When you’ve won four Blues Music Awards, been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, nominated for a Grammy, and are a W.C. Handy Award recipient, your mark on the world of blues is pretty much set. Add a close friendship with B.B. King, James Cotton and Willie Dixon, and you get a glimpse into the life and career of a Blues Master: Mr. Joe Louis Walker.
Named “A legendary boundary-pushing icon of modern blues” by NPR, Walker started playing the guitar as a young boy, growing up in the Fillmore District of San Francisco in the early 60’s. Now living in the Hudson Valley for the last 10 years with his wife Robin, Joe has a non-stop schedule traveling the world; touring, writing, recording, and producing. I sat down with Joe after sound check at The Towne Crier in Beacon, N.Y. The band had just gotten in from Buffalo N.Y. and was wrapping up a few dates in the U.S. before heading off to a remote island in the Caribbean for a blues festival.
Charles Sullivan the promoter, he would give us free tickets. So we got to see the Temptations, the real Temptations. We got to see James Brown when he got a brand new bag. I got to see Little Richard with Jimi Hendricks on guitar. I got to see all of that sh#t for FREE! And plus, I got to play the Fillmore.
Mickey Deneher: Your career, over 50 years?
Joe Louis Walker: About 53 years. I’m 69 now. I turned 69 on Christmas (2018). I’ve been playing since about ’61. I joined the union in 1964. I joined the musician’s union. Been a union man all my life. Been living on my own since I was 16.
MD: You started playing music at a young age. What brought you to the guitar?
JLW: Well the guitar, when I was a kid, was the most accessible instrument, as it is now. The guitar was, when I was 12, 1962, only something you could look at. I went to a catholic school and at that time, you could check instruments out. If you had an aptitude, a little bit of an ear for the talent, they would nurture it. If you really had a talent, you would make a deal with your parents and they would rent you an instrument. Rent you an instrument. Not buy you one. Rent you one. With renting the instrument, come lessons. So I first rented, I checked out the violin when I was about 9, cause I could carry that home. But I really couldn’t make too much (out of it) when you’re fixated on that sound; that electric sound.
My parents had a temporary split and we ended up moving to the Fillmore District, and my world began. We moved to the projects, me and my mom and all of five kids, all of us. One project over, one housing (project), my cousins. I hadn’t seen or hung out with my cousins too much. But the first day I go there, they are on the 3rd floor of the projects; 3rd floor! I walk from the first floor. I am going to walk up three floors. You don’t want to catch the elevators. That’s where a lot of stuff goes on. All the way on the 3rd floor, all the way, the first floor to the third floor, wall-to-wall girls. Just standing and listening to my cousins play. I’m like; I am definitely going to do this now. [Laughing] Wall to Wall!
MD: Ulterior motives!
JLW: But just to know, that there was something that we could do as young guys and make a few bucks. Buy our school clothes. Become popular without being jocks. Without being serious gang guys.
We literally, had the whole thing for ourselves. Of course there were bands all in the area. There was Sly’s (Sly and the Family Stone) brother Freddy Stewart who had a band with my cousin Ted Weisinger; Freddy Stewart and the Stone Soldiers, one of the big bands in San Francisco. This was before the hippies came to San Francisco. The hippies didn’t come till ’62, ’63, ‘64. I was in the Fillmore district in ’61, ’62. I was 12 years old in ‘62. I was lucky because there was this convergence among all the soul groups. The Fillmore at that time was like Harlem in the Renascence. It was, I would say, 75% African-American, huge amount of Japanese, a nice amount of Chinese and different, various people.
When the hippies came in to the Fillmore Auditorium, in it was sort of interesting because me and my cousins and all of us had been playing the Fillmore since we were young. That’s where we would have our battle of the bands. I went to junior high school a block from the Fillmore Auditorium. So we used to have our rehearsal there, battle of the bands there. Then, if we clean up some times, Mr. Sullivan who owned the Fillmore, Charles Sullivan the promoter, he would give us free tickets. So we got to see the Temptations, the real Temptations. We got to see James Brown when he got a brand new bag. I got to see Little Richard with Jimi Hendricks on guitar. I got to see all of that sh#t for FREE! And plus, I got to play the Fillmore.
