Thibeaux. Beaux. It’s a French name. I spelt it t-b-o-w. But that was the wrong way to spell it. So then everybody was calling me T-Bone so I let them call me T-Bone. But it’s Thibeaux. Aaron is my first name. Aaron Thibeaux. All my people from Texas, they’re from the line of Louisiana. My grandmother was Cherokee. Yeah, and I was born in the sawmill. My grandfather worked there 40 years. When I was a kid I used to hang around the sawmill and was happy, you know. They got a lot of young people that plays guitars and mandolins and violins for themselves, you know. My stepfather was teaching me. He was a bass player and guitar player. He’s taught me a few things. Rest of it, my own ideas. Then I got into this blues business. Cause I was singing like ballads and stuff like that. Wasn’t playing any guitar. I think it was 1939 that I started playing guitar. Playing the blues.
Today, he may be known primarily for guitar-playing but Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker (May 28, 1910–March 16, 1975), the “Father of Electric Blues Guitar” was more than just a brilliant guitarist – he truly revolutionized modern blues guitar both through his use of amplification and his treatment of the guitar as a lead instrument. Throughout his life, Walker recorded with more than 2 dozen labels. His first single, “Wichita Falls Blues”, was recorded for Columbia in 1929 under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone (Oak Cliff being the name of his community) when he was still a teenager.
T-Bone Walker (as Oak Cliff T-Bone) – Wichita Falls Blues (1929)
From the time he was born, music was in Walker’s blood. Both of Walker’s biological parents were musicians, though not professionals. His mother describes his father as a “guitar picker”. Walker’s stepfather, Marco Washington, was a professional musician and he started Walker’s musical exploration though Walker would describe his stepfather and friends as “just a big bunch of old-timers playing string instruments and so on”. Walker would learn to play guitar, ukulele, banjo, violin, and mandolin. He also learned to play piano but kept that mainly at home “for kicks” and writing lyrics.
Walker was reportedly an excellent dancer, even early on. He would occasionally tap dance as family friend Blind Lemon Jefferson would perform. Even before Jefferson was recording, Walker would lead Jefferson around as he played and collect Jefferson’s tips. Walker’s dancing prowess would contribute to his eventual stage showmanship and Jefferson would play a major influence in Walker’s later sound.
I was really crazy about him. My whole family was crazy about him.
Walker began officially performing at only 13. When school would let out, he would perform for the Big B Tonic Medicine show, singing and playing banjo and ukulele. He also mixed ‘the medicine’ in a big wash tub. For his efforts, Walker made $15/week. He kept $5 and $10 went to his mother. He briefly ran away from the Big B Tonic show to join the Ida Cox show, but his mother chased him down and brought him home. Not limited to medicine shows, Walker also accompanied his step-dad to private parties and root beer stands (there wasn’t much of a juke joint culture as Texas was ‘dry’ during this period), where he would collect tips and take song requests. Unfortunately, these root beer gigs led to a multiple arrests thanks to noise complaints made from a nearby hotel.
A hotel about two blocks away complained and they sent the wagon to take us to jail. We’d start work at seven and by nine every night for two weeks the wagon would come—the whole band would be in jail every night. I said, “I quit, I’m tired of going to jail.”
Walker would perform mostly on the banjo so that crowds could hear him without amplification, though he would play guitar when gigging in homes.
If you couldn’t double [play both guitar and banjo] you couldn’t play with the band.
Walker hooked up with Charlie Christian in 1933 to perform locally around Dallas where he preferred to stay.
You couldn’t get me out of Dallas, because there was nobody but my mother, and so I wouldn’t never leave.
To entertain their audiences, Walker and Christian would each switch between playing guitar and bass, and dancing. As important as Walker became to blues, Christian was arguably even more important to jazz guitar, though he sadly passed away at only 25 years old. Both men were known for holding the guitar out away from their bodies. Walker would at times play the guitar almost horizontal, a style he got from Blind Lemon Jefferson.
James Chirillo on Classic Jazz Guitar Technique (Hold position starts around 3-minute mark)
After recording for Columbia, in 1933 Walker won an amateur program on Cab Calloway’s show in Dallas and stayed on with them a couple of weeks. It was around this time that he also met Bessie Smith and played for Ma Rainey.
Ma Rainey was a heavy set dark lady, mean as hell, but she sang nice blues and she never cussed ME out.
In the mid 1930s, Walker relocated to Los Angeles. He was perhaps the first to play the blues on an electric guitar and to take it on the road. Walker is arguably the first to show that blues guitar could be more than accompaniment or rhythm. His guitar solos were peppered with staccato melodic lines, fast single note runs, harmonic substitutions, and flexible rhythms. He has been called the first true lead guitarist, proving that guitar could be a legitimate solo instrument, and one of the best. But despite his accomplishments, Walker felt that he got his start with the electric guitar too late. The lack of amplification during his earlier years meant singing through a megaphone and focusing on the banjo. He much preferred the newer technology.
I’ll tell you, I came into this world a little too soon. I’d say that I was about 30 years before my time.
I use a mike so I can sing soft, you can sing better. I train myself to sing soft, you can get a better tone.
Walker formed his own band in 1945 and thus began his most productive years. By combining the sounds of Jefferson and his other early blues influences with the sounds of the Territory jazz bands that toured the Southwest in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the jazz chords from Charlie Christian, he bridged the gap between jazz and blues, laying the groundwork for modern, urban blues and becoming an innovator within the Texas Blues, Chicago Blues, Jump Blues, and West Coast Blues styles.
Walker was a born showman and his early days tap-dancing for Jefferson and playing medicine shows would only reinforce this. Walker later became known for his stage acrobatics and tricks including playing the electric guitar with his teeth and playing behind his back while doing the spilts. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, and Chuck Berry were among the blues-rockers that eventually incorporated some of Walker’s wildest stage antics into their own shows. Chuck Berry has said
All the things people see me do on the stage I got from T-Bone Walker.
T-Bone Walker with Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon and the Aces – Montreaux 1972
(Check out Chuck Berry’s sweet dance moves, likely stolen from T-Bone Walker)
As with many of the blues artists, Walker was held back by the growing popularity of rock-n-roll, but he was remained committed to his style.
To be the best, I’d have to stick with my style. I can’t get away from it. That’s the reason why I don’t do rock-n-roll, which they’ve been trying to get me to do it, but I’ll get away from my style. They beginning to get, come back. The old-timey blues is beginning to come back and rhythm and blues is beginning to come back. (1961)
And to those ‘in the know’, there was no one better. But you can’t talk about Walker without talking about “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)”, Walker’s best-known and most-recorded song. Walker himself would go on to record several live and studio versions throughout the rest of his career. The song is included in the Grammy, Rock and Roll, and Blues Foundation halls of fame as well as the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and is one of the most popular blues standards of all time.
Rest assured, as you read these notes, someone somewhere is performing ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ -Billy Vera, singer and writer
There are conflicting accounts about the recording date for “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)”. Walker claims that the song was recorded in 1940 but not released due to the war-time material restrictions and the unavailability of shellac. Others believe it was recorded in the early 1940s but not released due to the 1942–44 musicians’ strike. Blues discographies do not show a recording date prior to 1947, during which time Walker was recording for Black & White Records.
