T-Bone Walker in Europe and Boston

Jun 28, 2018

I found impeccable footage of T-Bone Walker two weeks ago and have been on the search for more ever since. T-Bone's performance of "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" was filmed in 1962 for a West German TV special, "Jazz Heard and Seen." He's accompanied by pianist Memphis Slim, bassist Willie Dixon, and drummer Jump Jackson, who were all part of that year's American Folk Blues Festival tour in Europe. (The YouTube footage is drawn from the four-volume DVD series of AFBF tours that touched down in Europe, Scandanavia, and England between 1962 and '71.) The 1962 package also included Helen Humes, John Lee Hooker, Shakey Jake, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. In describing the tour's dual impact, Don Snowden, co-author of Willie Dixon's autobiography, I Am the Blues, says the blues legends "arrived just in time for a generational shift that brought an entire new audience to the blues...Europe and England quickly became a more hospitable home for blues artists than America."

Helen Oakley Dance's 1987 biography of Walker, Stormy Monday: The T-Bone Walker Story, draws primarily on extensive interviews she conducted with the guitarist before his death in 1975. Of his first tour of Europe, the Linden, Texas, native said, "Going abroad was an education for me. I dig the way those people live. They consider you an artist and treat you that way. That's why a lot of the fellows stay over there...For the first time us guys could hold our heads high. Maybe there's no place like home, but in the U.S., when you feel less than a man, something is really wrong." 

Here's a wonderful clip from the BBC vaults of a highly animated T-Bone singing "Hey Baby," accompanied by a well-rehearsed orchestra boasting an unidentifed organist and saxophone soloist.

The 55-year-old T-Bone in London hearkens back a few decades to a time when he was both the leading innovator of electric blues guitar and a showman renowned for pulling out all the stops, doing splits, playing guitar behind his back, and dazzling audiences with driving instrumentals and devastating slow blues. Recalling his European tours, however, he noted that audiences were impatient with anything but pure music. "We couldn't believe the kind of audiences we had. People there listen. You've got to be a showman back here. Over there, first time I did the splits, fans booed! That was hard to credit, but it was all right with me. They came to hear the music." 

T-Bone Walker

Here's a hard-driving arrangement of "Goin' to Chicago" from a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour that T-Bone performed with in 1966. The band includes Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, James Moody, Zoot Sims, Teddy Wilson, Bob Cranshaw, and Louie Bellson. T-Bone was a longtime favorite, and the go-to bluesman, of JATP impresario Norman Granz, who featured the guitarist on some of the jazz-oriented jam sessions he presented in Los Angeles in the '40s. This performance was broadcast by the BBC from Royal Festival Hall in London on November 26, 1966.

Walker's roots in blues and swing ran deep and wide. As a youth in Dallas, he functioned as a lead boy for the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was a family friend of his parents and of his step-father Marco Washington, who played guitar with the Dallas String Band. In 1929, the 19-year-old Aaron Thibeaux Walker recorded as "Oak Cliff T-Bone" for Columbia Records in a duet (a la the popular Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell) with pianist Douglas Fernell. Note that from the outset, T-Bone displayed the precise enunciation that added to his appeal and influence as an urbane bluesman.  

T-Bone moved to Los Angeles in 1935. He quickly established himself on the city's thriving Central Avenue scene and earned a spot with bandleader Les Hite, whose orchestra famously backed Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller during their residencies at the prestigious Sebastian's New Cotton Club. As the most prominent black bandleader in Southern California in the '30s and early '40s, Hite's band drew to its ranks Lionel Hampton, Lawrence Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie. T-Bone was featured as a vocalist with Hite at a time when Frank Paisley held the guitar chair in the band. On this classic side with T-Bone, it's Paisley who plays the tasty steel guitar. 

T-Bone's combo was occasionally billed with the Nat King Cole Trio at L.A. supper clubs, and he sometimes spelled the trio's guitarist Oscar Moore, who was a notorious no-show for gigs. As a bluesman inspired by Charlie Christian's pioneering single string style, T-Bone had a fondness for jazz and throughout his career shared the bandstand with many jazz greats. "I was in on some of [Norman Granz's] earliest jam sessions and in 1943 was featured in JATP alongside Billie Holiday, Nat Cole, Woody Herman and a lot of other names." When he joined the JATP tour in 1966, he said, "There was a little outcry in London because people were saying they didn't want R&B. But Norman paid it no mind." On this clip from the BBC telecast, Clark Terrry deploys the mouthpiece of his trumpet to effect a harmonica-like wah-wah sound." That's Norman Granz introducing T-Bone with a defense of the blues as the root of "all jazz." 

