How does an artist remain relevant over the entire length of their career? Times change, their fan base ages and develops new interests while younger artists bring fresh perspectives and novel approaches to what has been the norm. The creative spark has to run deep to have any chance of remaining relevant. For guitarist, singer and songwriter Joe Louis Walker, the secret is simple.
“I work with a lot of younger people while looking for something that is challenging or different. You have to try to bring fresh ears to the music to reach people that haven’t been reached before. The term blues music is a brand. It means credibility. If Cyndi Lauper or John Mellencamp makes a blues record, that gives them credibility. The guys that invented the music weren’t surrounded by dancing girls or playing out of fake books. They were individuals. The number one change is that the term blues encompasses so much, stuff that fifty years ago wouldn’t have been called blues. Now it has expanded into numerous styles plus expanding geographically. There is just as much blues coming out of England as there is in America. The trick is to make sure we don’t lose the essence”.
Walker is encouraged that blues music is being heard more these days in advertising campaigns in addition to television shows and feature films. But he also notes that there is room for improvement in terms of honoring living musicians who have made significant contributions to the music. “There are fantastic people like Henry Gray, Eddie Clearwater and Eddie Shaw playing traditional blues. But they aren’t held up and promoted the same as people like B.B King or Pinetop Perkins. How many people know that Eddie Clearwater is a wicked guitar player? I’m talking real West side soul, shaking the neck of guitar. Eddie can just flat out do that thing like Otis Rush could do. It’s not a lot of notes but its a lot of feeling. He doesn’t get asked to do a lot of the tributes and Grammy shows, so listeners have to hunt him out.”
Put out of the house at at the age of sixteen, Walker was living in San Francisco and learning how to play. In 1969, he moved to Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago. That gave him the opportunity to take in the blues scene. He was fortunate enough to see legendary Magic Sam and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Some years later, he would reconnect with a member of that aggregation.
“I had been out of the house for a couple of years. Johnny Cramer, who is Barry Goldberg;’s cousin, was my musical partner, doing a duo like Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. He introduced me to Michael Bloomfield, who ended up moving in with me and Johnny. I was a working musician while Michael was pulling back from playing, starting up Electric Flag. He showed up at the right time in my life. He knew what he was doing. I am indebted to him in this lifetime and many more. I grew up around the corner from the Grateful Dead and Wavy Gravy, the anti-star people. I never heard anyone in that generation say they wanted to be a star, to be famous. There was no shortcut if you wanted to play music. You had to put the time in. You couldn’t be a Facebook musician”.
“Michael took me to Chicago to play with Otis Rush and put in a word for me with Charlie Musselwhite. I was nineteen when I played with him. That gave me a realistic view of the blues. With Bloomfield there was more to it than just a lot of notes on the guitar. Blues is the human condition. It connects us all through suffering and gives us something to hold on to when times are bleak. You take comfort knowing that millions of others are feeling the same thing. Nobody gets through life without going through ups and downs”.
Acknowledging that the blues has morphed into a lot of different things, Walker offers some comfort for those who believe the genre is getting watered-down. “ A lot of folks are saying this ain’t the blues, that ain’t the blues. The trajectory was that when Muddy Waters left Mississippi for Chicago, most musicians were sitting down playing acoustically. Muddy changed it, ramped it up with his showmanship and the bottleneck slide. He wasn’t the only guy doing it but it was exciting. But people weren’t paying attention in those days. When I saw Magic Sam, there were six people there – and I brought five with me! Then the English bands like the Rolling Stones helped connect the music with younger ears. Fast-forward to the 1980s and you had the same thing with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray giving it a shot in the arm”.
“These days you have mega-stars doing the music of the older guys. There are two ways to look at that. If they are playing the music of the legends, where is their own music? Or, if people are doing the music of Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Freddie King their way, who is to say they can’t do it. The reality is that they are reaching a whole new generation. If the music is going to stay alive, you’ve got to reach the new generation. As much as I love old blues, whether we like it or not, the young people are making their statement. So some of us put on our musical armor. But the blues is impeachable as music. The founding fathers of blues gave us a template that works not matter what color you are, what your sexual preference is, what country you are from. It has given a lot of people a life they never remotely expected”.
While he is traditionalist at heart, Walker gets the appeal of rap and hip-hop music, viewing it as a today’s version of rock & roll. He also feels that attempts to categorize music are exercises in futility. Brought up in the church, Walker returned to his gospel roots in 1975 when he joined the Spiritual Corinthians. “A lot of my friends were dropping and dying. People that I was in the room with, talking to them. It was time for a change. The music is very similar, the delivery can be similar. In gospel you are singing for God, in blues you are singing for your baby. Lots of great singers have come out of the church, because you learn to emote, to tap into the holy spirit. It hits you different. We did an anniversary program with the Soul Stirrers and R.H. Harris was there. I never thought I would meet him. He raised my awareness. I asked him about having just a guitar player to accompany the band. He was adamant that he didn’t need all that other stuff. From that I learned that when you strip away all of the noise, you can really hear yourself sing. Hearing the natural human voice the way it is meant to be heard is the sweetest sound in the world. It is pure, from one person’s soul to yours without 900 watt amplifiers or wah-wah pedals”.
