Cover photo © 2021 Joseph A. Rosen
The blues comes in all shades – from red-hot to cool-smooth and everything in between, and there’s no one who’s thrilled audiences more consistently across the broad spectrum of the music and or been more skillful at doing so for the past 30-plus years than Joe Louis Walker.
A 17-time nominee for Blues Music Association contemporary male artist of the year – a prize he’s taken home on three occasions, Joe’s been turning heads because of his distinctive voice and powerful attack on guitar since he was in his mid-teens, often thrilling listeners with originals worthy of the American songbook when not surprising them by putting his own unique spin on covers culled from other genres – but definitely true blue in his gifted hands.
Walker’s deeply steeped in the classical blues tradition. That comes through loud and clear in the grooves of the 30 or so albums he’s released since coming back home to the music in 1985 after pursuing an education and playing gospel for a few years.
But what sets him apart from the crowd – as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview – is a desire to remain fresh and a willingness to go in new directions through experimentation rather than restricting himself to the old one-four-five, 12-bar box established in the cotton fields and carried forward by many of his peers today.
No matter where Joe draws his inspiration – it can come from anywhere in his world travels, from country to rock, funk, jazz and more, there’s always continuity in everything he plays because of the deep blues thread that binds everything together.
“I’m a product of where I came from,” he insists – and, boy, what a place that was!
The grandson of gospel-singing grandmothers and the son of a father who hailed from Cleveland, Miss., loved Delta blues and boogie-woogie and knew several major artists at home before migrating to the West Coast, Joe was born in San Francisco on Christmas Day 1949 – the absolute perfect place and perfect time for any future musician.
He grew up in the ethnic melting pot of the city’s Fillmore District and all of the diverse sounds that filled the air just prior to the hippie invasion that changed the neighborhood to its core, led to the Summer of Love and forever changed the musical tastes around the globe.
“When I was younger, where I lived at was predominantly African-American, Japanese and Jewish,” he remembers. “My dad used to play piano players for me all the time, and for some reason, I just gravitated to ‘em.
“Boogie-woogie to me is like zydeco. If you got a pulse and a heart…if somebody puts zydeco on, you’re gonna get up eventually and start movin’ around. The same with boogie-woogie. You’re gonna start tappin’ your feet. It’s just infectious.”
Joe’s mom was a few years younger than his dad, grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and had different tastes, he says. “By the time she got to hear records and stuff, they had African-American blues stars…No. 1 being B.B. King. For her and people of her generation, B.B. King was their Michael Jackson.
”I got all that. And a little bit (different influences) trickled down from my older brothers and sisters.”
Walker attended Catholic school by day and Baptist church at night. You’ll be shocked to learn that his first instrument was the violin, not the six-string. He picked up the guitar for the first time at age eight or nine and he and his four siblings moved with their mom to a housing project in Fillmore after his parents initiated what was a temporary separation.
“My mom said one day: ‘Hey, your cousins are just four blocks up there at the other project,’” he remembers. “’Why don’t you go hang out with them?’
“I was (walking) about 50 yards away from their project…I just heard this music, and I’m seein’ kids out front…girls dancin’ and kids havin’ fun. They lived on the third floor…and kids were lined up in the hallway all the way up the stairs. I opened the door, and four of my cousins had a pretty good little band goin’.
“That was tailor-made for me!”
Living in a crime- and gang-infested neighborhood only a few strides from where the Grateful Dead and a growing coterie of anti-establishment musicians would put down roots, Joe quickly developed a preoccupation with the guitar, which kept him off the teeming streets and safe from the troubles outside.
He was influenced early by T-Bone Walker and B.B. as well as keyboard stars Amos Milburn, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, a list that expanded with time to include soul giants Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack, too. And he attended junior high school a half-block away from the legendary Fillmore Auditorium, where student bands rehearsed during the day before giving way to major talent at night.
Built in 1912 as a ballroom and then, for decades, a roller rink, it evolved into a major stop for touring black artists after its acquisition by Charles Sullivan, one of the most successful African-American businessmen of his generation. It was through his generosity that Walker frequently got to watch the superstars in action from the wings.
