TEXAS GUITAR

texas guitar

Atlantic SD 7226 – Texas Guitar, various artists – “From Dallas to L.A.” [Blues Originals, Vol. 3]

         “’Greater Texas” stretches well into Louisiana in the East and into Oklahoma in the North… so the scope of Texas blues is as broad as Texas itself, and it’s important not to be restricted by the definitions and preconceptions about the music.”[1]

The blues traditions of Texas are probably broader in area than indicated [in the title] above, stretching from the New Orleans fringes through to San Francisco and affecting all blues styles directly or indirectly from the twenties and thirties until today. In addition, the effects of Texas styles on the blues of the recent past in turn have affected much of the pop and rock music occurring at the moment. The early stages of Black musical traditions in Texas stem from the usual work songs, et al that serve as the roots of other areas of blues development. It does seem that certain throwbacks to slavery days were retained for a long time in Texas (i.e. the prison farms, distinct and isolated black “wards” in cities, the need for cheap manual and farm labor), and these, coupled with the state’s relative isolation, tended to maintain older musical traditions and styles. One can see new developments in Texas blues running in parallel with the commercial recording in the twenties until today, and is thereby sporadically documented for us to hear.

These parallels in Texas music were visible on record even by 1927 in the figures of Henry Thomas (“Ragtime Texas”) and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Thomas was probably what today is often referred to as a “songster” with a repertoire on disc running the gamut from Charmin’ Betsy to Red River Blues. His is probably the most archaic type of Texas music on record and it is a raggy, jazzed style of guitar with bass “thrumbs” keeping the time – often he played choruses on a set of reed pan-pipes in addition to the guitar. This songster-type seemingly continued until today, and a fine example now would be Mance Lipscomb, also one with a highly varied repertoire.

Blind Lemon was different in that he was essentially a straight blues performer on record. Jefferson is the start (on record) of the Texas blues artist, a category later split into ongoing and advancing categories of style. Progression and sophistication accrued at all points in time, but the precedent styles always could (and can) be found that allow for expansion from strong, viable roots.

Lemon’s work set the pattern for things to come in Texas and elsewhere as his records sold extremely well, and he traveled about a good deal… even into Georgia. His playing was less [immediately] chordal than that of the Mississippi artists of the day; alternately hammering and choking [treble] notes or an occasional chord and some bass “thrumb”, coupled with rapid-fire single-string passages that served as a second voice to the vocal line, as well as a vocal extension. The rhythm was generally on the beat, but not insistently so and often stop-time gaps or extended held-notes were used for emphasis. As a total entity, his performances showed a kind of relaxed quality, though not an unemotional one, that left space in the lines – an uncluttered approach. The combination of implied on-the-beat rhythm and the [treble] arpeggio technique on the guitar is Lemon’s greatest and most influential contribution to the blues.

In the twenties and thirties other Texans were also being recorded on occasion – those recorded most were [singer] Texas Alexander and [guitarist] Lonnie Johnson. Johnson in particular was important in his extension of the arpeggio technique being “sophisticated” enough to record with [Louis] Armstrong and [Duke] Ellington. After Alexander and Johnson, Texas guitarists were not too frequently recorded and never in any great depth.

On record the guitar traditions are very shadowy until after the Second World War when the migrations to California and the rise of independent record labels exposed some new things as well as some old. The new things were most obviously seen in T-Bone Walker but were also extant in the work of and Lowell Fulson, Gatemouth Brown, and some others. They are proponents of an extended form of Lemon’s arpeggio technique using the amplified guitar, usually with a backing band of rhythm section, plus horns. This was the outgrowth of a cross-fertilization between the country blues and the “territory” bands found in the Southwest during the thirties. A later influence on top of this was the more sophisticated, “flowing” [jazz/dance] bands that sprang from the Kansas City region. All this resulted in a combination of vocal and guitar lines riding in front of a band “cushion” that was very successful commercially, as well as the strongest influence on post-war blues outside of the Detroit/Chicago area.

In addition to these more advanced styling’s, the roots continued to flourish in the hands of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Smokey Hogg, Li’l Son Jackson, Frankie Lee Sims – to name only the most popular. They were essentially country blues performers with more obvious ties to Blind Lemon, even though city-based.

