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At first Jimmie Vaughan seems a little overwhelmed by the question, as if he's an Olympic swimmer who's just been asked to describe the role of water in his sport.
"How significant was T-Bone Walker to the evolution of the blues?" he repeats the question. "Well," he says after a long pause, raising his index finger. "You look back at everyone who's ever stood in front of a band playing the guitar, and it all traces back to one man. T-Bone Walker was the first person to ever play blues on an electric guitar: How significant is that?"
But Vaughan knows Walker's contributions go deeper than having access to new technology. Leaving it at that is like lauding a brilliant author for being the first to write a book using a word processor.
"T-Bone created a whole new language for the guitar," says Vaughan, whose concise leads and impeccable sense of swing and rhythm show that his guitar speaks T-Bone fluently. He reaches for his 1951 Gibson hollow-body electric on the couch in his manager's office; axe in hands, he seems more comfortable talking about Walker, whose work in the 1940s was as major a musical influence as Texas has produced. Vaughan starts playing riffs you've heard on records by the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Vaughan's former Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the conversation comes alive.
"You've heard this one a hundred times before," he says, playing the driving intro to "The Crawl," a T-Bird mainstay. "That's a T-Bone lick. Here's another," he says, strumming the harmonic chords that open Walker's most enduring composition, "Call It Stormy Monday." Vaughan then hits a note and sustains it with a finger wiggle à la B.B. King, performs a jazz-billy run like the ones Scotty Moore used to play with Elvis Presley, executes the bent-note double stops identified with Chuck Berry, then apes the choppy rhythms of nascent funk guitarist Jimmy Nolen of James Brown's band.
These licks all started with Walker, who was born in Linden and raised in Dallas. The electric guitar has been the defining instrument of the past 50 years, and T-Bone Walker was the first guitar hero.
"You know how everyone was blown away when they first heard Jimi Hendrix?" Vaughan asks. "Well, imagine what it must've been like to hear T-Bone for the first time, when those riffs were brand new." Hendrix had contemporaries who were doing amazing things--Clapton, Jeff Beck, Link Wray, Buddy Guy--but before T-Bone there was no such thing as electric blues. He was the template for so many great guitarists who would follow.
Like Louis Armstrong, perhaps his only rival in terms of American musical innovation, Walker was a born entertainer who delivered flash with feeling. A former vaudeville dancer who shared stages with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, among others, Walker had the nimble feet to match his hands. A razor-sharp dresser and silky smooth vocalist, he epitomized the slick uptown sophisticate. He held his guitar like a baby, perpendicular to his body, and caressed the strings on slower numbers. But his blond, hollow-bodied Gibson would suddenly transform into an acrobatic instrument as T-Bone played it behind his head while doing splits.
Unfortunately, there's almost no film footage of Walker in his post-war prime. But witnesses have described an insatiable showman who bridged Cab Calloway's wild-eyed swing with Chuck Berry's propulsive strolls and Hendrix's histrionics. T-Bone did almost everything Jimi did later--from exploiting feedback to playing with his teeth--but stopped at setting his guitar on fire. (An inveterate gambler, T-Bone didn't want to blow his stake on replacements.)
But T-Bone remains a woefully overlooked figure in the history of popular music. Such Chicago bluesmen as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf are bigger icons. B.B. King has made a healthy living from the bag of tricks he learned from Walker's early recordings. And the Martin Scorsese-produced six-part documentary, The Blues, made only passing mention of the genre's most important guitarist.
"It's impossible to spend an hour in a blues club and not hear a dozen T-Bone inventions," says Vaughan. "And half the players have no idea who they're copying."
Vaughan found out about Walker in the early '60s the same way he found out about all his heroes: by tracing backwards. "I heard 'Hideaway' on the radio and bought a Freddie King record. And on the back of the record it said that he was influenced by T-Bone Walker, so I went out and got a T-Bone record."
A 12-year-old Vaughan flipped for Walker instantly, then was amazed to find out, months later, that the guitar god was from the same Oak Cliff neighborhood that the Vaughans lived in. Walker had moved to L.A. in 1935, at age 25, but he'd visit Dallas often.