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Biography Captures T-Bone's Life, Riffs

November 10, 1987|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

VISTA — They call It Stormy Monday

But Tuesday's just as bad

Wednesday's worse

and Thursday's also sad.

--From "Call It Stormy Monday," by Aaron (T-Bone) Walker.

T-Bone Walker lived the blues. He gambled, he drank, he womanized, and then he sang about it, in a smoky, bourbony voice backed up by a sweet guitar that many have said helped bridge the worlds of blues and jazz.

"The father of electric blues guitar," as B.B. King called him, influenced the likes of Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Jay McShann and Illinois Jacquet. But Walker's influence permeates even rock, swaying Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix.

"Call It Stormy Monday," Walker's most famous recording, was brought back to life by the Allman Brothers before Walker died of a stroke in Los Angeles in 1975. The late Duane Allman credited Walker with being an "otherworldly" inspiration. Similar praise came recently from blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who said, "I owe everything to T-Bone Walker."

Helen Oakley Dance, 74, who lives on a winding road in Vista, in a house chock full of blues and jazz recordings, may know the life of T-Bone Walker better than anyone. Dance, who grew up in Toronto and later migrated to Chicago, was part of the Windy City jazz scene almost from the moment she arrived there 40-odd years ago. In the years after World War II, Dance played a major role in getting Walker and other black artists being assimilated into the jazz subculture, alongside such greats as Benny Goodman.

For most of two decades, she gathered material for a Walker biography, released this month by Louisiana State University Press, with a foreword by B.B. King. The book has been lavishly reviewed by a host of magazines and newspapers, including The Times and the Washington Post.

Dance--whose husband, Stanley Dance, is a lifelong jazz critic, record producer and biographer of Duke Ellington--helped found Down Beat magazine. As a producer, she also played a prominent role in the careers of Goodman and Fletcher Henderson. She has written for Saturday Review and Jazz Times and has another book coming out called "Fast Friends: A Jazz Perspective." The parents of four children, all grown, the Dances have listed in Vista for several years.

A small woman with bright red hair and a deep throaty laugh, Dance writes while sitting in bed. She works on a portable table that slides over the surface of the bed itself. One of her three dogs--usually a white poodle--lies on top of the table, right next to the manuscript. A crucifix, mounted on the wall, peers over her shoulder. Downstairs in the study, where the walls are lined with thousands of recordings, a sign sums up the Dance philosophy:

"Sometimes B sharp, never B flat, always B natural."

"T-Bone (derived from his middle name, Thibeaux, and not from a love of red meat) was a great blues artist," Dance said on a recent rainy afternoon. "He was a jazz guitarist and a jazz genius. He always said, 'I want not to invade the blues world but to enter it in a big way.' "

That he did. Walker, who was born and grew up in bluesy, funky South Dallas, was in Dance's mind a joy to write about. Being a character always came easy to the man many loved to love, despite obvious and painful faults.

The Washington Post Book World said of Dance's effort:

"Dance has ordered and balanced her material to great effect, with the result that her hard-living, generous, immensely talented subject all but jumps out of the page, grabs his beat-up guitar case and charms you into giving him a lift to the airport."

"He was a fascinating man," Dance said. "He was a marvelous blues singer and a marvelous personality. He was like Louis Armstrong in that way."

In the way that "Satchmo" Armstrong coined a jazz alphabet, Walker, Dance said, coined a guitar alphabet, a claim backed up by Vaughan and others.

"You can hear Stevie Ray do it," Dance said, "but T-Bone was doing it 40 years ago. The letters of this alphabet are composed of the most catchy and imaginative riffs you can think of. They're T-Bone riffs. He invented them."

Dance said that Walker was more than a musician. He was "an inveterate gambler, a drinker, a womanizer, the kind of blues man women just fell all over," and a compulsive charmer. Even those closest to him found it easy to forgive him, she said, sometimes again and again and again.

"He loved his wife," Dance said, even though he often strayed. "They stayed married (until his death). He just always said to her, 'Honey, you don't have to believe all thems things you hear.' "

Some critics have not been as kind toward the excesses of Walker's life style. Dance takes issue with charges that Walker cheated himself of a richer life and nobler career by never getting a grip on compulsive drinking and gambling and the plain wild life he led lustily, with no apparent fear.

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