The more advanced Texas styles produced the bulk of the popular blues of the forties, fifties, and into the sixties. Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker standout as the major transitional figures and their musical effect was felt most in California (i.e. Lafayette Thomas, Oscar and Johnny Moore, and others). Additionally, a fairly large group of pianists came to the fore using a similar Texas base – Charles Brown, Floyd Dixon, and Lloyd Glenn… leading to Ivory Joe Hunter. As vocalists they were a bit mannered, using almost a conversational approach that differed greatly from the declamatory styles of the Northern Midwest. Much was made of the Texas characteristic of fading the end of a vocal line, as well as slightly breathless inflections. The influence in toto was staggering – Oscar Moore was Nat “King” Cole’s first guitarist, and Ray Charles started a la Charles Brown with Johnny Moore, to mention two divergent popular artists. In addition to the effects on the pop music world, the standards were set for the blues guitarists of the late fifties and sixties of B.B. King, Guitar Slim, Lowell Fulson, Albert King, and Gatemouth Brown. They in turn led to Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Luther Allison – as well as Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, and the bulk of all guitarists in rock today.

Thus goes the thread of influence of Texas blues, and especially the guitar-styles that developed from it. The sides presented on this album show the two strains, with all the various ramifications – Lawyer Houston showing the “country” side, while T-Bone Walker is the modern transitional figure, leaving Guitar Slim, R.S. Rankin, and Johnny Heartsman to show somewhat later developments.

 

AL KING:

Born Al K. Smith in Monroe, LA on 8 August, 1926, he started singing in his hometown churches. He moved to Los Angeles in his twenties, singing with vocal-groups and supposedly recordings with “The Savoys” in 1953. At that time his major influences were the very popular singer/altoist Louis Jordan, as well as Jimmy Rushing. Living in the Los Angeles area exposed him to locals like Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulson, which resulted in a change of approach and style to blues. His first record in that vein is the one on this album and is a song by one of his later idols, Lowell Fulson… still an active singer/guitarist/composer. This 1964 session for Ron Badger’s Shirley label produced this outstanding cut, aided and abetted by guitarist/arranger Johnny Heartsman. The guitar intro is almost identical to the Fulson original, but the lines are more relaxed and drawn out. Lowell’s influence is very strong in Al’s vocal sound and phrasing, and can be detected a bit in Heartsman’s “break” as well. The lack of a pianist in the band causes Johnny to use a fuller sound, and he is also much more fluent on the bass strings than Fulson. The use of the “joy-stick” behind Al’s last verse presages the present use of the wa-wa pedal and is a Heartsman trademark that he used often, to be stolen by others. This is a classic song, and this version ranks slightly below that of the composer’s.

The record must have sold a little in L.A. – his name was legally changed to Al King in 1964, and he started his own label, Flag, in 1965, often leasing to other labels. Today King lives in East Oakland, working as a car salesman, singing on weekends in the Oakland/San Francisco area, and occasionally recording for local labels.

 

LAWYER HOUSTON:

This artist’s complete works comprises over half of the album and the tapes were purchased from a Dallas studio in June of 1950. Nothing is known about him, save his surname, and what can be gleaned from the records – 1941, enlisted; 1943, to the Pacific Theatre; 1945, re-enlisted. There are also unsubstantiated rumors of his being killed in the Korean conflict, but nothing else is known. The sides here were sent to Atlantic as a result of efforts by their Dallas distributor [produced by Jim Beck], and four sides were issued.

His first song, Dallas Bebop Blues, introduces the country or rural strain of Texas blues to the album – commercially viable alongside the more sophisticated ones. Here can be heard the choked-bass, a relaxed vocal-style, and the arpeggio runs typical of the Texas country blues artist. It is likely that the songs are autobiographical – there are references to areas in cities, streets, and even night-clubs that speak of firsthand experience. In this number he sounds like a soldier planning his upcoming furlough’s entertainment – though intending to stay away from the toughest part of town, leave or no leave! He ends up with a choked ascent on the guitar, seemingly a trademark, as it’s heard on all eight numbers.

Western Rider is one of the better boasting songs – full of double entendre images relating to his ability as a stud. The reverse of the 78 issue (971) is done “straight” – that is, without the echo added to the original [release], probably to cover the sameness in sound heard in all his efforts. It is a typical pleading blues, requesting one last bit of affection before departure.

The next, previously unissued is more autobiography – presumably he was in Los Angeles, or was based nearby while in the service. He voices a goal many had in that city:

   “Well, I’m going out on Central, going to get me a room at the Hotel Dunbar (x2)

     And then I’m going out to Hollywood and become a movie star.”