“We used to have our battle of the bands there,” Joe says. “I saw James Brown there when he got ‘A Brand New Bag.’ I saw the real Temptations there with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. I saw Little Richard there with Jimi Hendrix on guitar in 1964. I took my grandmother when Little Richard got religion.”
Then the vibe started to change.
“Around ’65, you had a lot of longhaired kids who wanted to get away from ‘uptight’ things goin’ on in other parts of the country,” Joe says.
Late that year, promoter Bill Graham started booking shows there, and he took over ownership of the venue following Sullivan’s murder the following summer, still allowing Joe to watch the headliners, but quickly establishing the Fillmore as one of the important showrooms in the world by cashing in on the burgeoning hippie movement and the music it produced.
“He always put blues on the shows,” Joe remembers, “but nine out of ten times, the headliner would always be young people…the (Jefferson) Airplane, the Dead or someone like that.”
In a heartbeat, the district changed overnight.
“I can’t call it ‘hippie gentrification,’” Walker insists. “Instead of stayin’ home in Minnesota or Iowa or wherever and sayin’ ‘I don’t wanna do what my mom and dad did…I wanna make my own way in life’ or ‘I don’t believe in the Vietnam War’ or ‘I believe in a woman’s right to choose’ or ‘I believe a person can fall in love with who they want to regardless of who they are,’ they were sayin’ ‘but I can’t do that here! A lot of young people are movin’ to the Bay Area. I wanna be there, too!’
“All they did,” he chuckles, “was move to my neighborhood.”
Joe was already a star ascendant by the time they arrived, having started playing out for the first time at age 14 and drawing immediate attention. Far more than a novelty even at that young age, he was already sharing the stage with a rapidly expanding list of top names, including Muddy, Willie Dixon, The Soul Stirrers, Buddy Miles, Otis Rush, Hendrix, Charlie Musselwhite, John Mayall and Thelonious Monk.
And by the time he was 16, he was already out of the house and living on his own, working in the house band at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, playing behind its owner, Troyce Key and backing Sly Stewart, Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson, Katy Webster and both John Lee and Earl Hooker, too. For a brief while, he also joined the roster of Blue Cheer, the proto-metal band whose tune, “Summertime Blues,” was a hippie anthem, and The Oxford Circle, the group that sprang from its ashes.
In 1968, Walker formed an instant friendship with Mike Bloomfield, the founding member of both Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag, a protégé of Muddy’s and one of the most influential guitarists of his generation. They roomed together in the Bay Area and in greater Chicago for the next 13 years, during which, Joe says, he instilled in him the idea that the blues is far more than a series of notes that, in fact, it’s the expression of the human condition.
Their relationship came to a tragic, sudden halt on Feb. 15, 1981, when Mike was found dead behind the wheel of his locked car in San Francisco. The cause of his passing remains a mystery today. Even though an empty vial of Valium was found on the seat beside him, an autopsy no trace of drugs in his system and no sign of foul play.
For Joe, the immense loss of his closest friend served as a major catalyst for change. Soon after, he turned his back on the blues and enrolled in San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in English and music. While he was still studying, he also became a member of The Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet, a Bay Area treasure.
The Corinthians experience came with many blessings. In addition to touring in what basically was a family – not a “band” — setting, Walker received valuable lessons about singing in harmony and lead as well as learning how to arrange music. He returned to the blues in 1985 after appearing with the group at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and feeling the need to make a change.
Back in the Bay Area, he formed his band, the Bosstalkers, and was signed to HighTone Records, joining a roster that included Robert Cray. The title tune from his debut CD, Cold as the Night, captured a W.C. Handy Award for song of the year as well as nominations for contemporary album and male artist honors, too, beginning a career that resulted in 2013 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and stops at several of the top labels in the industry, including Verve/Gitanes, Stony Plain, Provogue, Evidence, JSP, Alligator and now Cleopatra imprint.
Since issuing JLW on Alligator in ’94, Walker’s regularly welcomed other musical luminaries to share the spotlight on his discs both as performers and in the control room, including Steve Cropper, who supervised Blues of the Month Club, and Duke Robillard, who produced Between a Rock and the Blues. Tom Hambridge produced both of Walker’s discs with the biggest blues-rock bite, Hellfire and Hornet’s Nest, and Joe was a Grammy finalist a few years ago for Everybody Wants a Piece, too.
