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    T-Bone Walker: Blues Guitar Godfather
    by Johnny Harper

    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.

    They also stand up today as some of the most enjoyable, rewarding blues music ever recorded -- a fact which is made abundantly clear by the wonderful new 3-CD set, T-Bone Walker: the Original Capitol/ Black & White Recordings Leading off (after one 1940 side on which T-Bone sings but does not play guitar) with those two great sides from 1942, this generous set is packed with terrific performances -- 75 in all (each disc runs over 70 minutes), comprising (with the exception of a handful of sides cut for other labels) almost T-Bone's entire '40s output. 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.

    T-Bone, born in 1910, came by his music naturally, growing up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, Texas: his mother Movelia picked guitar and sang the blues, his stepfather Marco Washington was an accomplished player on several stringed instruments, and T-Bone grew up surrounded by music, played by his parents and relatives in regular family jam sessions and house parties. The great Blind Lemon Jefferson was a family friend, and T-Bone spent time as Lemon's "lead boy," guiding him and helping collect money when Lemon would play for change in saloons and in the street. There seems to have been no question that T-Bone was born to be an entertainer, and by his teens he was performing as a dancer and banjo picker, working in the streets and also in traveling medicine shows and revues, including stints with Ida Cox and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Fascinatingly, around 1933 he also briefly had a street act in Oklahoma City with Charlie Christian: the founding geniuses of electric jazz guitar and electric blues guitar, trading off on guitar and string bass, playing, dancing, jiving, and hustling together! T-Bone, like Christian, was soon to make a decisive move to the West Coast, and there he eventually joined Les Hite's traveling big band, in which he worked as featured vocalist in 1940, not even playing guitar on stage.

    The Capitol/Black & White set includes a long, excellent, liner note essay by Mark Humphrey which pulls together the sometimes sketchy details of T-Bone's early life and offers fascinating stories and details of the period immediately before he began recording on his own. T-Bone's wife Vida Lee gives us a compelling glimpse of his artistic evolution when she describes how he took his new electric guitar on the road with Hite, using his time backstage to practice and develop his style. Within a year or two he was setting audiences on fire working under his own name in Los Angeles clubs, and by the time he recorded "Got A Break" and "Mean Old World" his style was fully formed -- he was cutting masterpieces right from the start!

    T-Bone Pt. II



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