October 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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The very best of T-BONE WALKER
  RHINO Blues Mastres   [73 mins]

Aaron Thibaud (hence 'T-Bone') Walker is generally acknowledged to be one of the founding fathers of electric blues guitar, a musician whose expressive, single note solos laid the foundations for players as disparate as Muddy Waters & Eric Clapton. Born in 1910, &still recording up to his death in 1975, his roots were in the rural blues of the Deep South, where - so legend has it - he worked as 'lead boy' on the streets of Dallas to the Texas blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson.

The sixteen tracks on this CD, most of which were recorded in Los Angeles, where he made his home, cover the decade from the mid-forties to the mid- fifties - a period during which his instrument (first introduced by the Gibson Guitar Company in 1936) was in a state of rapid evolution, both technically, in terms of the degree to which it could be amplified & of the timbre it was capable of producing, & aethetically, in terms of the ways in which what hitherto had been a solo or a rhythm instrument was beginning to be capable of holding its own in a larger wind-dominated ensemble.

In this respect Walker's situation is rather like that of Charlie Christian, a fellow Texan, six years his junior, who was a close friend & musical associate, & who, in the company of Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, did much to establish the guitar as a front-line be-bop instrument with long, flowing lines &, by the standards of the day, 'free' improvisation. Christian' s premature death in 1942 meant that he was never able to be recorded in a context which enabled him to compete on equal terms with the two horns. Sadly, their legendary duets, in which the two men - heading in quite divergent directions - seem together to have done much to extend the possibilities of their instrument, were never, it seems, captured on disc.

The earliest tracks on this compilation, released on the Rhumboogie label, were recorded in Chicago in 1945. The Rhumboogie, a club co-owned by the World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, employed T-Bone as a big-band singer, somewhat in the style of Cab Calloway, with whom he had briefly worked as a backing guitarist. The band on these recordings, led by arranger Marl Young, is a largeish swing ensemble, a slightly lacklustre sub-Ellington band, featuring Walker more as a singer than a guitarist, his instrumental role being limited to the introductions to the tracks & short solo breaks in the generally highly orchestrated ensemble.

The second half of the decade finds T-Bone in Hollywood, far better recorded &in altogether more congenial company. These tracks, released on the Black & White label, are really the highlights of the album: 'Hypin' Woman Blues', T- Bone's most memorable composition 'Stormy Monday', 'West Side Baby', ' Strollin' Bones', & the wry 'Bobby Sox Blues', which passes comment on the post-war, media-hooked teenagers who were already beginning to lose interest in his music:

'Bobby-sox baby, I've got to let you go -
You've got a head full of nothing but stage, screen & radio...'

After the three Rhumboogie tracks, which sound by comparison like museum pieces, 'Hypin' Woman Blues', recorded in 1949 & featuring the raunchy boogie- woogie piano of Willard McDaniel, is as fresh & buoyant as can be. Compared with the Chigaco tracks the guitar is well integrated into the ensemble, & it's not merely a question of better amplification & superior recording technique: there is a constant & playful dialogue between guitar & piano, augmented by a healthily robust tenor chorus from 'Bumps' Meyers, a gutsy & all but forgotten musician. This is work of an altogether different order.

The line-up is essentially the same on the other Black & White tracks, where it is augmented by the fine trumpet of Teddy Buckner. Buckner, who two or three years earlier had played with Kid Ory & been part of the West Coast Dixieland revival, has a wonderful growling tone, occasionally reminiscent of Ellington's Bubber Miley & Cootie Williams. Buckner's contribution is particularly strong on 'Stormy Monday', Walker's best-known & most enduring composition, the lyrics of which are enshrined in the canon:

'They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad;
Wednesday's worse, & Thursday's also sad....'

From eye-witness accounts & from his publicity photographs, Walker was evidently a highly exhibitionistic performer, whose stage act included playing the instrument with his teeth - a trick copied in the sixties by Jimi Hendrix - & doing the splits while playing the instrument behind his head. In terms of performance as well as musically he led the way for the sexually charged & extrovert stage acts of people like Chuck Berry.

The fifties saw him recording for the jazz label Atlantic Records, for whom he made his last really notable recordings, represented here by his signature tune 'T-Bone Blues', where the guitar conducts a superb running dialogue with the conversational phrasing of the singer, who is in particularly fine voice:

'Brownskin woman, who may your good man be ?
I'll tell you why I ask, for you sure look good to me....'

The other two Atlantic tracks here are 'Papa Ain't Salty', with its seemingly incestuous lyric - 'Come home little girl/Your Papa ain't salty no more' - & 'Play On, Little Girl', which finds him in the company of harmonica player Junior Wells. The latter is a looser, much freer kind of music, with Wells's Sonny Terry-ish blues harp wailing in muscular counterpoint to the singer & his guitar. This track stands out from the others in that it has a distinctively Chicago rhythm & blues feel to it.

'R & B' was to be the dominant blues idiom of the sixties & beyond, & while T-Bone's long sinuous lines & funky guitar sound were to be immensely influential, on almost all exponents of his instrument, from BB King & Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton & Robert Cray, he himself, partly due to ill-health & an increasing dependence on alcohol, never quite maintained the quality of his recordings from forties & fifties. The tracks on this compilation include - as the title affirms - a few, at least, of his 'very best' recordings.

Colin Still


Colin Still

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