Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
While the state of Texas gets ample due as the home of many of the
first-generation modern blues guitarists, California must be cited as
the place where some of the best players earned their stripes and
developed a sound that is alive and well to the present day. Among the
most recognized guitarists who established careers in California, are
Lowell Fulson, Johnny Guitar Watson Watson, B.B. King, Carl Pete
"Guitar" Lewis, Jimmy Nolen, Lafayette Thomas,
Jimmy Wilson, and Phillip
One of the most distinctive post-war guitarists to follow the Texas-to-California migration was Pee Wee Crayton (Connie Curtis Crayton). Pee Wee was born near Rockdale Texas on Dec 18, 1914 but grew up in Austin. During his youth in Austin, Pee Wee played several instruments; the ukulele/guitar, banjo and trumpet, but his early musical endeavors were strictly as an amateur. Surprisingly his main musical interest was not in the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson or Texas Alexander, but in jazz bands such as Duke Ellington's and Louis Armstrong's.
In his early 20's, Pee Wee moved to the Bay Area in California to take advantage of work being offered in the shipyards there. While Crayton had acquired some rudimentary guitar skills in Texas, he did not attempt to earn a living as a musician for the remainder of the 1930's. In California, Pee Wee found employment at an automotive dealership and when the United States became actively involved in the Second World War, he moved to Oakland to work in the Navy yards. His first guitar purchase there was an acoustic resonator model and by Pee Wee's own account, he did not play it well.
By the early 1940's, California was becoming a focal point for changes in both jazz and blues, and much of the music recorded and played there at that time bears a unique sound identified by relatively sophisticated arrangements augmented with a horn section, and features a strong pre-rock and roll beat.
Lionel Hampton can be credited in some measure with this development, partly due to Hamp's off-the-wall (but pre-conceived) presentation in his live shows, and in part due to the skilled arrangers who sat on his bandstand (Marshall Royal, Milt Buckner, Illinois Jacquet). Hampton's band also had a tendency to feature many blues-based numbers from their book, albeit in the context of a larger jazz orchestra. Worth noting is that Hampton was at one time an employee of California band leader and saxophonist Les Hite. In 1939, Hite hired T-Bone Walker (as a vocalist) for his band. Much later, T-Bone's influence on Pee Wee Crayton would surface.
Moreover, many arrangers had migrated to the West Coast to write charts for the orchestras in the Hollywood picture studios and for the bands in expensive nightclubs, and their influence was to be felt strongly in the horn sections of the smaller bands that were playing the Rhythm and Blues styled music that was beginning to emerge.
On another tangent, California was seeding the emergence of the "smooth" night-club singer and jazz-trio approach to popular music, most exemplified by the now-resident Nat Cole, and the equally influential Charles Brown. Cole's influence was to become vast by the late 1940's, and he would cross over to the pop music chart market on a scale that had not been witnessed prior. One of the most recognizable aspects of Pee Wee Crayton's work was his easy light vocal style, and his singing and phrasing on much of his material borrowed heavily from Nat Cole.
Several other factors are relevant to the development of California's fertile music scene and to the development of Pee Wee Crayton as musician and electric guitarist. Advances in electronic technology in the late 1930's had spawned the amplified guitar, and one of the instrument's earliest and greatest talents was exploiting that technology. Charlie Christian was witnessed by jazz promoter and impressario John Hammond (after a recommendation by jazz pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams) in Oklahoma City in 1939, and Hammond soon after auditioned Charlie to Benny Goodman.
Goodman responded so enthusiastically that he hired Christian for his band almost immediately. Christian proceeded to make a series of recordings with Goodman's Band (1939 thru 1941) that stand up today as some of the greatest performances in jazz. It was Charlie's flying single-string runs that inspired Crayton (and later, B.B. King) to take up the guitar. (Note: Christian was from Dallas and was 5 years younger than Crayton. Christian's early influences were quite possibly Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang.)
Ironically, T-Bone Walker had met and played (or danced) with Charlie Christian in the middle 1930's in Oklahoma. Around 1936, Walker moved to California and within a few years, was developing his own approach to the amplified guitar, independent of Christian's work. Unlike Pee Wee Crayton, T-Bone had a prior history as an established musician from his days in Texas where he had played with Blind Lemon Jefferson. Some elements of Walker's Texas roots carried over to his technique on the electric guitar but ultimately he developed a sound that became completely his own.
Additionally, while T-Bone was reluctant to credit Charlie Christian as a direct influence, there are some similarities between the instrumental approaches of these two musicians, foremost the upper-string picking as the lead instrument on each number, and the open-ended soloing. T-Bone's playing however, reflected a rhythmic syncopation that mirrored his talent as a dancer (Walker established himself professionally first as a dancer, and only later would develop his singing and guitar playing) and he always bridged his solos with distinctive chorded fills. Christian's approach was far more legato and fluid than Walker's, and was completely free of the rhythmic mechanisms that Walker so often favored. While Charlie Christian was the archetype guitarist (he did not sing) and singular jamming jazzman, T-Bone's concept embraced the total entertainer as singer, guitarist, dancer, and showman.
Pee Wee never had the opportunity to see Christian since Charlie passed away in 1942 from Tuberculosis (at the age of 23). While he came from a very musical family, Charlie's fluency on his instrument was not an accident of birth. Christian was a crack pool player and this might account for his dexterity on the strings. Pee Wee later learned to develop a similar fluency on his guitar and not coincidentally, he was also an avid golfer. If there was another trait that Charlie Christian and Pee Wee Crayton shared, it was their love of the party and good times. Christian's appetite for all night jams in New York clubs is legendary and reputedly, he was toking joints while on his deathbed in a New York Sanitarium. Pee Wee admitted on more than one occasion that he liked to be the centre of attraction when all the women were around, and that he sometimes ignored his best career interests in favour of the ladies.
Fortunately, T-Bone Walker got to Oakland and Crayton saw him play there in 1944. After seeing Walker's show, Crayton set his mind on becoming a guitar playing star and he rapidly befriended Bone. T-Bone wound up staying at Pee Wee's home for a month during his gig in Oakland, and Crayton capitalized on the time by learning as much as he could from his mentor. Pee Wee bought an Epiphone electric guitar and amplifier and quickly picked up the rudiments of Walker's technique.
Within the next couple of years, Pee Wee Crayton became well-enough known around Oakland night clubs that he was able to record as a sideman with pianist Ivory Joe Hunter. In 1947, Crayton recorded for Four Star records in Los Angeles but the sides did not make much of an impact. Although he was 33 at this time, Pee Wee's youthful good looks became the main attraction for his club following of mostly women fans, and his live appearances generated enough attention for him to be recommended to the Bihari brothers of Modern Records.