An unlikely prospect for a black man in 1950.

The second side of the album contains an even heavier dose of autobiography – here he tells indirectly a bit of his experiences in the Army, as well as the expected “women ramblings”. Lawyer Houston Blues [his actual baptismal name!] goes along in the former vein in singing about Texas and California; why he switches then to Norristown and Philadelphia, PA is anybody’s guess! A puzzlement.

The last pair of tunes are again similar to those preceding – the first describing to his girl his trip on “The Sunshine Special” from Dallas to California via El Paso and New Mexico. Lawton, Oklahoma Blues deals with his re-enlistment at Fort Sill, and the not unexpected woman troubles.

Lawyer Houston is a one-session man – he varies his keys and tempi not at all (a surprising lack of the usual Texas boogie), his melody line very little, and yet he is a pleasing and fascinating performer. His approach tends to be a boastful one, and yet his personal touch adds credibility… and he will probably remain, sadly, the vaguely discernable figure seen in these recordings.

RAY AGEE:

         A short man, who walks about with the aid of two canes and is probably in his late forties, Ray Agee has withstood any gathering of information to date by his elusiveness. He has recorded rather prolifically and erratically for a myriad of small [West Coast] labels. At one time he may have been “house vocalist” for the late J.R. Fulbright’s many labels and, until recently, lived at the Fulbright residence. The particular song included here is one of the six or eight recorded for the Shirley label under the aegis of Bob Geddins; it is a remake of a blues that was popularised by the late Jimmy Wilson. First recorded for Fulbright by [guitarist] “Slim” Green (still active in L.A.) as 5th Street Alley, it features good singing, an ominous tenor sax, as well as guitar playing “on the basses” probably by arranger Johnny Heartsman.

It’s a song done by many, in many guises, but this one has a very “dangerous” aura about it. The heavy bass notes and insistent piano triplets; the humming sax backing, as well as the aforementioned lead [guitar] weaving with the vocals – all these make for quite a dejected feeling. Agee sings as if the whole situation was just too much for him and it is one of his better efforts. It’s too bad that he has not yet been traced since leaving the Los Angeles area, but he has recently recorded for a Shreveport label!

 

T-BONE WALKER:

Probably the most important and influential performer on this album is Aaron Walker, born 28 May, 1910 in Linden, Texas and who grew up in the Waxahachie area south of Dallas. This closeness to city allowed him to be exposed to the musicians that gravitated there – some to record. His talents must have been recognized rather early there as he recorded in late 1929 for the original Columbia label under the pseudonym of “Oak Cliff T-Bone”. The two sides recorded (Trinity River Blues and Wichita Falls Blues) had Walker singing and playing guitar with the fairly static piano of Doug Finnell. The first song shows strongly the influence of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who T-Bone accompanied and led while in his teens. The guitar is much like others of that era, but it flows nicely – the vocal is rather strident, especially in comparison to his later, smoother effects.

It was some time before his next recording stint and he spent the intervening years touring with medicine shows, et al, even working with Coley Jones’ Dallas String Band. In 1934 he joined the Haines Circus as part of the group backing “Ma” Rainey. He also worked with Ida Cox, another of the so-called “classic” female blues artists who spent most of their existence in and around the black vaudeville [and tent] circuit. About this time, Walker moved his home-base to the Los Angeles area and has called it home ever since.

In 1935 he began using an electric guitar, and was the first major blues artist to do so. Another first was earlier in 1933 when he was featured with a band in Fort Worth led by Count Biloski (!!), making him the first black ever to play [blues] with a white territory band. Just before the Second World War he was a featured vocalist with the les Hite Orchestra (as was Sister Rosetta Tharpe), building a following as a result of T-Bone Blues recorded with the band. His first “solo” effort came just before the ban on commercial recording by the musicians’ union (AFM), and he had to wait until 1945 for another session. He recorded prolifically for the next ten or so years, first for Black & White, then for Imperial. His next label was Atlantic, from whose material the two included items were culled (see Atlantic LP 8256 for the rest of them).

