When it comes to music, Dallas has spawned stars of every stripe, from country to jazz to neosoul.

But its greatest export may be the blues. Everyone's heard of latter-day Dallas bluesmen such as Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. But to commemorate Black History Month, here's a look at some of the African-Americans who blazed the early trail for blues in Big D.

DEEP ELLUM DAYS

BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON 

(Born Lemon Jefferson, circa 1897, Couchman, Texas; died circa 1929, Chicago)

DALLAS DAYS: Lemon traveled a lot, but Dallas was home for most of his brief life. He started his career playing for tips on the streets of Deep Ellum, often with Leadbelly or T-Bone Walker at his side, and usually set up shop at the corner of Elm and Central Track (now Central Expressway). He died mysteriously in Chicago. Some say it was a heart attack; others claim he was poisoned or froze to death.

TRADEMARK: A high, mournful tenor backed by spirited acoustic guitar

IMPACT: One of the first stars of the blues, Lemon helped shape the genre with his mid-'20s records. He also blurred the lines between gospel and blues by recording under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates.

SUGGESTED ALBUM: The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson (Yazoo)

ESSENTIAL SONGS: "Matchbox Blues," "Black Snake Moan," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"

IMPORTANT REMAKE: Bob Dylan, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"

QUOTE: "I was crazy about Blind Lemon. He used to come through on Central Avenue, singing and playing his guitar. I'd lead him, and they'd all put money in his cup." — T-Bone Walker

FREDDIE KING

(Born Freddie Christian, Sept. 3, 1934, Gilmer, Texas; died Dec. 28, 1976, Dallas)

DALLAS DAYS: "The Texas Cannonball" honed his blues chops in Chicago, then moved to Dallas in 1963, when he was in his late 20s. He stayed here until he died of a heart attack at age 42, and is buried at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park.

TRADEMARK: Tight, stinging electric guitar solos and monster riffs.

IMPACT: Influenced countless R&B and rock acts in the '60s and '70s, including Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who recorded and toured with him.

SUGGESTED ALBUM: Ultimate Collection (Hip-O)

ESSENTIAL SONGS: "Hideaway," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," "Going Down," "The Stumble"

IMPORTANT REMAKE: Jeff Beck Group, "Going Down"

QUOTE: "Freddie King's influence on me was massive. He was the first electric guitar player I heard who played in that single-string solo style behind the notes." —Eric Clapton

T-BONE WALKER

(Born Aaron Thibeaux Walker, May 28, 1910, Linden, Texas; died March 16, 1975, Los Angeles)

DALLAS DAYS: T-Bone's family moved to Oak Cliff when he was 2. By his early teens, he was leading Blind Lemon Jefferson around Deep Ellum. He began recording in 1929 as "Oak Cliff T-Bone" but didn't find fame until moving to Los Angeles in 1934.

TRADEMARK: Slash-and-burn electric guitar riffs and somber ballads.

IMPACT: He was a key link between urban blues and rock 'n' roll, influencing everyone from B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix (who copped T-Bone's behind-the-head style of playing). Chuck Berry emulated his staccato guitar licks, laying the foundation for rock.

SUGGESTED ALBUM: The Very Best of T-Bone Walker (Rhino)

ESSENTIAL SONGS: "Call It Stormy Monday," "T-Bone Shuffle," "T-Bone Blues"

IMPORTANT REMAKE: Grateful Dead, "Viola Lee Blues"

QUOTE: " 'Stormy Monday' is like a national anthem — it tells the truth."  — Jimmy Witherspoon

LEADBELLY

(Born Huddie Ledbetter, circa 1886, Mooringsport, La.; died Dec. 6, 1949, New York City)

DALLAS DAYS: Historians say Leadbelly lived in the Dallas area from about 1908 to 1917. But Leadbelly sometimes claimed it was longer: "Blind Lemon and I run together for about 18 years around Dallas," he says in his 1947 recording, "Blind Lemon." He went to prison for murder in 1918, got out in '25, but was jailed again in the '30s and '40s.

TRADEMARK: Haunting rural blues, driven by furious 12-string acoustic guitar work

IMPACT: Turned white audiences on to the blues and paved the way for the folk and blues booms of the '50s and '60s.

SUGGESTED ALBUM: Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Smithsonian Folkways)

ESSENTIAL SONGS: "Good Night Irene," "Rock Island Line"

IMPORTANT REMAKES: Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night,?" and Johnny Cash, "Rock Island Line"

QUOTE: "He had a voice like Caruso ... and he was incredibly strong. Once we ran into a ditch, and he told us to stay in the car and lifted the car out by himself, just like that." — producer-folklorist Alan Lomax

THE DALLAS SESSIONS

Singer-guitarists Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson weren't related, and it's doubtful they ever met. But they're responsible for the most important and most mysterious blues records cut in Dallas.

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON (1897-1945)

The gospel-bluesman grew up near Marlin, in Central Texas, but little is known about his life or career -- nobody knows the location of his Dallas sessions on Dec. 3, 1927, and Dec. 5, 1928. Yet the songs he recorded here rank among the blues' most powerful, including "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time" (later done by Eric Clapton), "It's Nobody's Fault But Mine" (Led Zeppelin) and "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed" (Bob Dylan). Blind Willie's songs might have been righteous, but his froggy voice and wicked slide guitar were almost demonic.

IMPORTANT REMAKE: Led Zeppelin, "Nobody's Fault But Mine" 

SUGGESTED ALBUM: Dark Was the Night (Columbia/Legacy)

ROBERT JOHNSON (1911-38)

He was born in Mississippi and spent most of his life as a vagabond. But in June 1937, he stopped in Dallas long enough to record a dozen of the most influential songs in music history, including "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Love in Vain." The probable downtown recording spot, 508 Park Ave., still stands. Mr. Clapton made a pilgrimage there, and Mr. Dylan wrote in his biography, Chronicles, Vol. I, about being "possessed" by Mr. Johnson's Dallas recordings: "The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor."
Alas, Mr. Johnson never lived to enjoy the impact of his songs: He died 14 months after recording in Dallas, poisoned by a jealous husband in a Mississippi roadhouse.

IMPORTANT REMAKES: Led Zeppelin, "Traveling Riverside Blues," Rolling Stones, "Love in Vain."

SUGGESTED ALBUM: King of the Delta Blues Singers (Columbia/Legacy)


Graphics & illustrations by Michael Hogue/Staff Artist
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