T-Bone Walker: A Kind of Sweet Blues
Jimi Hendrix stole moves and licks from him. Chuck Berry named him as one of two main influences (along with Louis Jordan.) His song “Stormy Monday” has been covered by everybody who is anybody in blues, jazz, and swing, and is what inspired B.B. King to pick up the electric guitar. While he is known as a guitar player, it is often overlooked that he also played banjo, piano, violin, ukulele, and mandolin as well. As a guitar player he is revered for his jump blues, Chicago blues, and Texas blues sounds. A consummate musician, he also composed music, and was a skilled bandleader as well. Of course we are talking about the one and only T-Bone Walker (Aaron Thibeaux Walker).
The electric guitar was born in 1931. The earliest proponents of this new instrument included Charlie Christian, Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Lonnie Johnson. Each of these revered artists was a huge influence in shaping the way guitar would be played, and the contexts in which it would be used as the future unfolded. An uncharted course lay before them.
Born in Texas, Walker was playing professionally by the time he was 15, and also served as a guide for Blind Lemon Jefferson as he made his way around to his performances in Dallas. By the time has was 19, he had made his first recording, “Wichita Falls Blues” backed by “Trinity River Blues” on Columbia Records as “Oak Cliff T-Bone.” He released a number of recordings between 1942 and 1950, most of them very well received owing to his “new” sound, which began with his recording “Mean Old World,” on Capitol Records.
T-Bone worked his magic on other people’s compositions as well as his own. “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” was written by King, and first saw daylight as a 1961 single release, later appearing on his 1962 release The Big Blues, on King Records. It wasn’t long before other artists were performing and recording their own versions. One of the best known covers of the song was recorded and performed by none other than T-Bone Walker. This version is has a spiritual air about it, eliciting the same feeling one has when listening to Coltrane playing A Love Supreme. It makes the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up.
Walker was indeed a pioneering guitarist, but he was also a consummate showman. He could move an audience emotionally in whatever direction he chose so smoothly that they weren’t even aware he was doing so until the ride was over. When that ride was done, they were thankful for the journey they had just taken. Now, that’s powerful playing! That is what made T-Bone Walker so great.
He recorded a number of well received albums later in his career, I Want a Little Girl, recorded for Delmark Records in 1968 among them. In June 1972, T-Bone Walker and his Blues Band played Montreux. A recording of this was released on the Polydor PD-5521 album Fly Walker Airlines later the same year. Long out of print due to poor sales upon it’s release, this album is a treasure trove of Walker playing blues and jazz, and clearly relishing every minute. There is a reason that Walker is still setting the standard for guitarists today. Even here, later in his career, he still shines.
After suffering a stroke in 1974, Walker began to slow down. He would die of bronchial pneumonia after another stroke in March 1975. He was still relatively young, only 64 years old.
Walker won a Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording Grammy Award in 1971 for Good Feelin′. In 1980, Walker was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and in 1987, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Chuck Berry, a pioneer himself learned quite a bit from Walker. Berry has said, “All the things people see me do on the stage I got from T-Bone Walker.” Johnny Winter said of him, “T-Bone was a big influence on just about every guitar player around.” No less a personage than B.B. King himself said of Walker, “If T-Bone Walker had been a woman, I would have asked him to marry me. I’d never heard anything like that before: single-string blues played on an electric guitar.”
Walker once described his own blues this way: “My blues is not screaming blues or howling blues but kind of sweet blues.”
Any guitarist worth their salt will discover T-Bone Walker at some point on their own musical journey; it is destiny. To do otherwise would be blasphemy. With the rich and full catalog that Walker was kind enough to gift us with, there is no deficit of albums to immerse oneself in. Certainly, he inspired B.B. King, and many other musicians we revere today. Treat yourself to one of his many fine albums.