Walker, Texas Ranger

From Dallas came the man who first plugged blues into an amp--and into popular culture

One evening in the mid-'60s, Vaughan met his idol at the Empire Ballroom on Hall Street. "He wasn't even on the bill. It was B.B. King, Freddie King and Little Milton, but T-Bone had showed up to sit in on organ," Vaughan recalls, with a giddiness that seems to never have subsided. "He was dressed to the nines, as always, and I said, 'Man, you're T-Bone Walker! I love your records.'" The legend made the kid's day, talking to him for about ten minutes.

Vaughan would see T-Bone several times over the years, until the great pioneer suffered a stroke on New Year's Eve 1974 and died of bronchial pneumonia three months later. "He could hit a note like this," Vaughan says, striking the bottom string, "and sustain it, and the women would fly out of their seats. He was the first guy who could do that."

Aaron Thibeaux Walker grew up around music. His mother, Movelia, picked the guitar and sang the blues, and his stepfather, Marco Washington, played a variety of stringed instruments. A regular guest at the family's house was country blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson, who enlisted an 8-year-old T-Bone as his "lead boy" to guide him from juke joints to street corners in Deep Ellum.

Jimi's got nothing on the Bone: Aaron Thibeaux Walker struts his blues skills in his '40s prime.
Jimi's got nothing on the Bone: Aaron Thibeaux Walker struts his blues skills in his '40s prime.

"He had a jazz player's instincts, but he was brought up in the blues," Vaughan says.

Though he made more tip money as a dancer while touring the South in medicine shows, his music career began before even turning 20, when he played banjo and guitar with the Cab Calloway orchestra for a week--the gig was first prize in a talent contest--which led to a record deal with Columbia in 1929. But T-Bone, sounding like a pale imitation of blues crooner Leroy Carr, hadn't yet found his identity when he recorded "Trinity River Blues" and "Wichita Falls." The 78 didn't make much noise outside of Dallas.

In the early '30s, Walker had a street act with Charlie Christian, an ex-Dallasite living in Oklahoma City, who would be immortalized as jazz's first great electric guitarist. Let that settle in: The two greatest guitar pioneers of the 20th century were a pair of Texans who played together for tips on street corners in Oklahoma City. But after being prodded by friends to relocate to L.A. for more musical opportunities, Walker left his musical partner, his wife and everything else behind in late '35 and took off on Route 66.

His first gig on the vaunted Central Avenue of black nightclubs was as a dancer and emcee with Big Jim Wynn's band. But even though he wasn't playing guitar onstage, Walker was tinkering with amplification techniques. Hugh Gregory's Roadhouse Blues book, which meticulously explores the roots of Stevie Ray Vaughan, quotes Wynn as saying that Walker "had a funny little box ...a contraption he'd made himself."

It wasn't until July 1942, however, that Walker played electric guitar on a record. Hired as a rhythm player for a session by Freddie Slack, Walker was given two spotlight turns on "Mean Old World" and "I Got a Break Baby." When Walker's crisply pronounced notes interspersed with trumpet-like slurs and whelps, the guitar lost its secondary status.

Before Walker, the blues was a solo acoustic form. With amplification bringing the guitar up front, no longer to be drowned out by horns or drums, T-Bone laid the full-band framework that would rule R&B in the post-war decade and eventually spin off into the rock 'n' roll combo.

1947-'48 would prove to be Walker's landmark period. After signing with the Black & White label, led by "music first" mogul Ralph Bass, Walker and his topflight band recorded more than 50 titles in 18 months, ranging from the raucous "T-Bone Boogie" to the pop ballad "I'm Still in Love With You" to the slow blues classic "Call It Stormy Monday."

Fifteen years later, a 12-year-old white kid, sitting in his bedroom in T-Bone's old neighborhood, was trying to make Walker's riffs part of his own musical lexicon. "I'd try to get into his head when I listened to his records," Jimmie Vaughan says. "I'd wonder, 'How did he get from here,' " he says, strumming a series of repetitive chords, " 'to here,'" a jazz-inflected arpeggio.

The riffs Walker invented have become clichés, pounded into the ground by players who think they're copying Duke Robillard. Walker's innovations are so dyed into the blues/rock fabric that it's hard to believe that this music was once revolutionary.

But Jimmie Vaughan still remembers how he felt when he first heard T-Bone. "I told myself that that's what I wanted to do with my life," Vaughan says. "(Hearing T-Bone) pretty much ruined any chance that I'd end up with a responsible job."

As he turns his Gibson ES150 on its side, so the strings are perpendicular to his body, Vaughan plays another favorite lick by his hero. "Hear that tone?" he says. Indeed, the notes resonate fuller. "That's why he played the guitar like this. Amazing, huh?" He's no longer in his bedroom, but in his manager's office. And he's still trying to get inside T-Bone's musical mind.

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