Friday, November 5, 2010
By the late 20's, Walker won an amateur show with the prize being a week's work with Cab Calloway's band. Calloway allowed the youngster to have a solo spot in the show, where Walker played banjo and did splits. During this time, he attracted the attention of a Columbia Records talent scout and was able to record two songs on guitar (as Oak Cliff T-Bone), "Wichita Falls Blues" and "Trinity River Blues," neither of which made much of an impact at the time. He played in a 16-piece band in Dallas until 1934, when he moved to Los Angeles, where there were greater opportunities. He turned his Dallas job over to Charlie Christian, with whom he had previously performed in the Dallas streets when both were teenagers.
Whoever was first, it was Walker who made the greatest impact. On his first recording, "T-Bone Blues," with Hite's orchestra backing him, he didn't even play guitar (Frank Pasley played a Hawaiian style lead). When he signed with Capitol Records in 1942, listeners got their first listen at Walker's fluid, elegant, single-string playing on songs like "Mean Old World" and "I Got A Break Baby." Check out "Mean Old World," from way back in 1942.
In 1950, Walker signed with Imperial Records and added even more classic standards to his already impressive body of work. Songs like "Glamour Girl," "The Hustle Is On," "Blue Mood," and these two tracks......the jumping instrumental "Strollin' With Bones," where Walker gets to put his dazzling guitar on full display, and the immortal "Cold, Cold Feeling."
His last truly great recordings were for Atlantic Records. Collected on the album, T-Bone Blues, it finds Walker not only playing with his L.A. bandmates, but there's also a set of tunes recorded with Chicago bluesmen Jimmy Rogers and Junior Wells that work very well. Recorded over three sessions between 1955 and 1957, this album remains one of his most popular. Two of the more impressive tracks are "Two Bones and A Pick," a stunning instrumental featuring Walker (third solo) with R. S. Rankin (first solo, also known as T-Bone Walker Jr., Walker's nephew) and jazz guitarist Barney Kessel (second solo), and "Why Not," a bonus cut not on the original CD, from the Chicago session and later the inspiration for Jimmy Rogers' Chess hit, "Walking By Myself."
Walker's catalog gets a bit spotty after that. Unfortunately for him, and many other blues artists, the rock & roll revolution hit pretty hard and Walker's smooth, sophisticated urban blues fell out of favor. He did get involved with the American Folk Blues Festivals in the 60's that were so popular in Europe, appearing with many other great American blues artists. Below is a magnificent clip of Walker playing a solo version of "Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong," from one of the festivals.
He did record several more albums and actually won a Grammy for one of them (Polydor's Good Feelin'), but for the most part, they paled in quality compared to his material of the 40's and 50's, although I Want A Little Girl, recorded for France's Black and Blue label, and later released in the U.S. by Delmark, is first-rate and even features Walker playing piano on a couple of tracks. There were also a couple of discs on the Bluesway label that kept his name in the record stores during the 60's and early 70's.
By the late 60's, poor health began dogging him. He had battled stomach problems (brought on by heavy drinking) for years and he was forced to keep working at a younger man's pace due to financial problems brought on by gambling problems and some bad business deals. The combination led to a stroke in 1974 and he died in 1975, only 64 years old.
In 1980, Walker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and in 1987, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There is no way to put into words the impact that T-Bone Walker made on not just the blues, but on jazz and rock and roll. He singlehandedly made the guitar a lead instrument and laid the foundation to the way blues lovers play and hear the blues today. Below are some great places to start listening to T-Bone Walker if you're interested.
The Complete Capitol Black & White Recordings - a 3-disc set that captures the very beginnings of Walker's career, beginning with his early 40's recordings with Les Hite's band in tow and going through the late 40's, taking in "Mean Old World" and "Call It Stormy Monday." True, sometimes the alternate cuts make listening a little tedious, but it's still a great listen if you can track it down.
The Imperial Recordings - a 2-disc set that takes in the early 50's recordings. There are some great tracks here, including many with backing from New Orleans R&B pioneer Dave Bartholomew leading the band.
T-Bone Blues - If you can only get one disc of T-Bone Walker, this is not a bad one to choose. Part of the disc features Walker with Chicago's finest and the rest showcases a super L.A. band. There are also some solid remakes of early Walker hits and some sizzlng instrumentals.
I Want A Little Girl - This is the last really good T-Bone Walker album. There are some great after-hours blues here.....nothing spectacular, just a solid set of urban blues, tastefully done.
The Very Best of T-Bone Walker - Part of Rhino's Blues Masters series, this single disc set hits the highpoints of Walker's recording output and is a great starting point for newcomers.