Few blues records were made during World War II. Soon afterwards, though, the long, lean sound of Texas blues was crackling over jukeboxes and radios. Enter T-Bone Walker, whose sophisticated electric-guitar stylings would bring Texas blues guitar center stage to swank nightclubs and concert halls. Walker fronted swinging big bands, and his flamboyant stage antics - playing with the guitar held behind his head, dancing around, doing splits - anticipated the moves of Chuck Berry, Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (For the record, though, Walker didn't invent showboating - Charley Patton, for one, was doing it decades earlier.)
Walker was influenced by country, jazz, and Western swing, and, like the great Charlie Christian, he excelled at horn-inspired, single-note solos. Many of his licks have become standard blues vocabulary, echoing through Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, B.B. and Freddie King, Albert Collins, and many others. "To me," says Johnny Winter, "T-Bone Walker is pretty much the father of the electric blues style. He influenced everybody. He played syncopated, he changed the meter around, and he did things that nobody else did. He knew a lot of chords and was a much broader player than many people are aware of. He was the first guy who did it right, and he influenced everybody who came along after him. He really defined electric blues guitar."
Aaron Thibeaux Walker was born in 1910 in Linden, Texas, and moved to Dallas in his youth. By age eight, he was working as Blind Lemon Jefferson's "lead boy," guiding the elder bluesman around town. Walker became adept at guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, and piano, and by 19 he'd made his first 78, for Columbia, under the pseudonym "Oak Cliff T-Bone." During the 1930s, Walker reportedly studied guitar with Charlie Christian, and he later acquired a Gibson ES-250, which he held against his stomach with the guitar's body parallel to the floor. Walker made his recording debut with an electric guitar in '42, soloing on the Freddie Slack Band's "I Got a Break Baby." He was soon recording on his own, scoring a hit with "Mean Old World." A few years later, his jumping "T-Bone Boogie" sported licks that would become associated with Chuck Berry. During the late '40s Walker recorded his biggest hit, "Call It Stormy Monday." He signed with Imperial Records in 1950, but failed to land another big hit. By the mid '50s he was playing an elaborate blond Gibson ES-5, and dozens of players were imitating his style.
With the rise of rock 'n' roll, Walker's brand of big-band blues fell to the wayside. He tried updating his sound, but his heyday as a headliner was over - at least for a while. In 1960, Atlantic released T-Bone Blues, which featured remakes of "Mean Old World," "T-Bone Shuffle," and "Stormy Monday." Largely ignored by blues fans, the LP broke through to the jazz community, and Walker was soon touring with Count Basie. In 1966 he cut an album with Duke Ellington, and the following year wowed fans at the Monterey Jazz Festival. During a '68 tour of France, T-Bone's treasured ES-5 was stolen, and he replaced it with a Gibson Barney Kessel. He tried touring with a rock band in the early 1970s, but found the noise and pace disagreeable. A hard drinker, Walker suffered a stroke and passed away on March 16, 1975.
To this day, Gatemouth Brown, one of Walker's closest disciples, carries his style to audiences around the world. The 75-year-old Louisianan has spent more than sixty years on the road, playing what he calls "American and world music, Texas-style." Brown, who bristles at being referred to as bluesman, explains, "I play a part of the past with the present and just a taste of the future. And blues and jazz was not my first music. My first music is country, Cajun, and bluegrass." Gatemouth mastered guitar, violin, viola, bass, drums, and harmonica, and in his teens began touring with road shows.
In 1947, Brown landed in Houston, where producer Don Robey bought him a Gibson L-5 and sent him to Hollywood to record his first four sides with the Maxwell Davis Orchestra. Gate's roots may have been in the fertile country blues territory of east Texas and southwest Louisiana, but his debut records with Aladdin featured jumping orchestrations. He later switched to a Fender Telecaster, and on subsequent Peacock sides such as 1953's "Boogie Uproar" and 1954's magnificent "Okie Dokie Stomp," his tough, trebly tone seemed to pounce off the records.
Like Walker, Brown took inspiration from horn players. "I play horn lines and horn kicks," he explains. "I play horn phrases with my fingers, and I can let the strings ring, or I can smother them in a snap and cut it just like a horn would do when your breath run out. The circle of breathing - I can do that by using my fingers."
By the late '50s, Gate's record sales were dwindling. After his final Peacock side in '61, he didn't record again until the mid '60s, when he cut country music in Nashville. His old Peacock sides became collector's items in Europe, and by the 1970s Brown was regularly touring abroad. Since then, he's recorded extensively for Black and Blue, Alligator, Rounder, and other labels, covering blues, jazz, zydeco, and the cherished music of his youth. Until well into the rock era, most people would associate Texas blues with horn sections and T-Bone-style solos. "A lot of people ask me what's the difference between Chicago blues and Texas blues," Albert Collins observed. "Well, we didn't have harp players and slide guitar players out of Texas, so most of the blues guitars had a horn section. That was the difference. The bigger the band is, the better they like it in Texas. It's hard to go down through there with just a rhythm section and get good response."