Every time he goes into the studio, he says, it’s usually with something else in mind, noting: “I’m not gonna make every record the same,” says Joe. “I was goin’ for a specific thing with Hellfire, and I think we captured it – which was just turn the guitar loose on some pretty good material to showcase it.
“The next record (Hornet’s Nest) was a little bit in the same vein. But I don’t want to make eight records in a row where it’s so-called ‘shredding’ all the time. That’s not who I am. I have no qualms about anyone who makes their living like that. But I like to have a little more nuance and subtlety to what I do.”
He understands why so many other artists today choose that route, and insists he’d never denigrate anybody for the success they enjoy doing so. “It’s definitely a generational thing,” he says, adding: “I see a lotta people who play the heck out of a guitar – I mean up and down and down and up – but the only thing that’s missing…what I don’t hear…is a lot of memorable songs.
“What I got from the originators…I think it was Willie Dixon who told me: ‘You know what Joe? Nobody goes home hummin’ a guitar solo,’” Walker recalls. “’They go home hummin’ the melody.’” That said, he insists, there were definitely exceptions in the past, most notably Buddy Holly and Hendrix. But I really get it.”
For older listeners, though, things used to be different, he notes. “When you listen to all Chuck Berry, every record that he did, there may be a guitar solo, but it’s in, to the point and out. B.B. King…into the point and out!”
It’s a transition that began in the ‘60s, Joe says, when bands began evolving from what he describes as a “we thing” to a “me thing” and the guitar became so prominent that it became “a sort of phallic symbol,” subjugating everything else in music into the background.
“I grew up in an era where the guitar was subordinate to the song,” Walker remembers. “I used to ask Willie why there was no guitar solo in a lot of Muddy Waters’ stuff. And he says: ‘It’s because the harmonica was the main instrument that we focused on. If there was a guitar solo, it’d be Muddy playin’ a slide or somethin’ like that.’”
The structure of Muddy’s band was different than the Yardbirds who had a triumvirate of guitar gods — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – in the lineup. His was an organization directed by a serious bandleader who featured Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Mojo Buford and other harp players.
Back then, Joe says, the blues world was far more welcoming.
“When all the English guys came over,” he adds, “Muddy accepted the Rolling Stones as his ‘boys.’ Wolf accepted Bill Wyman, and they were best of friends. Snooky Pryor schooled Elvin Bishop. Junior Wells took Butterfield up…on and on and on. None of those guys said: ‘This is just black American music and y’all can’t play that.’ Not one of ‘em.
“A lot of the older guys weren’t very happy about guys takin’ their solos note-for-note, puttin’ ‘em on their songs and then gettin’ top-dollar billing — with them (the originators) way down on the bill. But the fact of the matter is that those songs and those riffs that they invented are still being sung and played right now.
“In the music industry, if one thing becomes popular, they want a million things like that. The latest iteration is that you have one or two guys that really shred the blues. Top names! But myself, I’m lookin’: ‘Where’s the songs at?’
“I don’t know if the songs they’re writing today will stand the test of time. It used to be one solo and out. But now, because everybody is so guitar-centric, things are upside down. You can do one verse – ‘I lost my baby…’ – 20 verses of guitar solo and last vocal verse – ‘I found my baby.’
“It’s a hit! Why? Not because ‘I lost my baby…I found my baby,’ but because he shredded every note on the guitar neck. And that’s the last thing that I want to do. I wanna put somethin’ away for wa-a-ay later.
“But whatever they’re doin’ to make a lot of money…it’s great.”
Screaming lyrics and playing your instrument as loud as you can doesn’t make a song fresh or original, he adds. It’s the nuances you put into it that bring that about. Nor does playing old-school songs from the masters note-for-note.
“If you can sell a million records by playing exactly like someone else,” Walker says, “more power to ya! Me, I couldn’t do it. To me, it’s like wearin’ another man’s shoes. “Get some shoes with your name on ‘em. You’ll have to go to work to buy yourself some. There’s some that’ll fit you!”
That said, Walker is a modernist with a deep respect for his forebears, something that he regularly displays in live performance. “I’ll go out on tour one time and do the music of Muddy, Wolf and somebody else, the next tour…Freddie, Albert and B.B., the three Kings. The next tour, I’m doin’ Jeff Beck and all the English blues guys.”
