Sunday, September 19, 2010
They Call It Stormy Monday (T-Bone's Just As Bad)
So it's the early 1970s.
I’m down on J Street in Sacramento, next to one of the big, block long holes that used to pepper the downtown streets, and somehow find myself in conversation about Chuck Berry with an old man I don’t know. He’s animated. He’s laughing. He knows Chuck Berry.
“Yes sir, he’s a showman! He does all that dancing with the guitar!”
Down in the rubble beneath us you can see the crumbling lower floors of an older Sacramento, before the whole town got jacked up in an effort to keep it from being flooded every other year by the muddy brown Sacramento River.
The Sacramento River is a junior Mississippi—a big brown river with a big flat delta made navigable by rusting dredges that dug out the channel. We don’t have the delta blues, but there used to be river boats. In fact, the last real river boat on the Mississippi was actually a Sacramento River Boat-- the Delta Queen, a big wooden paddle-wheeler that my daddy used to ride from Sacramento to San Francisco. (This poor boy rode the Greyhound.) Its mate, the Delta King, is now a hotel and restaurant docked permanently in Old Sacramento.
And this man is telling me about a river boat, and better yet, about T-Bone Walker, who he saw performing on that boat, doing splits and playing the guitar behind his head.
This has me sputtering. I have only just discovered T-Bone Walker. I found him in the liner notes of a Chuck Berry album—or maybe in some article—and I’ve bought one or two of his latest records— relatively spartan stuff, recorded with small jazz combos instead of the rousing big bands of his classic work. I love it-- and sure enough, I hear some roots of Chuck Berry.
If you know the opening guitar work on Johnny B. Goode, or the solo in the middle of Maybelene, you’ve heard the “slur” where Chuck pulls or pushes a thicker string to until it meets the pitch of the next higher string.
“dwa-de, dwa-de, dwa-de-dwa-de-dwa”
Easier played than typed—but that “slur,” a fundamental component of “Chuck Berry” guitar, is T-Bone Walker.
Chuck Berry would be the first to admit it.
“What I do is just a portion of all that I’ve heard before me,” Berry told interviewer Tom Wheeler for Guitar Player magazine (Vol. 22, No. 3 March 1988) “Carl Hogan, with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, blues players like T-Bone Walker… Charlie Christian, too.”
In addition to the slur, Berry copped a sliding ninth chord from T-Bone. T-Bone probably got it from someone else. (A sickly, impotent version of this blues lick has been high jacked for erectile dysfunction ads where men and women sit in separate bath tubs and wait for inspiration to strike and/or blood thinner to take effect. That, B.B., is how blue you can get.)
And when Chuck Berry is on stage (and when Jimi Hendrix was on stage) there is a little bit of T-Bone Walker. That’s what the old man on J Street was telling me.
“He’s a showman,” the old man says, laughing. “Like T-Bone Walker! He got those moves from T-Bone—playing the guitar behind his head, doing the splits. That’s T-Bone Walker, man! I saw T-Bone Walker on a riverboat 20, 30 years ago. He was a showman, like Chuck Berry!”
It was a miracle to me, and still is, that I would stumble into a conversation with an old man who had seen my new hero, T-Bone Walker, playing the guitar behind his back, and doing splits, on a riverboat, before I was even born!
For me T-Bone Walker was trapped in records, or worse, in words.
(But that was then. Now I have YouTube! Who knew that he held his guitar flat, like a dobro!)