So when the hippies came there it was like ok, you know, I am cool with this. But as somebody said, very adroitly, they said “you know one of the best things to happened for a lot of the old rock and roll and blues guys was the English invasion, because they brought back interest in them.” But it was also one of the worst things to happen. Cause they put all their heroes out of work. The English guys did not mean to do that. That is not what they started for. There was like maximum R&B. That was, their heroes. That is not what they were about. Period. To note that it turned out that way, was a real drag. That is not what John Lennon and Mick Jagger and all those guys were about. They just weren’t about that. The Yardbirds, they just weren’t about all that. But that’s what it sort of turned into.
But, be that as it may, I was fortunate to be able to see all the Fillmore stuff, then play at the Fillmore. When Graham owned it; Bill would let me come any time I wanted. So I got to see all the shows.. I was fortunate to becoming up in all that stuff. It wasn’t just that; it was the young guys who were finding their musical paths.
MD: At 16 you had a name in the San Francisco music scene. Who were you were playing with?
JLW: Lowell Fulsom, Troyce Key, Percy Mayfield, Erle Hooker. You name it, I backed everybody. Katy Webster, Sly, (Mike) Bloomfield. John Lee, Earl, just on and on, and on and on. I played with all the hippie groups. I was in Blue Cheer, The Oxford Circle. We did a little fusion stuff with some other groups later. The coolest thing about that time, and that place, was that everything was progressing at the same time. What people wore, what people thought, the way the people responding to old mores, the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon, interracial marriage. Everything was happening at the same and the biggest thing I think, was what we invented in the United States in the San Francisco area, was FM radio. That was the biggest thing. Cause without FM radio we’d still be listening to The Monkees, 2 minutes, 40 seconds.
MD: You’re right. Wow, I did not think of that.
JLW: And jam bands.
MD: It wasn’t just blues, experimental, psychedelic.
JLW: It was so much. Oh my God. You could literally go out every night, hit three spots a night… You go to the Avalon Ballroom, The Family Dog (Ballroom), go see John Mayall with Mick Taylor and Muddy Water’s with his band, Big Mama Thorton. Go to the Fillmore, maybe see an Airplane with Quick Silver and Charles Lord Quartet, and Howlin’ Wolf. Four acts, that’s all in one night. That’s all in one night! Then you go to clubs after that.
The 60’s counterculture movement brought hippies, flower power and alternative life styles to the bay area. While the 70’s found San Francisco awash in a psychedelic haze. Walker made a conscious decision to take a detour from the 70’s status que and attended San Francisco State University, where he earned degrees in both English and Music. “It (was) important for me. Because it was something I started and didn’t finish.” Joe says. Applying his personal growth directive to music, Joe joined the gospel group The Spiritual Corinthians, in 1975.
MD: You went into Gospel. You did that for 10 years?
JLW: Longer than that.
MD: When I think about gospel, to me there is a blues base, a bluestone, that feeling.
JLW: Look at it like this: Gospel, Blues, and Soul music. Just take a for instance. For instance, in blues I mean B.B. King. I don’t mean Eric Clapton. No disrespect to Eric Clapton, ok. In blues, that is the template. Or Howlin’ Wolf. Say B.B. King, cause B.B. to me always was, and I used to have fun telling him this, “you’re just a gospel singer in a blues singer’s body.” When he was young, cause he hit all the high notes, his range was limitless.
JLW on B.B. King, Blues and Soul:
So you take a B.B. King for blues. So you take for soul music (pauses for a second), Sam Moore. Just a voice that’s just wicked, or Al Green. And say in gospel music, you take somebody like my friend, Clarence Fountain (Blind Boys of Alabama). When you have those three, all those three guys are cousins. I could take Bobby Blue Bland and interject him into soul, he wouldn’t miss a step, wouldn’t miss cause he helped invent it. I could take Sam Cooke and interject him into blues. Sam Cooke had a number 3 record; hit record with “Little Red Rooster.” A lot of people don’t know that and it’s cool. I could take Sam Cooke and interject him into soul, wouldn’t miss a step. I can take Sam Cooke, of course, interject him into gospel, wouldn’t miss a step. I can interject B.B. into gospel, wouldn’t miss a step.
