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Musicians Phillip Walker, Slim Bryant, die

Another dispatch from Terence McArdle, our resident musician:

Los Angeles blues singer Phillip Walker, whose stinging guitar work influenced Robert Cray, died July 22 at 73 at his home in Palm Springs. The Associated Press gave his cause of death as heart failure.

Mr. Walker's 1973 album, "The Bottom of the Top," produced by Bruce Bromberg, later Cray's producer, is often cited as a textbook example of the horn-driven L.A. blues style.

"Nattily attired, Walker looked more like a banker than a bluesman," Post critic Mike Joyce said of a 1989 performance, "yet there was no mistaking his credentials as a singer and guitarist. By using a thumb pick and his fingers, he deftly balanced fluid, cresting single-note runs with unusually colorful, even quirky chordal accents, while singing in a husky, often impassioned voice."

Here is a clip of Mr. Walker in performance: here.

A native of Welsh, La., Mr. Walker honed his musical skills in Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas where he joined the band of zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier in 1953. He briefly led a house band at the infamous Lobby Inn in Juarez, Mexico, a dusk to dawn club that catered to some of the border city's rougher elements. He spoke about his upbringing and early career here.

Upon moving to to L.A. in the late 1950s, Mr. Walker started a duo with his future wife, Ina Beatrice Gilkey, known as Bea Bopp. Though Bea Bopp retired from night club work in the 1970s, she co-wrote many of his songs. She died in 1991.

Mr. Walker recorded sporadically, averaging about three albums per decade. His 1973 album was released by Playboy Records, a very short-lived attempt at diversification by the Hugh Hefner empire. Another record company went into bankruptcy while promoting one of his albums.

His website alludes to some of his difficulties with record companies:

"In the music industry it is standard practice to pay the artist for the recording session as though it is a good 'gig.' They are able to do this because the artist is supposedly 'not taking the financial risk.' Actually the artist does take a financial risk because he becomes dependent upon the recording company to reproduce and publicize his product."

Slim Bryant, a 101 year old country guitarist, who died May 28 in Mt. Lebanon, Penn. escaped our radar. Mr. Bryant hailed from Georgia where he worked with the depression-era string bands Gid Tanner and the Skillett Lickers and Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. Mr. Bryant had been the last surviving musician to record with Jimmie Rodgers, often referred to as the 'father of country music.'

Bryant and fiddler McMichen mixed so-called 'hot' elements of jazz, blues and pop music into the country string band format. (Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played a similar style of music in Texas which came to be known as western swing.)

In 1940, Mr. Bryant moved to Pittsburgh with several of McMichen's band mates. As Slim Bryant and The Wildcats, they broadcast over local station KDKA with a syndicated show over NBC. Reportedly, Les Paul, then broadcasting in St. Louis as country performer Rhubarb Red, was taken with Mr. Bryant's 'hot' guitar solos, a sample of which can be heard here:

The Guardian carried Mr. Bryant's full obituary here.

By T. Rees Shapiro  |  July 29, 2010; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  Musicians , Terence McArdle  | Tags: Slim Bryant, blues, country, phillip walker  
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