If you put together a list of the greatest Blues musicians and didn’t include T-Bone Walker, can I ask you why? He is a pioneer who started the modern urban Blues train that consisted of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and, more recently Marcus King and Barns Courtney, and I’m going to share with you his story.
He was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker. Even at birth, music was already in his blood. His stepfather was bassist Marco Washington, part of Coley Jones’ Dallas String Band, and his Mom, Movelia Jimerson, was a guitarist in many local music circles. Their residence was a hub for local Blues musicians and those who were in town touring. Music was the norm for a young Aaron Thibeaux Walker, and it was only a matter of time before he would step into the spotlight and become T-Bone Walker.
After a short stint as a dancer for a local Dallas band in his early teen years, Aaron excelled at playing the guitar. By the time he was 16, he dropped out of high school to focus on music. One of his first jobs was being a lead boy for Blind Lemon Jefferson, a local Dallas Blues and Gospel musician. Aaron assisted Blind Lemon Jefferson while he was playing gigs around the city. Aaron was doing well enough financially to pursue music professionally and he would work several dances, carnivals and festivals. This would ultimately lead to being discovered by Columbia Records toward the end of the 1920s. Shortly thereafter, under his first moniker Oak Cliff T-Bone, he recorded his debut track Trinity River Blues/Wichita Falls Blues.
In the early 1930s, Aaron met his wife Vida Lee in Dallas and they relocated to Los Angeles. The west coast is where T-Bone would start to make an impact and make a name for himself, joining Big Jim Wynn’s band playing in clubs and theaters. It was during this time of his career where he would start to hone his unique craft, one of them being a staple – playing the guitar behind his head while doing the splits. Barely any sort of showmanship like that had been seen up to that point, and that alone would later influence the great Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. He was the inspiration for future guitar-playing vocalists with his unique formula of conversational singing, Jazz-influenced chording, and fluid single-string soloing.
His charisma and style were a signature.
Blues historian Giles Oakley would write in his book Stormy Monday – The T-Bone Walker Story, “T-Bone had a wild stage act. He would do the splits, swing the guitar around his back, hold the guitar by the neck away from his body and still manage to squeeze out notes with just one hand. He would kneel down, standing the guitar on the ground, still playing one-handed on the neck while waving the other to the crowd. He would gyrate his hips and build momentum with long-held and sustained notes on his electric guitar and then catch up with the rhythm of his band with a flurry of chords.”
T-Bone Walker would officially hit the charts in the 1940s, shortly after joining Capitol Records. His biggest hit, at the time, would come in 1947 with Single Sox Baby charting at No. 3. However, the most eminent piece from his catalog, Call It Stormy Monday, would arrive the next year. The song stood out with its Blues and Rock formula, distinctive for that time, and would eventually become a model for many to come, including music from the likes of Chris Farlow, Bobby Bland, and even the Allman Brothers. After a move to Imperial Records in the early 1950s, he recorded his most well-known album to date – T-Bone Blues. The album would be the last great masterpiece of his career, performing extremely well commercially and being praised by critics due to its inimitable sound that was ahead of its time.
In 1971, Walker received his first and only Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for the song Good Feelin’.
Walker was a drinker throughout his career, and in conjunction with travel stress, gambling, among other things, contributed to the downfall of his health. On New Year’s Eve 1974, he suffered a stroke. A few months later on March 16, 1975, he passed away from bronchial pneumonia following another stroke, bringing an unfortunate end to one of the greatest music careers. He was 64.
Chuck Berry and BB King cited Walker as one of their main influences. King would go on to say that it was T-Bone Walker who ‘‘really started me to want to play the blues. I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today from that first record I heard, ‘Stormy Monday.’ He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record. He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an I electric guitar.” Jimi Hendrix would go on to emulate his trick of playing the guitar with his teeth. Steve Miller also cited Walker as an influence on his guitar playing.
T-Bone Walker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, further cementing his lasting effect on the music industry, which is well documented, and the success of Blues music today can be attributed in part to Walker’s success. He was a one-of-a-kind talent, gone too soon.