“If a band can’t get you one way, they will just bowl you over. Wolf and Muddy didn’t bowl you over. It was about the nuances. Forget about whether it was in time or in tune. It was a lot of emotions. They made you lean forward to listen to them instead of leaning back to escape a barrage of notes”. Unlike some artists who were chastised for leaving the gospel world for the secular realm, Walker made an easy transition back to the blues, although it cost him one relationship. “I had a girlfriend who claimed she was really religious. She did the same things everybody else did. Like Son House said, preaching the blues wearing a short dress on Saturday night. One night she commented that she liked any kind of music but blues. I said I am going to take you home – and take care”.
Working with the older members of the Corinthians taught the singer to be more focused. Their stories let him know that it was not just about jumping on stage to perform. “There is something deeper to tap into that is uniquely African-American, although anybody can tap into it if they know the story. It is for people who suffer around the world. There is solace in gospel just as there is in blues. If you are in a gospel group and you don’t have any money, nine times out of nine the guys in the band are going to help you. It was the camaraderie and family that appealed to me”.
“You know the song, ‘Stealing In The Name Of The Lord”? I must have heard ten thousand sermons in my life. Maybe two of them started out with the pastor asking people to hold up their hand if they were in need. Mostly it was the other way around. People asked me if I got religion. I already had it! I’m a freak of nature – went to Catholic school in the daytime, Catholic church in the morning and Baptist church at night. I got enough religion to last me eighty- nine lifetimes! Sam Cooke brought so many people to the church. How can he become a bad guy overnight for singing “Cupid, draw back your bow…”. When my friend Mavis Staples was asked how she felt about playing the Devil’s music, she said she didn’t know the Devil had any music. In the Bible, it says make a joyful noise under God”.
Walker possesses a restless musical soul. A friend pointed out that he is pictured with a different guitar on cover of each of his twenty-seven releases. The guitarist is fine not having a signature instrument, taking the view that a guitar is a piece of wood and some strings, nothing comes out of it until someone plays it. When the spirit took hold at the 1985 New Orleans Jazz Fest, he left the Spiritual Corinthians to return to playing blues. “It was time for something else. I always have something a little bit different in my music. It might be a nursery rhyme or add something my grandmother used to say”.
“I needed to make my mark. I am really fortunate that all of the labels, producers, and record executives that I worked with have allowed me to be me. Like Bruce Bromberg and Hightone Records – they weren’t a church or three chord blues record label even though Bruce came out of that, as I did. They wanted original songs, which was tailor-made for me. It was a fertile time. As I got older, people expected me to do my own thing, which I am grateful for. I battled, so it easy to relate to younger musicians fighting to get their version out there. It is hard to sing about a little red rooster or having iodine in your coffee unless you had it! In gospel and blues, it only rings true if its happened to you. Willie Dixon once told me that doing a bad version of me is better than me doing a good version of other people. I will never, ever forget that”.
Rejection is one thing that all artists experience. Walker tries to turn disappointment into opportunity. “It sure doesn’t feel good when you are going through it. It makes you more adamant about being an artist. Like the time Robert Johnson wanted to play with Son House, who told him you ain’t got it right now. Go somewhere and go get it. So Johnson went somewhere and got it. But if they hadn’t told him to get it, he might not have amounted to anything. Robert turned failure into success. B.B. King was the poster child for that. He took the blues from the outhouse to the penthouse to the White House. That is why there was such an outpouring of love when he passed. It was like Nelson Mandela, the Pope, and the President all died at once. That poor sharecropper inspired so many people and did it with dignity”.
With blues music today being far more guitar-eccentric, Walker struggles a bit to make sense of it all. He has experienced the conversion from being an accompanying instrument to the current state of up-front, center stage with amps turned up to twenty. Sometimes he longs for the days gone-by when the masters took brief solos instead of stretching out with indulgent, lengthy eruptions. “I’m not saying it is right or wrong. It is just weird to me. Like seeing shows now with sixty-plus old men on the front of the stage, salivating over some eighteen year old girl while playing “Sweet Home Chicago”. My dad use to tell me that blues is grown-folk music. You have to reach a point of maturity, when everything sinks in. Then you can put your life in song. It’s one thing to want to play this stuff. But you have to be realistic. I don’t give a damn how much you practice the guitar. You ain’t never, ever going to play like Hubert Sumlin, never sound like Howlin’ Wolf. Those days are gone”.
“People run around singing “Smokestack Lightning” and have no idea of what it means. It is riding the blinds, getting out of Dodge, let a poor boy ride. My father was from Mississippi. He used to say that it was a good place to be from – and he meant it. He didn’t say it with a lot of vitriol or hate. He knew that if his family was going to have a better life, he needed to get out of there. If you can tap into that, make people feel what it’s like to have to get out of somewhere on cold, dark evil night when you don’t know who is coming for you, you don’t have no recourse – let a poor boy ride. That’s the blues!”
Visit Joe’s website at: www.joelouiswalker.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.