My search also yielded this rare, wobbly footage of T-Bone in 1971 at the outset of a period in which he worked with a backup group led by the guitarist and singer Paul Pena. Then a local legend, Pena was a Cape Verdean who grew up in Hyannis and lived in Worcester for several years in the '60s and early '70s. I wrote about him a few years ago in this blog about Bonnie Raitt; Pena appeared on her first album, recorded a classic of his own in 1972, and composed the Steve Miller mega-hit, "Jet Airliner." One wonders if Miller met Pena through T-Bone? Miller's father was a doctor who treated Walker, and beginning at age 11, young Steve became the beneficiary of guitar lessons, and a career path, from T-Bone.

Forty years after this performance of Walker's classic "(Call It) Stormy Monday" was filmed at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, Pena was the subject of the documentary Genghis Blues, about his odyssey into the culture of Tuvan throat singing. Here he's seated behind T-Bone playing tasty fills and sporting a billowy Afro. Mid-way through the performance, Pena assumes the lead while T-Bone goes to the piano. "Pena was that good," says a friend of T-Bone's in Stormy Monday, where Dance writes, "The only member of the group who struck T-Bone as outstanding was the blind guitarist, Paul Pena...[who] was the kind of challenge needed to inspire T-Bone." Walker himself said, "If I don't have a guy like that alongside, I might as well give up. When Pena [moved] to the West Coast [to pursue his own solo career], I was lost." 

I saw a lot of great music at the Workshop between 1971 and its closing in 1975-- jazz greats Charles Mingus, Yusef Lateef, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Gary Burton, and Circle (Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul), as well as Muddy Waters-- and was always impressed by the intimate space and feeling of connection it engendered between performer and patron. But for all of the amazing sights and sounds that took place at Fred Taylor's low ceilinged, one-flight-down complex housing the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall (where I saw higher-priced acts like Cannonball Adderley, B.B. King, and Sonny Rollins),  I think this is the only footage I've ever seen from either venue. 

I saw T-Bone the following year at Joe's Place in Cambridge, where he was still working with Pena.  At the time, I knew of him mostly as a legendary pioneer of amplified guitar and an apparent influence on B.B. King, but I was unfamiliar with the brilliant material he'd recorded in the '40s and '50s, and not sure if it was then readily available. What little I'd heard of him on record came from an American Folk Blues Fest sampler on Decca that I happened upon in the backroom of a barber shop; the album, like his fairly lackluster set at Joe's, was little match for the gripping, tightly arranged blues of the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddy),  the Butterfield Blues Band, and Muddy Waters that was drawing me as a teenager to the blues. Of course, I'd love to be able to see the same T-Bone show today, certain that I'd appreciate it from a more mature and patient perspective. But the closest I'll come to that is the Jazz Workshop footage, and other gems that may continue to surface, as well as his recorded legacy, the colossal trove of blues he recorded for Black & White and Imperial, and his Atlantic Records album, T-Bone Blues.

T-Bone Blues was compiled from 1955 and '56 sessions made in Chicago and Los Angeles. The former featured Chicago bluesmen Junior Wells and Jimmy Rogers, and included "Why Not," a little-known tune that proved to be the prototype for "Walking By Myself," the blues classic recorded the following year by Rogers. 

As I thumbed through a variety of testimonials to T-Bone this week, I came upon this exchange between guitarist Mike Bloomfield and his Chicago cohort Roy Ruby. 

Ruby: "And we got a record by T-Bone Walker called T-Bone Blues, on Atlantic."

Bloomfield: "Best album he ever made in his life." 

Ruby: "That's when we heard 'Stormy Monday'."

Bloomfield: "And 'Mean Old World' and this incredibly good song with a harp [played by Junior Wells] called 'Play On, Little Girl'."

Bloomfield was an early hero of blues-rock who famously showered other players with praise, none more so than his hero B.B. King. But few have exceeded B.B. in the continual acknowledgment he paid to T-Bone. In his autobiography, Blues All Around Me, he said, "When I heard Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, I flat out lost my mind. Thought Jesus himself had returned to earth playing electric guitar. T-Bone's blues filled my insides with joy and good feeling. I became his disciple...and remain so today. My greatest debt is to T-Bone. He showed me the way. His sound cut me like a sword...Musically, he was everything I wanted to be, a modern bluesman whose blues were as blue as the bluest country blues with attitude as slick as those big cities I yearned to see." After singling out T-Bone for the quality of his singing, his songwriting, his stage presence and clothes, he concludes his narrative with a humbling self-assessment of his singular stature among bluesmen: "As my markets kept expanding...I might have gotten cocky or prideful. I didn't, and for good reason. I knew I was there, carrying the blues message around the globe, only as a result of timing and happenstance...T-Bone Walker should have been the world-wide symbol of the blues. T-Bone was the sure enough guru; I was just his disciple. But T-Bone was born too soon."  No wonder then that the King took such pleasure-- and played so hard-- on September 16, 1967, his 42nd birthday, when he welcomed T-Bone as his special guest for this performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival.