Born December 22, 1922, outside of Dimebox, Texas, Bell first made his mark as a bluesman in the clubs around Rockdale, packing the house in town and in the surrounding communities of Elgin, Bryan, and Temple. In 1949, Victory Grill proprietor Johnny Adams lured him to Austin with the promise of three shows a week at the Victory; Bell promptly quit his job at Rockdale's aluminum plant to play music full time. Bell was an instant hit in Austin, playing a savvy, uptown blues in a town that had scarcely seen an electric guitar.
"To come here was a real thrill for me," Bell recalled in an interview this summer. "When I came [to the Victory], people would be standing in line out on the sidewalk."
Adams limited his star attraction to three songs a night. "'That's it,' he'd say. 'Don't give 'em too much,'" chuckled Bell.
Called "Little T-Bone" for his take on T-Bone Walker's jazz-tinged guitar style, Bell remained a staple on Austin's Eastside for 20 years, fronting his own band the Cadillacs and sitting in with such touring guit-slingers as B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Albert Collins, Bobby Bland, Freddie King, Lowell Fulson, and the big T-Bone himself.
When the Eastside entertainment district faded out in the early Seventies, victim of desegregation, destabilization, and the politics of poverty, Bell laid down his guitar and went into the trucking business, eventually building a small fleet of his own. When local folklorist Tary Owens organized a Victory Reunion in 1987, he pulled Eastside heroes like Bell, Erbie Bowser, and Grey Ghost out of retirement, prompting local audiences to get reacquainted with a few of Austin's living legends.
Shortly thereafter, Bell formed the Blues Specialists with pianoman and longtime bandmate Bowser, and the two settled into a popular Friday happy hour residency at the Continental Club. In 1991, Bell and Bowser released It's About Time on Owens' Spindletop Records; a sharp, satisfying collection of old-time Texas blues, it garnered the pair a W.C. Handy nomination for "Best Traditional Blues Album," followed by concerts at the Smithsonian and Carnegie Hall.
Bowser passed away in 1995 (Grey Ghost in '96), but Bell kept the Blues Specialists alive, playing the Continental Club as recently as December 18, and performing occasional shows at the Eastside Lounge and the revitalized Victory Grill. A direct link to the past, Bell was also a link to Austin's future; current local bluesmen W.C. Clark, Blues Boy Hubbard, and Matthew Robinson all learned at Bell's fingertips, and just about every blues guitarist in town made sure to check out his chops, well-aware that Bell was inventing Texas blues before most of them were born.
Last week in this space, Chronicle music writers were asked to name a "notable death" of 1998, to recall a figure whose passing had left a gap on the musical landscape, whose presence would be felt long after they were gone. We can already fill in the blank for 1999: T.D. Bell, rest in peace.
A wake for T.D. Bell will be held Friday, 7-8pm at King Tears Mortuary, 1300 E. 12th Street. Funeral services are Saturday, 11am, at Mount Sinai Baptist Christian Academy, 900 Cameron Rd.