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Nov 23, 1995

T-Bone Walker

Linden, Texas, native Aaron T-Bone Walker knew a beautiful thing when he heard it. The electric guitar, that is, which Walker essentially transformed singlehanded into the flashy, horn-inspired critter that's become the leading instrumental voice of the blues.

Walker picked up guitar at 13, in 1923, playing at parties and family picnics, then leading acoustic virtuoso Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas. By the time he was 16, he'd developed a strong harmonic awareness and a broad scope that allowed him to play everything from fish fries to medicine shows and socials in the Dallas area. His first recordings were made in 1929 under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone, for Columbia, but sold poorly. By 1933, he'd struck up a friendship with fellow Dallas resident Charlie Christian, playing the streets for change. It was during this time he began to develop his flair for showmanship, dancing and pulling splits while he played, tossing the guitar behind his back and over his head while he pulled off dazzling single-notes solos rich in bent strings and stinging, stuttering leaps.

By the '40s, Walker was making hit records - among them "T-Bone Blues," "Mean Old World," and "Call It Stormy Monday" - and traveling with his own big band. It's the Walker of this era who inspired B.B. King, tossing off long, saxophone-like solos full of beautifully slurred and ringing notes with casual virtuosity. From Harlem to Los Angeles, Walker was a much-loved figure, dressed to the nines in sharp pinstripe suits with a fat, hollow-body guitar turned sideways across his stomach. By 1955, the declining popularity of his genre and the decline of his health led him to disband his orchestra. He continued playing - often seated at the piano to avoid the burning pain his ulcers caused when he stood for long periods - until 1974, when late in the year he was hospitalized for the pneumonia that killed him at age 64.

-- Ted Drozdowski

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