The first cut was from a session done at Chicago’s United Studios – four being with his usual band, and another two with members of Muddy Waters’ band that produced an interesting mix of Walker’s single string guitar over a base of heavy Chicago funk. The harp and guitars back him as they would Muddy, and the drummer lets down a heavier beat than usual for T-Bone. The mix is best seen in the break – Walker’s fluent work following Jr. Wells on the harp… and it works. A fine track, that is most eclectic in its juxtapositions, and most successful.

The second title was done in his last session for the label and is truly guitar-laden. Here is a very easy-going relaxed treatment of the old Leroy Carr standard that has T-Bone playing with his usual facility, skipping along and around with the beat. Plas Johnson’s fat tenor precedes Barney Kessel, recognized by the more metallic sound and jagged construction in his lines. Plas’ brother [Ray] puts in a fine piano bit (before the fade) that is in the vein of the post-war Texas traditions. Two vastly different items by the most important post-war blues guitarist up to B.B. King, and still a force to be reckoned with today.

 R.S. RANKIN:

         Rankin, also known as Little T-Bone on Miltone, or T-Bone Walker, Jr. on Midnight, is another blank figure to date. He played with Walker about ten years ago and has since left the Los Angeles area and not resurfaced. Claimed by Walker to be his nephew, he is still another shadow.

His sole selection opens side two, and shows a good blues voice, as well as a guitar style that well earns his various noms de disques. His approach is slightly harder and heavier than his mentor’s, but the results make one wish he had been recorded more.

 

GUITAR SLIM:

         This important and underrated artist was born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Mississippi on10 December. 1926. He died in the Veterans’ Hospital while undergoing surgery in New York 7 February, 1959 after a hard existence as a performer and a drinker. Among those who played with him are Huey “Piano” Smith and Ray Charles – the latter arranged and played on his biggest hit The Things I Used to Do. His single item here (the rest of his Atlantic output will be on another album[[2]]) is an easy, slow blues – it almost seems as if his slight speech impediment was duplicated in his “sticky fingered” guitar playing. His guitar shows the single-string influence of Walker, and Gatemouth Brown, while the vocalizing is more typical of the sophisticated blues styles from Texas (i.e. the latter day pianists). In addition, one can hear the fine jazz pianist, Elmo Hope, on this subtle blues number.

 

This collection contains [examples of] much of the Texas traditions, from the older country-bred styles, to the “fancier” city-based ones. Both approaches continued together, and the examples here show well the similarities and differences, as well as make for [some] good listening.

PETE LOWRY (Peter B. Lowry) – 1972

contributor, BLUES UNLIMITED
album research and compilation
“Blues Originals” series concept

Dallas to LA Insert.jpg

[1] Paul Oliver, “Working on the Project” in BLUES UNLIMITED #24, July/August 1965. p. 8-10.

[[2] GUITAR SLIM “The Atco Sessions”; Atlantic LP 81760.]

Lawyer Houston – vo/gtr: Dallas, TX, 1950. Original production by: Jim Beck

Al King – vo: Los Angeles, CA, w. Johnny Heartsman – gtr; rest unknown, 30 March, 1964. Original production by: Ron Badger & Johnny Heartsman

Ray Agee – vo: Los Angeles, CA, w. Johnny Heartsman – gtr; rest unknown. 1963     Original production by: Ray Badger & Johnny Heartsman

T-Bone Walker – vo/gtr: Chicago, IL, w. Jr. Wells – hca; Jimmy Rogers (James A. Lane) – gtr; Willie Dixon – bs(?); Francey Clay – dms(?), 21 April, 1955.                                    Original production by: Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler

R.S. Rankin – vo/gtr: Los Angeles, CA w. Plas Johnson – ts; T-Bone Walker, Barney Kessel – gtr; Ray Johnson – pno; Joe Comfort – bs; Earl Pamer – dms, 27 December, 1959.    Original production by: Nesuhi Ertegun

“Guitar Slim” Jones – vo/gtr: New York, NY w. Johnny Griffin – ts; Joe Morris – tpt; Matthew Gee – tbn; Elmo Hope – pno; Percy Heath – bs; Philly Joe Jones – dms, 22 January, 1958.                                                                                                                                Original production by: Herb Abramson

T-Bone Walker – vo/gtr: Los Angeles, CA w. Plas Johnson – ts; R.S. Rankin, Barney Kessel – gtr; Ray Johnson – pno; Joe Comfort – bs; Earl Palmer – dms, 27 December, 1959.    Original production by: Nesuhi Ertegun

Dallas to LA Back.jpg

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