Aaron Thibaux "T-Bone" Walker (Back here)
Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong, 1962.

This was recorded in 1962 for the Horst Lippman's TV show called "Jazz gehört & gesehen"

(Jazz heard & seen) on the SWF. ( German TV station located in Baden-Baden).

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!

Virtually every tune on the Capitol set offers brilliant examples of T-Bone's guitar soloing -- by turns driving the band hard on the fast, swinging "jump" numbers, caressing the lines emotionally on slow tunes, telling his story with lively authority at medium tempos. 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"!

And of course, there are those subtle, swinging, single-note melody lines, with their instantly recognizable use of the 9 and sharp-9 as alternating high points in snaky, spiralling descending figures -- always unmistakably T-Bone, but somehow always fresh, expressive, and fun to hear. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about T-Bone's soloing is the way he holds your interest while working within a limited number of licks and techniques. There are many now-well known blues guitar moves that are not part of his repertory; his melody lines are shaped almost entirely within one left-hand position (the movable E or F configuration with the root note voiced on the first string, moved to whatever key he is playing the song in), and he makes no use at all of sustained whole-step bends or sustained-and-vibratoed notes, to name just two examples of blues techniques that would become standard by the late '50s. Yet despite the restricted technical vocabulary, T-Bone's solos always fascinate and delight the ear. You know he's playing the same moves in many of the solos, but he always phrases them in a way that's fresh and fascinating, expressive, and beautifully swinging. Again and again, you find yourself moved and captivated by the flow of his lines.

Part of what makes this possible is his superb use of dynamics: he's a real master of the art of shifting through fine degrees of louds and softs within the development of a given chorus, sounding very much like a jazz horn player breathing a little harder or softer to subtly shift the mood. I can't think of another blues guitarist who comes close to equalling him in this respect. Another factor is of course his marvelous, seemingly effortless, sense of swing and syncopation, the way he always plays with and around the beat. And another, harder to pin down but just as real, is the feeling in the lines; up or down, celebrative or contemplative, you always believe the story he's telling with his instrument.

These same qualities of rhythmic swing and expressive nuance are also the hallmarks of T-Bone's warm, satisfying singing style. For one of many brilliant examples, listen to the way he sings the title phrase, "This is a mean old world," in lines 1 and 2 of that great song: he sings the same note on almost every word of the line, but swings or syncopates it a little differently against the beat each time he hits it. It's classic, essential swing, classic African-rooted rhythmic sophistication. It's exactly what he does in his guitar phrasing -- and it sounds like a real person just talking to you about his hard-won experience of the world. This is the greatness of T-Bone's singing. He hasn't got the huge vocal tone and overwhelming dramatic impact of gospel-based shouters like B.B. or Freddie King, but his fabulous time, and the subtle, understated emotional authenticity of his delivery, make him an utterly believable and moving vocalist. His husky, gentle, voice, with its wonderful smoky, jazzy, after-hours tone, can convey effortless sly humor on wry, upbeat numbers like "I Know Your Wig Is Gone," and deep, world-weary resignation on the slow, lowdown blues tunes. "So tired I could cry, I could lay right down and die," he sings in "I'm In An Awful Mood," and we feel the weight of every word. (And then in the last verse, summoning an ounce of hope, he offers a poor man's modest prayer: "Give me food, give me strength, so I can make just one more day." Brothers and sisters, this is the blues.)

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."

Great as T-Bone always sounds, the album wouldn't be nearly the masterpiece it is without the brilliant support he gets from his superb crew (or crews) of backing musicians. The light, swinging, and utterly solid feel of pianist Willard McDaniels and drummer Oscar Lee Bradley (both present on almost all of these sides) is a complete delight: they not only lay down a definitive groove to support every song, but answer T-Bone's guitar syncopations with adventurous fills and off-beat accents, matching him so perfectly they seem almost psychically locked in with him. There are also marvelous solos from Teddy Buckner on trumpet, and from tenor sax aces Bumps Myers and Jack McVea. And dig the way T-Bone works with them, integrating his guitar into the horn section for ensemble riffs, becoming the section himself to lay down the hot riff behind Myers' solo on "That's Better for Me," weaving his lines through McDaniels' piano part on "Hard Pain Blues." These are wonderful, mostly under-recognized musicians, and it's a joy to hear them working together so beautifully.

Another great aspect of the Capitol set is the inclusion, on about a third of the tunes, of one, and in a few cases two, alternate takes. On some reissue sets the presence of alternates may seem irritating or redundant, but in this case the very opposite is true: T-Bone and his cats generally play very different solos on the unissued takes, and in many cases the alternates (which I suspect are usually the first takes) are actually substantially hotter than the released versions, with the band playing a little wilder and more freewheeling even if there's a slight glitch in the ending or the lyric line. "Midnight Blues," "Triflin' Woman," "Long Skirt Baby Blues" are all examples of notably hotter alternates; and notice how different T-Bone's wonderful solo is on the out-take of "Go Back to the One You Love." It's also fascinating to hear the group try different versions of the arrangement on the three takes of "Lonesome Woman Blues"; again, the alternates are very exciting even though the issued take is cleaner.

Switching labels in 1950, T-Bone went on to record about the same number of sides for Imperial in the early '50s. This material has now been collected together on the 2-CD reissue set, T-Bone Walker: the Complete Imperial Recordings 1950-54 (EMI CDP 7-96737-2), and it is practically as wonderful as the Capitol package -- filled with lots more great songs, arrangements, and solos, and very highly recommended if one wants a companion volume to follow up on the Capitol set. There's also a very interesting and satisfying single CD, T-Bone Blues (Atlantic 8020-2), made up of material cut for Atlantic in the mid- to late '50s, and including an unusual three-guitar session on which T-Bone trades guitar leads both with jazz stalwart Barney Kessel and with his nephew R.S. Rankin, whose style is uncannily close to his own. But the Capitol/Black & White material still stands as his greatest and most essential work.

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.

OK, my friend, here is one more:

Aaron Thibaux "T-Bone" Walker (Back here)
Woman, You Must Be Crazy & Goin' To Chicago Blues, 1966.

Jazz At The Philharmonic, recorded live 1966.
w/ Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson, Louis Bellson, Coleman Hawkins,
Zoot Sims, Jimmy Moody and Bob Cranshaw.

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Copyright by
Dan Klarskov 1998-2001.
Page updated
15. februar 2001