Oklahoma City. The pair were probably introduced to the electric guitar by Eddie Durham, the San Marcos native who made the first known amplified guitar recording on 1935’s “Hittin’ the Bottle” with the Jimmy Lunceford orchestra.

Eddie Durham, the pride of San Marcos.
Eddie Durham, the pride of San Marcos.

Durham, better known as an arranger and composer (most notably with Count Basie in the ’40s), was among those who told Walker he needed to relocate to L.A. for more musical opportunities (a move also made by Texans Oscar Moore, Charles Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, PeeWee Crayton and more). So in late ’35, Walker left his wife, Vida Lee, behind in Dallas and took off on Route 66, driving a car and towing another for an auto transport company. His first gig on the vaunted Central Avenue of black nightclubs was as dancer and emcee with Big Jim Wynn’s band. But even though he wasn’t playing guitar onstage, Walker was tinkering with amplification techniques. Hugh Gregory’s “Roadhouse Blues” book, which meticulously explores the roots of Stevie Ray Vaughan, quotes Wynn as saying that Walker “had a funny little box . . . a contraption he’d made himself.”

It wasn’t until July 1942, however, that Walker played electric guitar on a record. Hired as a rhythm player for a session by bandleader Freddie Slack, Walker was given two spotlight turns, on “Mean Old World” and “I Got a Break Baby.” When Walker’s crisply pronounced notes interspersed with trumpetlike slurs and whelps, the guitar dropped its secondary status and popular music changed forever.

Before Walker, the blues was a solo acoustic form. With amplification bringing the guitar up front, no longer to be drowned out by horns or drums, T-Bone laid the full-band framework that would rule R&B in the post-war decade and eventually spin off into the rock ‘n’ roll combo.

“He didn’t model himself after anybody else,” Vaughan says. “He was the model.”

The electric guitar had been invented in 1931, when George Beauchamp devised the so-called “frying pan” lap steel for Rickenbacker. The guitar featured an electromagnetic pickup in which a current passed through a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, creating a field that amplified the steel strings’ vibrations. For the first few years after its introduction, amplified guitars were strictly the domain of Hawaiian steel guitarists, but that would change in 1936, when Gibson developed a hollow-bodied, Spanish-styled electric,

George Beauchamp holding a Rickenbacker guitar.
George Beauchamp holding a Rickenbacker guitar.

the ES150.

At first, the idea of an electric guitar was scoffed at by band leaders, who saw the invention as a novelty, unable to produce “authentic” sounds. The appeal to players, however, was that they could, at last, pick out melody lines that could be heard over a band. While in Benny Goodman’s band in the late ’30s, Christian shut up the detractors with his complete mastery of the ES150, which would come to be tagged “the Charlie Christian guitar.” (Sadly, Christian died from tuberculosis in 1942.)

1947-48 would prove to be Walker’s landmark period. After signing with the Black & White label, led by “music first” mogul Ralph Bass, Walker and his crack band recorded more than 50 titles in 18 months, ranging from the raucous “T-Bone Boogie” to the pop ballad “I’m Still In Love With You” to the slow blues classic “Call It Stormy Monday.”

Fifteen years later, a 12-year-old white kid, sitting in his bedroom in T-Bone’s old neighborhood, was trying to duplicate Walker’s solos, puzzling out how to make the riffs part of his own musical lexicon. “I’d try to get into his head when I listened to his records,” Jimmie Vaughan says. “I’d wonder, ‘How did he get from here,’ ” he says, strumming a series of repetitive chords, “to here,” a jazz-inflected arpeggio.

The riffs Walker invented have become cliches, pounded into the ground by players who think they’re copying Duke Robillard. Nothing kills a thrill like hearing “Stormy Monday” by a band with three guitarists. You can go out, grab a snack and be back before they’re done telling you that Tuesday’s just as bad. Walker’s innovations are so dyed into the blues/rock fabric that it’s hard to believe that this music was once revolutionary.

But Jimmie Vaughan still remembers how he felt when he first heard T-Bone Walker. “After I’d been exposed to his guitar-playing, I told myself that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It pretty much ruined any chance that I’d end up with a responsible job.”

As he turns his ES150 on its side, so the strings are perpendicular to his body, Vaughan plays another favorite lick by his hero. “Hear that tone?” he says. Indeed, the notes resonate fuller. “That’s why he played the guitar like this. Amazing, huh?” He’s no longer in his bedroom, but in his manager’s office. And he’s still trying to get inside T-Bone’s musical mind. *

 

2 thoughts on “T-Bone Walker and the language of electric blues

  1. GREAT GREAT GREAT Article

    only one but.

    I dont like to see that among the 10 Texans guitarists RECOMMEND forget one essential: JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON, someone who is often forgotten despite leaving a legacy that influenced all subsequent gneraciones guitarists, Frank Zappa, Jimmy Hendrix, Jimmy Vaughan, Nick curran ….

    Great job and THANKS YOU

    SALUD Y BUEN BLUES

    Greetings from Madrid

  2. I live in Dallas and I find it amazing that with all of the music history here, there is no museum or anything to highlight the impact of T-Bone, the Vaughan brothers, FROM THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD in Oak Cliff…not to mention the Robert Johnson recording studio. Dallas should be known for laying the foundation for rock guitar, rather than being the city of hate that killed Kennedy.

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