If T-Bone had done nothing more in his career than write and record this one tune, his esteemed place in the history of American music would be guaranteed. – Billy Vera
T-Bone Walker – Stormy Monday – Boston, 1971
(Captures a rare instance of T-Bone Walker playing both guitar and piano)
“Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” is often shortened to “Call It Stormy Monday” or just “Stormy Monday”. Confusingly, it is also sometimes referred to as “Stormy Monday Blues”, the same title as the 1942 song by Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines. Though Walker specifically used the longer name to distinguish his song, other artists, most notably Bobby Blue Bland, recorded under the shortened titles which led to some of Walker’s royalties being incorrectly diverted to Eckstine and Hines. Despite this unfortunate occurrence, the impact of Walker’s “Stormy Monday” cannot be overstated. According to music journalist Charles Shaar Murray, many musicians have been inspired to take up the electric guitar upon hearing Walker’s song including Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lowell Fulson, Albert King, and B.B. King who stated his appreciation for Walker in several interviews
My greatest musical debt is to T-Bone …’Stormy Monday’ was the first tune. ‘They call it Stormy Monday’, sang T-Bone, ‘but Tuesday’s just as bad’. Yes, Lord! The first line, the first thrilling notes, the first sound of his guitar, and the attitude in his voice was riveting. I especially loved ‘Stormy Monday’—and I still sing it today.
When I heard T-Bone Walker play the electric guitar I had to have one.
…I thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar.
Walker suffered a stroke in 1974 and another in 1975 which led to his death. With his passing, the blues world and newer generations of musicians suffered more than just the loss of a genius innovator. Walker was well-known for his generosity, encouragement, and willingness to share his musical knowledge and playing secrets with anyone who asked.
He was a teacher to me and many others like myself. – B.B. King
If you came to him and said, ‘’Bone, I sure like that chord you hit,’ he would say, ‘Come here. Let me show you how to do it.’ That’s what Johnny Guitar Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, Wes Montgomery, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix did. – Bernita, Walker’s daughter
Throughout his life, Walker was religious, and he understood the relationship of blues music to gospel music. To him, blues were just the gospel turned around.
It’s excitement, it’s love, it’s beauty, it’s rhythm, and besides that, there’s a message. Gospel is joyous, even when they’re singing about sin and damnation. The blues are . . . not necessarily profane, but real, real earthy. T-Bone was real earthy. – Helen Oakley Dance
I belong to the Baptist church—Hardshell —I love church songs. I’d walk ten miles to hear Sister Rosetta Tharpe sing church songs, but not two blocks to hear her sing the blues. I’d walk TWENTY miles to hear her sing my favorite number, “When I Reach the End of My Journey.” Two kids made a record of that and every beer tavern and gambling place in the South has it on the juke box. In the South they can’t make enough records of it. Gamblers and hustlers bought them, everybody around with me bought it. I got five copies. It’s my very favorite piece. […] I don’t sing in church because I’m no hypocrite. I don’t think a fellow ought to go out cussing and drinking and gambling all week long and then come and sing in church on Sunday. – T-Bone Walker
For even more, we highly recommend checking out this interview with T-Bone Walker and his mother Movelia Jimerson.
““Call It Stormy Monday But Tuesday Is Just As Bad”—T-Bone Walker (1947)”. 2007. Library Of Congress Biography. https://www.loc.gov/programs/static/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/tbonewalker.pdf.
“100 Greatest Guitarists”. 2015. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-guitarists-20111123/t-bone-walker-20111122.
Martin Chilton. 2016. “T Bone Walker: Blues Giant And Musical Innovator”. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/t-bone-walker-blues-giant-and-musical-innovator/.
McGee, David. 2010. “The Bluegrass Special: May 2010: T-Bone Walker Interview”. Thebluegrassspecial.Com. http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2010/may10/t-bone-walker-interview.php.
Oakley, Giles. 1997. The Devil’s Music. New York: Da Capo Press.
Palmer, Robert. 1986. Deep Blues. Harmondswort: Penguin Books.
“T-Bone Walker | Biography & History | Allmusic”. 2018. Allmusic. Accessed April 23. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/t-bone-walker-mn0000003829/biography.
“T-Bone Walker Interview – The Arhoolie Foundation”. 1961. The Arhoolie Foundation. http://arhoolie.org/t-bone-walker-interview/.
“T-Bone Walker’s Story In His Own Words”. 1947. From Stenographic Notes By Jane Greenhough. https://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=4898.0.