But he always delivers a heaping helping of Joe Louis Walker music, too, no matter the focus of his tribute. He credits James Cotton for pointing him in that direction after overhearing him in conversation with another major harmonica player and telling him: “Man, I heard you play Little Walter, Big Walter, In-between Walter. I heard you play me. I heard you play all night, but I never heard you play you!”
“That’s my thing,” Joe insists. You can go out and do the music of Muddy and Wolf, the three Kings, Jeff Beck and them. But at some point, you have to come out with your own music.”
While Joe can still blaze up and down the fretboard with the best of ‘em, his latest albums on Cleopatra have been far more diverse, incorporating tunes from others genres, while still maintaining a firm grasp on the essence of what the founders created.
His 2020 release, Blues Comin’ On, was a masterwork that’s flown under the radar because of the coronavirus crisis. An all-star laden set that included Eric Gales, Jorma Kaukonen, Keb’ Mo’, Dion, Mitch Ryder, John Sebastian and others, it kicked off with “Feed the Poor,” a powerful blues co-written with Gabe Jagger, and three other powerful originals and interesting covers that included Charlie Rich’s country classic, “Lonely Weekends.” And reinventions of ‘60s chart topper Arthur Lee’s “7 & 7 Is” and Dion’s “Blues Comin’ On” were rerecorded with both originators on guitar.
Joe’s latest CD, the recently released Eclectic Electric, dovetails perfectly with its predecessor, using a similar formula and helping hands from folks who created the covers.
“Some of the sessions were done a little bit before Blues Comin’ On,” Walker says, and the roster features contributions by Jimmy Vivino, Doyle Bramhall II, Waddy Wachtel, gospel star-turned-R&B powerhouse Bette Smith, Murali Coryell and the B.B. King Blues Band, too.
The original “Uptown Girl Blues” opens and features Vivino and harmony vocals before Los Lobos sax master Steve Berlin helps put a funky spin on “Wine,” a song penned by Sonny West, the ‘50s country legend who wrote some of Holly’s biggest hits. Two more original treasures follow before Joe completely reinvents the Eagles’, “Hotel California” and Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do Is Dance.”
“I was asked to do one iconic song,” Joe says, “so we chose that one. I didn’t want to do the guitar or anything. Joe Walsh did it — and it sounded great. What I wanted to do was tell the story” — something that might have gone over the head of casual listeners for decades but rings true for any touring musician.
“If you’re a musician in California, you’re tryin’ to check into a hotel at 2 a.m. after a gig,” he notes, “and nobody’s at the desk. But there’s a guy in the corner who says: ‘Hey, what’s up?!? You can check in, but you can’t check out.’ For us musicians, it’s real. People think it’s not.
“Murali played a lot of lead guitar on it, and I played foil to his lead. Then I sent it to Waddy. He liked it and put his slide on it, which made me feel good because he was one of the co-writers.”
And Wachtel, who penned “Werewolves in London” with Warren Zevon, also features prominently in JLW’s retelling of the tune. Other interesting re-dos include Muddy’s “Two Trains Running,” Keith Richards’ “Make No Mistake,” and “Lady in Red,” a tune first recorded by the band Chain Reaction in 1971 that features Bette.
The real treasure in the set, however, is the Walker original, “Gone and Alone,” a number that was truly a labor of love. Featuring sweeping horn lines directed by cornetist Picasso Knuckleboogie and rhythm partially recorded by African musicians when he was touring France, it’s a heartwarming number that Joe wrote with his own roots in mind.
“That’s my ‘family reunion’ song,” he says. “It tells my family story…my mother, my father, my sisters, my brother…the family keep you strong. I wanted to write something that they could play when we together that would pay respect to the elders and, at the same time, mention everybody else…brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews…everybody.”
It definitely hit the right chord. Several family members heard it, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. You might tear up a little, too, if Joe plays it for you live during his current tour. He hit the road again in mid-November after a short, six-stop run with George Thorogood, and he’s definitely planning to ramp up the frequency of his shows in the year ahead.
Check out Joe’s music and where he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.joelouiswalker.com. You’ll be glad you did!