Tom “T-Bone” Wolk
(December 24, 1951 – February 28, 2010)
When I checked my e-mail I found that Tom “T-Bone” Wolk had died. To serious music fans T-Bone was a celebrity.
He played many instruments and worked with a slew of famous musicians: Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, Kurtis Blow, Carly Simon, Shawn Colvin, Roseanne Cash, Cyndi Lauper, Harry Nilsson, Jewel and Avril Lavigne to name a few.
I knew T-Bone, but we weren’t friends. There were people who knew him more directly. They would be stung by the loss and need the condolences more than I, I thought.
Then I focused on my work.
Most people probably knew T-Bone as the bass player with the hat in the Saturday Night Live Band.
I also thought of him as the guy in the hat when I was a young boy. He played bass for my favorite singers, Daryl Hall and John Oates.
He was the guy in the hat who was eaten by a jaguar in the video for the Hall and Oates song, “Maneater.” He was the guy in the hat who peeled Hall and Oates off of the floor after they were run over by a giant drum in the video for “Out of Touch.” And he was the guy in the hat who danced in the clouds in the video for “Method of Modern Love.”
Hall called T-Bone “the ampersand in Hall & Oates” and the “third head of the two-headed beast.”
T-Bone worked with Hall for 30 years and was working on Hall’s next album hours before he died. He rose through the ranks of the Hall and Oates band. He started as the bass player and went on to co-produce their records and direct their band. He even tried his hand at lead guitar.
T-Bone had given me his cellphone number. But I never bothered to use it. He gave me passes to Hall and Oates shows, but our friendship never really took off.
About halfway through the day I wondered if I missed that boat or took the connection for granted.
“Call me anytime,” he once said.
But in the music business, the only people who get musicians’ personal contact info are those who are too cool to use it. The best way to respect the celebrities who let you into their lives is to give them their privacy.
“I’ll take part in any project you do,” T-Bone told me. I certainly had projects in mind.
There was the interview that I was going to do with him that would help get attention for his first solo album. The film that we were going to do with someone else, my book project, all of these things hung out there in the undetermined future.
In the meantime, we interacted mostly through e-mails. I let him know which musician interviews I had lined up and he would contribute questions to ask. Sometimes he just enjoyed reading the finished products.
He also knew that I was a big fan of his bosses, who were also his friends. So every now and then — when I interviewed a singer that he knew they liked — he’d tell me he was passing the interview on for Daryl or John to read.
He knew that made me happy. In return, I’d send him rare tracks, like Neil Young singing “Ain’t got no T-Bone” over a repetitive riff on an obscure album, or Bob Dylan’s goofy, klezmer-sounding Christmas track, “Must Be Santa.”
I knew these made him smile because even though T-Bone loved all kinds of music, his favorites were those 60s guys from the old folkie days, especially Dylan.
I drifted through my workday. T-Bone’s heart attack kept popping back into my mind. At home that evening I found myself casting from one music blog to another. I typed about T-Bone to other music journalists and music fans.
I flipped back to New Year’s Eve, 1982 in my mind. I was 10. I got permission to stay up late because the new Hall and Oates song “Maneater” was going to be unveiled on Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin Eve.”
It was all I hoped it would be as I danced around the living room. Anchoring the song with an appropriately spooky bass line was T-Bone.
Six years after that, I was at my first concert: Hall and Oates at the Brendan Byrne Arena. Once again, T-Bone was holding down the fort on bass.
He was an incredible musician who supported the biggest stars. I wondered if he knew how he touched people, how he made his mark on the music world. Do people realize the impact that a backing musician can have on the music they love?
T-Bone and I were both music geeks, so I’m sure he’d understand the analogies if I said that he contributed to music in much the same way that Johnny Johnson did when he played piano on Chuck Berry’s records. The same way that Bootsy Collins contributed to soul music, T-Bone had made his mark.
When I first met T-Bone years ago, I was not yet a music journalist. But I was a fan. I asked T-Bone to sign my harmonica. He laughed and said he had never been asked to sign one before.
It would be years after that when I got to meet him again. By this time, I was a music journalist. It was a forgone conclusion that I knew how to talk to celebrities, that bumping into them was no big deal.
I may not ask for autographs anymore, but I treasure the ones I’ve collected. Thanks to people like T-Bone, music means even more to me now than it did when I was a kid. From him I learned firsthand that for every star that uses music to serve his ego, there are people like T-Bone who lived to serve music.
While the stars reach into the flood of spotlights for millions of dollars and millions of fans, men like T-Bone take vows of poverty by comparison.
Thinking back, I realized my interactions with T-Bone weren’t so superficial. Thanks to my job as a journalist, I got to know “that man in the hat,” as he referred to himself on his Web site.
He was dedicated to music. The joy it brought to his life never faded. That was what he offered the world. Knowing him is what rejuvenated my love of music. I am deeply grateful for the ways in which I knew him.