‘I Felt T-Bone Walker Leading Me Into The Future’

B.B. King recalls a life-altering moment

I loved how Lonnie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson and many others played guitar. I was—and still am—a student of the instrument. I was fascinated by the sound. I liked most everything I heard. But 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 musical debt is to T-Bone. He showed me the way. His sound cut me like a sword. His sound was different than anything I’d heard before. 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. Later I’d learn that, as a kid, T-Bone had led Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas. I liked knowing that two of my idols were linked so tight.

“Stormy Monday” was the first tune. “They call it Stormy Monday,” sang T-Bone, “but Tuesday’s just as bad. Yes, Lord! The first line, the first thrilling notes, the first sound of his guitar and the attitude in his voice was riveting. I especially loved “Stormy Monday”—and still sing it today—because it’s the true-life story of a workingman. He talks about the weeklong routine, payday (“the eagle flies on Friday”), partying on Saturday, and falling down on your knees and asking the Lord’s mercy on Sunday.

T-Bone had a single-string style that, like Charlie Christian’s, reminded me of a horn. His blues approach was deadly, but you could tell he knew jazz. Jazz was in his blood. He’d cut off the notes and leave spaces between phrases that took my breath away. When he played, you felt his personality: edgy, cool, and a little dangerous. His guitar could cut you like a lethal weapon or stroke you like a sweet-talking love letter. And when he sang, he made you feel the story was strictly between you and him.

Mostly, though, T-Bone’s guitar had a voice of its own. The voice was high-pitched, sweet, sassy, and sexy as a slinky woman. Just as surely as if he were talking to you, T-Bone spoke through the strings and amplifier attached to his guitar. He was electric in more ways than one. Electricity courses through my body when I heard the man play. His sound was branded in my head. And his arrangements—a sax or muted trumpet whispering in his ear, a couple of quiet horns repeating a haunting refrain—were models of simple grace.

B.B. King welcomes T-Bone Walker to join him on stage in California on September 16, 1967, B.B.’s 42nd birthday. Lloyd Glenn is on piano.

T-Bone was from Texas, and I didn’t get to see him when I was a kid. I studied his pictures though, and saw that he held the edge of his guitar against his stomach and played with an outward stroke. I held it flat against my stomach. I tried to change to T-Bone’s style, but it didn’t work. Felt awkward. T-Bone was also a showman, doing splits onstage and playing behind his back, tricks I could never manage. He was a short guy—handsome, sophisticated and self-assured—who wore elegant clothes. I imagined he lived the life he wanted to live.

Like many guitarists coming up in the late thirties and early forties, I tried to copy T-Bone’s sound. I couldn’t. And because I couldn’t, I had to keep working until, by accident or default, I developed a sound that became me. I’m not entirely settled with that “me” sound today. See, T-Bone’s sound was completely individual. Couldn’t be no one but him. It was as much a part of him as his liver. I’ve strived for that feeling. I’ve heard a sound in my head something like a whining Hawaiian or country-and-western pedal steel guitar. I’ve attempted to duplicate that twang or vibrato or cry. I’ve been haunted by it, but I’m not certain I’ve been able to capture it. I’ve also been haunted by the harmonies I first heard in Reverend Archie Fair’s sanctified Church of God in Christ in the hills of Kilmichael.  I’ve tried to integrate all those sounds into my music. But style is a funny thing. If I saw it walking down the street, I wouldn’t know it till I heard it. When I heard T-Bone, though, I knew nothing about guitar blues would ever be the same. I didn’t know this man—I wouldn’t meet him till years later—but I felt T-Bone Walker leading me into the future.

From Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King, B.B. King with David Ritz, Avon Books, 1996. Available at www.amazon.com.

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