T-Bone Walker: Blues Guitar Godfather

On July 20, 1942, in a Hollywood recording session for Freddie Slack’s big band, Aaron Thibeault “T-Bone” Walker, who was present mainly as rhythm guitarist on the date, got a chance to take the spotlight for two blues numbers, and in a few brief minutes redefined the sound of the blues for all time. The two tunes he cut that day — the brilliant “Got A Break Baby” and the classic “Mean Old World” — showcased T-Bone’s new, and already fully developed, style, in which he answered his smoky, soulful vocal phrases with deft, stinging, jazz-inflected lead lines on his electric guitar.

These were the first important blues recordings on the electric guitar, and as T-Bone followed them up, later in the ’40s, with dozens of other now-classic sides, he became a huge influence on countless bluesmen after him — and through them, of course, on the development of rock & roll. It was T-Bone who created the role of the blues singer who is also his own electric lead guitarist, and who also defined much of the power of his instrument, with classic licks and techniques that today, fifty years later, are still essential elements of lead guitar vocabulary. His ground-breaking music was a principal model and inspiration for the work of such later blues masters as B.B. King, Albert King, Gatemouth Brown, Guitar Slim, Freddie King, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and also for today’s most popular blues performers from Eric Clapton to Robert Cray. It is impossible, once you know T-Bone’s music, to listen to any of these artists without hearing how much their styles owe to his. He was also an enormous influence on Chuck Berry, and on Elvis’ lead guitarist Scotty Moore — and thus on the shape and nature of rock & roll itself. And as we will see, his guitar style also helped shape the musical vocabulary of funk in the mid-’60s. His ’40s recordings literally changed the world of American popular music.

This is T-Bone at the absolute height of his powers, making his breakthrough and defining the sound of modern blues. He would continue to do superb work through the mid-’50s on other labels (more on these later), but these ’40s sides are, if you had to choose, his liveliest, freshest sounding, most exciting work. This set is a cornerstone of blues recording, endlessly fun and fascinating, absolutely essential for anyone who cares about the blues.

Among the guitar techniques he pioneers here is his trademark use of 9th-chord (and 9th-add-6th) voicings, and his style of “walking” those 9ths into the chord change through half-steps above or below; this would lead directly to Jimmy Nolen’s use of the same techniques to define funk rhythm guitar in James Brown’s band 20 years later (and in fact, early, pre-James, Nolen recordings show him as a blues player doing letter-perfect renditions of T-Bone’s style). These sides also display T-Bone as the source of a number of guitar moves that would become later become signature licks of Chuck Berry’s playing: his uses of bent-note double-stops; the classic trick of sliding or bending to the 5th of the scale on the G string, and then immediately playing the same note unslurred on the B; and the way he cycles repeats of the same figure against different parts of the beat to build rhythmic tension and excitement. (Check out the first chorus of his great solo on the driving uptempo “That’s Better for Me” — it could almost be Chuck playing.) There are occasional, perfectly executed uses of sweet tremolo-picked parallel thirds, and of surprising jazzy dissonances — dig that edgy, almost Monk-ish, raised-tonic lick he hits in “I Know Your Wig Is Gone”!

A few of the songs T-Bone recorded in this period have gone on to become much-covered blues standards — “T-Bone Shuffle,” “Mean Old World,” and of course his all-time classic “Call It Stormy Monday,” heard here in its very first performances. But all of the songs — some of them penned by Walker himself, others by sidemen and musical colleagues, including many fine lyrics by John “Shifty” Henry who also wrote for Louis Jordan — are excellent, filled with memorable, punchy lines and solid, concise songwriting craft. The lighter tunes are packed with down-home, common-speech wit and humor; all of the songs, funny or sad, ring true to life. Some are particularly creative in their lyric structure, with intriguing, subtle narrative development built into unusual songs like the spare, cinematic “You’re My Best Poker Hand” and the ingenious “Long Skirt Baby Blues”. Song after song yields up those pithy blues aphorisms that are a T-Bone trademark: “Have fun while you can, ’cause Fate’s an awful thing,” he cautions us in his hard-partyin’ “T-Bone Shuffle.” And I love the down-to-earth poetry in his words, as he tries to shore up a failing relationship in “Description Blues”: “I’m on the side that’s doing the building,” he reminds his woman, “not on the wrecking crew.”

T-Bone was by all accounts a wild, flamboyant entertainer whose razor-sharp appearance and onstage performance tricks (doing splits on stage, playing behind his head, etc.) prefigured the later styles of blues and R&B; showmen as diverse as Chuck Berry, James Brown, and even Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great loss that his live performances of those early years have not been preserved on film; but with a little imagination we can almost believe we are seeing him strut his stuff in those jumping Central Avenue clubs, when we hear his music brought to life in these wonderful, high-spirited, and deeply soulful recordings. — Johnny Harper 1996

This article originally appeared in 1996 on there1.com and is an excerpted with permission.

Jontavious Willis at the New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival

Greenville, GA blues phenom Jontavious Willis made it back to the home of the blues this weekend with a dazzling command of authentic blues played on a cigar box. Part of the 2nd annual New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Festival, this rendering of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” says it all. More Jontavious coverage to come from Blues Center’s exclusive interview.