T-Bone Walker also known as Oak Cliff T-Bone, the only son of Rance and Movelia (Jamison, Jimerson) Walker, was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker in Linden, Texas, on May 28, 1910. Looking for a better future for her son, his mother left her husband and moved to Dallas, where Aaron attended Norman Washington Harllee School through the seventh grade. His mother played guitar, and his stepfather, Marco Washington, played bass and several other instruments. Family friendship with Blind Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter familiarized him with the blues from infancy. T-Bone was recruited to lead Jefferson around the Central Avenue area, and he absorbed the legendary musician's style. While still in his teens, Walker met and married Vida Lee; they had three children.
Walker was a gifted dancer who taught himself guitar. Around 1925 he joined Dr. Breeding's Big B Tonic medicine show, then toured the South with blues artist Ida Cox. In 1929 in Dallas he cut his first record, "Wichita Falls Blues," under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone, using the name of his Dallas neighborhood. Around 1930, after winning first prize in an amateur show promoted by Cab Calloway, Walker toured the South with Calloway's band and worked with the Raisin' Cain show and several other bands in Texas, including those of Count Biloski (Balaski) and Milt Larkin. He also appeared with Ma Rainey, a great figure in blues history, in her 1934 Fort Worth performances.
In 1935 Walker moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly made a name for himself singing and playing banjo, and then guitar, for black audiences in two popular nightclubs, Little Harlem and Club Alabam. Crowds of fans were attracted to his acrobatic performances, which combined playing and tap dancing, and in 1935 he became the first blues guitarist to play the electric guitar. The Trocadero Club in Hollywood, where Walker had become sufficiently well known to appear as a star, welcomed integrated audiences after his 1936 performances. From 1940 to 1945 he toured with Les Hite's Cotton Club orchestra as a featured vocalist; he recorded the classic "T-Bone Blues" with Hite in New York City in 1940. Walker used a fluid technique that combined the country blues tradition with more polished contemporary swing, his style influenced by Francis (Scrapper) Blackwell, Leroy Carr, and Lonnie Johnson. He was subsequently billed as "Daddy of the Blues."
He also toured United States Army bases in the early 1940s and, recruited by boxing champion Joe Louis in 1942, went to Chicago, where he headlined a revue at the city's Rhumboogie Club so successfully that he returned year after year. In the mid-1940s he became a bandleader, signed a recording contract with the Black and White label, and turned out some of the best titles of his long recording career, including "Stormy Monday." Many of his songs reached the Top 10 on the Hit Parade. In the 1950s he recorded under the Imperial label and worked for Atlantic Records. In 1955 he underwent an operation for chronic ulcers.
In the early 1960s T-Bone joined Count Basie's orchestra, appeared in Europe with a package called Rhythm and Blues, U.S.A., and played at the American Folk Blues Festival and Jazz at the Philharmonic. This began a new phase of his career as a blues legend, during which he appeared before largely white audiences. He was a regular attraction abroad, where his recordings made him a great favorite, and he was a participant on television shows and at jazz festivals in Monterey, California; Nice, France; and Montreux, Switzerland. In Europe he recorded a Polydor album entitled Good Feelin', which won the 1970 Grammy for ethnic-traditional recording. Among his other albums are Singing the Blues, Funky Town, and The Truth.
As an artist and performer, Walker was accurately evaluated by blues authority Pete Welding as "one of the deep, enduring wellsprings of the modern blues to whom many others have turned, and continue to return for inspiration and renewal." Among those he influenced were B. B. King, Pee Wee Crayton, Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, and Johnny Winter. Many titles from Walker's more than four decades of recording have been reissued. Walker died of a stroke in Los Angeles on March 16, 1975. His funeral at the Inglewood Cemetery was attended by more than a thousand mourners.
In 1980 T-Bone Walker was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, and in 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence of the genre. He is also a member of the Houston Institute for Culture's Texas Music Hall of Fame. Walker's T-Bone Blues (1959, Atlantic) album was inducted as a Classic of Blues Recordings in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2009.