Helen Oakley Dance has captured the spirit and the artistic essence of American musical giant T-Bone Walker by bringing him to life in his own words and in the words of those closest to him. This is a biographical device that doesn't always work, but in this case, it succeeds wonderfully well.
Dance's book made the great man rematerialize for me. I could hear him singing again, doing his famous split with the guitar above his head, strutting on the stage in a stylish white suit; or holding court on Central Avenue while a gathering--a younger version of this reviewer included--drank in every word; or ducking into the Dunbar for a drink, then slipping into the alley behind the Club Alabam to join a crap game.
But above all, this book reminds us once again that this man, single-handedly, created the electric blues guitar style that revolutionized black music and remains to this day the most powerful influence on blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll music.
T-Bone's guitar is to blues-related music what Charlie Christian's guitar is to jazz. Every important blues and R&B guitarist acknowledges T-Bone Walker as the founding father of the idiom. Certainly, Mississippi Delta genius Robert Johnson was a key foundation block for what became the Chicago Blues style, but T-Bone's contribution was more pervasive and penetrating on a national scale.
T-Bone's influence is obvious on many Chuck Berry solos. B. B. King has always tipped his hat to T-Bone. He also wrote the foreword to this book.
Dance has been in the thick of the jazz and blues world since the 1930s when she gained her first experience as manager of the Chick Webb band in Harlem. Today she lives semiretired near San Diego with her husband, internationally known jazz writer and record producer, Stanley Dance.
Dance was able to construct this book from the inside of the Walker family. T-Bone's buddies and relatives speak to us from his living room, even from the kitchen and, of course, from ballrooms, theaters, and nightclubs across the land.
We learn that he was a devoted son, a doting father and a loving husband. We gain some understanding of how he managed to function in the face of racism, financial rip-offs and failing health.
Many times over the years, T-Bone and I worked together. And how often I saw him help young musicians--even to the point of giving up his spot on a program. A good example of his selflessness occurred in 1969 as we did a show for public television. It is cited in the book.
The program featured Big Joe Turner, Little Esther Phillips, Charles Brown, Roy Milton, Cleanhead Vinson and Lowell Fulson with T-Bone as the closing act. Each of us had rehearsed our numbers, but as we were filming, T-Bone turned and brought my startled 16-year-old son, Shuggie, out of the band and down to the spotlight. "Come on son," he said to Shuggie, "let's play the Blues." And they did.
Nowadays, there are youngsters with guitars everywhere. I wish they all could read this book and hopefully be moved to listen to some T-Bone Walker records--they would sure be better off for it.