Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Original Axe Man

If you love the sound of the electric guitar and have a soft spot for the Blues and you’ve never heard any of T-Bone Walker’s records you are missing a treat.

“…..Then finally I heard ‘Stormy Monday’, my guy called T-Bone Walker, and I went crazy for the guitar and then crazy in every sense. I'd never heard anything sound like that guitar to me.

B.B. King 1999

Aaron Thibeaux Walker’s parents were both musicians and his grandmother a Cherokee Indian, the family moved to live in Dallas when he was 2 years old. By his late teens he was often to be found leading Blind Lemon Jefferson along Central Avenue in Dallas. Self-taught on the guitar he began playing local parties from around 1923, later touring in medicine shows and with singer Ida Cox. In 1929 he made his first recordings, in Dallas as Oak Cliff T-Bone, for the Columbia label. Some short time after his recording debut Walker went to Oklahoma City where he learned to single pick notes on his guitar from a man named Chuck Richardson; Walker’s boyhood friend Charlie Christian went with him. Christian later became one of the top jazz guitarists of the early 40’s, and an inspiration within Jazz circles like Walker was in the Blues.

T-Bone moved to California in 1934 where he frequently worked the Little Harlem Club and other Los Angles haunts before joining and recording, ‘T-Bone Blues’, with The Les Hite Orchestra around 1940. By 1942 he was working as the featured guitarist with the Freddie Slack Orchestra, as well as recording in his own right.

It was around 1936 that Walker had begun to experiment with the Electric guitar; and by the early 40’s Walker had developed his stage act, doing the splits while playing the guitar behind his head or playing it between his legs. It was a act that was later copied by Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry. But Walker was not all flash; there was a huge amount of substance to the way he played. His intricate jazz chords coupled with his superb tone and sense of dynamics made Walker an inspiration for just a but every guitarist that followed. He had a sense of ‘oneness’ with the guitar that no one has ever been able to match.

He had his first R&B hit in 1947 when ‘Bobby Sox Blues’ got to No.3 in the chart. The next year it was followed by ‘Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just as Bad)’, better known as ‘Stormy Monday Blues’, which made No.5 on the charts. Over the next two years Walker had 7 more R&B hits including ‘T-Bone Shuffle’. By 1950 Walker joined the Imperial label where he went on to record 52 sides, these are a remarkably consistent body of work - the very embodiment of post war sophisticated blues. A switch to Atlantic in 1955 was to produce the last of his great recordings, most notably the 1959 album, ‘T-Bone Blues’. During his time with Atlantic he recorded with Junior Wells and modern jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. Towards the end of the 50’s his alcohol problems and a reoccurring ulcer began to take their toll. He had begun to tour, using pick-up bands rather than a regular group; 35 years or more into his career his guitar playing though was still top notch.

In 1962 Walker appeared in Europe for the first time as part of the American Folk Blues Festivals, he returned a number of times during the decade. His performances became less frequent in the USA as the 60’s progressed, and he recorded sporadically. In 1970 he won a Grammy with the album ‘Good Feelin’, but his stomach ulcer was getting no better and he could not give up the drink. In 1972 he was back in Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1974 he suffered a stoke and by spring the following year the man who was called ‘The Bluesman with a jazz soul’ was dead from bronchial pneumonia.

2 comments:

David Ross said...

Great post Richard, I like the
T-Bone cameo on volume 1 of the American Folk Blues Festival (1962-1966). The setting for the production is surreal but the music is superb and we are lucky to have the recording captured for posterity. I note your contribution re Fairfield Halls, England 1964.

Do keep us informed.

r morris said...

Great review of a guy I knew nothing about--until now.
Thanks!