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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.
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.
"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.