But now I could not interject Eric Clapton into gospel. No disrespect. I could not interject Joe Bonamassa into soul music. I can interject him as a player. But I couldn’t interject him in like Bernie Worrell or Catfish (Collins); Bootsy Collin’s brother; or someone like Jimmy Nolen who played with James Brown; or Freddy Stewart, Sly Stones brother; or Bobby Womack. I’m sure he could play all that, don’t get me wrong, but that style of playing within itself is the total opposite of this (Joe motions moving fingers all over a guitar neck at rapid speed.) Cause when you playing soul music and gospel, you are playing as an accompaniment to the voice. The lyric of the song is the star. Everything else is secondary. With blues now, and I should say blues rock, because its changed. It used to be, which it just blows your mind, go home and put on any record you like. Put on “Little Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, put on “Boom, Boom” by John Hooker, put on “Baby What You Want Me ToDo” by Jimmy Reed, put on “Got My Mojo Workin’” you will not hear one solo. You might hear four, five notes; but you are not going to hear (Joe makes sounds like a cacophony of notes played at lightning speed.) That is sort of what a lot of stuff has morphed into now. So when it’s morphed into that, and it’s morphed into screaming as loud as you can, singing as loud as you can, with a lot of fake ass emotion. I’m sorry I grew up in the same project with Etta James, I grew up in the same projects man. She never screamed on “I’d Rather Go Blind.” In that particular song she doesn’t scream. She really doesn’t.
So I guess we all have our points of reference. We all have what we feel moves us. The same things, it moves me all my life. Once I heard the Wolf, I loved it. I loved it just as much now. When I heard “Satisfaction” I loved the song then, I love it now. But blues has morphed, you know it’s just morphed into more of a me thing, as apposed to a we thing. Muddy Waters was great. But he sounded really good with Little Walter, he sounded really good with Otis Spann, you know what I mean. He sounded really freak’n good with Willie Big Eyes Smith. When he didn’t have Willie, when he didn’t have Otis Spann what did he do? He got Pinetop Perkins!
Those guys could literally solo over each other and not step over each other. They could solo a little during the song, but not step on each other. That it was all about we. A lot now is about me. It’s about the individual. That’s sort of the way the music business has morphed.
B.B. King to me always was, and I used to have fun telling him this, 'you’re just a gospel singer in a blues singer’s body.' When he was young, cause he hit all the high notes, his range was limitless.
While attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with The New Corinthians in 1985, Joe had an epiphany that the blues were his calling. He realigned his musical direction and has not looked back. His resume of musical accomplishments include 25 albums to date and countless guest appearances supporting the likes of B.B. King, James Cotton, Branford Marsalis, Peter Green, Elvin Bishop, Issac Hayes.
Joe’s latest project is Journeys to the Heart of the Blues. An acoustic blues album nominated for two 2019 Blues Music Awards (Album Of The Year, Acoustic Album.) Joe recorded with renowned keyboard player and fellow Hudson Valley resident Bruce Katz (Greg Allman Band,) and next-generation British harmonica ace Giles Robson. The album is out on Alligator Records throughout North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Munich Records, a division of V2 Records Benelux, will release it in all other territories. The sessions were recorded at NRS Studios in Woodstock.
Mickey Deneher: You are recording now, correct?
Joe Louis Walker: My album. We are about three quarters finished. A double album.
Joe’s upcoming album is chock full of his friends who he’s has played with over the years. The list includes: Juma Saltan, Mitch Ryder, Jesse Johnson (The Time), John Sebastian, Dion DiMucci, Ray Walker (one of the last living Jordanaires), David Bromberg, Carla Cook (Sam Cook’s daughter), Bobby Will, Charlie Harper (UK Subs,) Waddy Wachtel, Keb’ Mo’, and Jorma Kaukonen.
MD: I saw one of your recording credits is as a primary artist on William Shatner’s “Shatner’s Claus: The Christmas Album”
JLW: Yeah. We are getting ready to make a blues album next year. Going to beam us up baby. For me it’s sort of a double-edged thing. Because it’s amazing that now the blues are so popular, that literally, Captain Kirk, he done run out of universe, but he’s into blues music, and who’s he talking to? Joe Louis! I’m trying to give him a little bit of insight cause he’s very serious.
I just tell anybody that asks me; this is not about the notes. It’s not about the vintage guitar. It’s not about the tour bus. It’s not about the $5,000 Armani suits, with the $500 shades at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s not any of that. It isn’t. This here, comes out of suffering and what it is, its the social studies in survival and how to deal with adverse circumstances that are state sponsored and you have to deal with it. That’s what the blues came out of.