Joe Louis Walker: Scaling The Electric Fence

photo: Mickey Deneher


“I’m not interested in doing what I did last time. What motivates me is trying something new,” declares Joe Louis Walker, as the acclaimed guitarist and singer considers material from his new album, the weight of the world. Although the 73-year-old musician was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013 and a Grammy nominee in the blues category, his latest album reflects his affinity for soul, funk, jazz, rock and the gospel.

“I don’t want to fill an album with the same songs,” he reveals. “I don’t want it to be where the first verse says, ‘I lost my baby’ and the second verse is ‘I’ve got to find my baby.’ Then there are 19 guitar solos and the last verse is ‘I found my baby’. I have nothing against that, but it’s not me.”

Walker initially made a name for himself as a guitar virtuoso, trading solos with BB King, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell and many others throughout his career.

“I love playing the guitar, I just don’t want to listen to it for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he adds with a laugh. “I grew up in guitar heaven. I went to the Fillmore Auditorium every week where there was nothing but guitar players. I listened to those 19 guitar solos over and over again. So I can loosen up, but I also try to do something melodic that still has something to do with the song.”

He recalls a conversation he once had with Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, who observed that “nobody goes home humming a guitar solo; they go home humming a tune.” Walker explains: “He didn’t mean it in a harsh way, but what guitar player can you name when you go home and start humming his guitar solos? I can think of a few: Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield and some of the Motown guys. You could hum their solos because they made them melodic and interesting. I’ve found that if I start playing the same thing over and over again, unless it’s in the proper context of something, it’s just the sound of one hand clapping. You look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, I’m the most beautiful of all.

Walker began his career while still a San Francisco teenager. There he was in a unique position to experience a cultural transformation.

“My cousins ​​and I lived in the projects and went to Benjamin Franklin High School, which was a block from the Fillmore Auditorium. We used to have our Battle of the Bands there. We saw James Brown there when he got a new bag. We saw The Temptations, the real Temptations with Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Hamilton Bohannon on drums. That was our Apollo Theater.

“It was our community theatre, in a district where we could play five to seven nights a week; although he was 15 years old, he played in nightclubs. Then all of a sudden the script changed when the Mime Troupe came in and had a show at the Fillmore with Chet Helm and Bill Graham. That’s when things started to change and you had all the little kids trying to get away from their parents’ brunettes. They wanted to grow their hair long. They wanted to have a relationship that was considered taboo. Instead of getting drunk and fighting, they wanted to smoke pot and eat brownies. It represented so many forms of change.”

Although Walker had already established himself in local blues circles by this time, joining Musicians Union Local 6 at age 14, he embraced the influx of artists and prospects. “He was young enough to adjust,” he says. “I grew up with traditional blues through my father, but when people like The Yardbirds came to the Fillmore, I would go see them. I liked the English groups because they had good energy. Also, they put their money where their mouth was, especially The Stones. They put Howlin’ Wolf on TV. [The Rolling Stones agreed to appear on Shindig! in 1965 but only if Howlin’ Wolf performed as well.] My dad saw that with me and said, ‘Lord have mercy, those kids can’t sing.’ But I love them because they put Big Foot Chester on TV!’”

Walker would become roommates with Mike Bloomfield, while connecting with other generational peers. “I’m still friends with Jerry Miller from Moby Grape and I knew Skip Spence. I keep in touch with Bobby Weir from time to time. It’s all San Francisco – some of us were locals and some of us came there. I think Bobby and I were born in the same hospital, and although Carlos Santana came from Mexico City, he grew up in San Francisco. But they would all play together. That’s something I liked about the Dead in particular. They would turn their fans into Rahsaan Roland Kirk or The Neville Brothers by having them on a bill. They would push the limits.”

Walker applied a similar broad-minded ethos to his own musical expression until 1975, when he turned to the gospel and joined the Corinthian Spirituals. He admits: “When I left the blues to do gospel full time, there was no plan. My friends needed a little help with a show on a Saturday night. I tell everyone that I went for one day and stayed for 10 years. I wanted to get out of the secular music rut because there was so much excess that came with it, and I was experiencing some of that myself.”

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Then in 1985, while performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he had something of an epiphany. “I had been happy until then, but suddenly I felt restless. I explained to everyone, ‘I’m still here in heart and mind, but I have to go back and finish what I started.’ I still hear a lot of the gospel and continue to be inspired by it; I was listening to Brother Joe May last night.”

Walker explains that he’s also motivated by creative partnerships, which is what led him to record Weight of the World with producer/songwriter Eric Corne (John Mayall, Walter Trout, Sugaray Rayford).

“What I found out after making a lot of records, this is like my 31st album, is that I like collaborating with people, but I don’t want collaboration to just be a pat on the back. There has to be a tug of war. I’ve done that by working with producers like Tom Hambridge, Tony Visconti and Steve Cropper because I don’t know everything. If he did, he would be the boss of the world. So someone can say to me, ‘Joe, that might be a good song for a live concert, but it might not be very good for a record.’ Or Cropper would sometimes tell me when he brought him a song, ‘Joe, that’s great, man, but it’s like four songs in one. Can we get one at a time?’”

The guitarist laughs, then points out, “That’s where Eric came in – he started a fire under me. We had been communicating for several years. Then he finally said, ‘Joe, I’d like to do something with you, but I want it to be all original. You have songs and ideas, I have songs and ideas, so let’s work together.’”

Although it could be classified the weight of the world as a blues album, there are many more reference points throughout the 10 tracks. For example, Walker describes his original “Don’t Walk Out That Door” as “a straightforward, straightforward soul song.” He explains: “I was thinking of David Ruffin and ‘Walk Away From Love,’ minus all the high notes. I wanted to write a love song that didn’t have to be ‘We go into the sunset’. I thought it might be, ‘I screwed up and please don’t walk out the door.’”

Walker, “Is it a matter of time?” uses a familiar form to address an atypical topic. “I wrote that song because of the different platforms they use for music. I won’t name any of them, but it’s like, ‘How many spins do I have on your deck? One million? And how much money do I get, $17.22? When can they pay me? The answer is usually: ‘It’s a matter of time’. Why is it always a matter of time? Who came up with that?

“Hello, It’s the Blues” was prompted by a common interview question Walker has received: “What is the blues and what does it mean to you?” For many years, he aspired to provide an answer in song, noting that “blues is in my heart and mind, but I also take pride in all the different influences I have. There is a lot of jazz, for example. I was at the Monk Institute with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I played with Ramsey Lewis. It was on a Branford Marsalis record. It all comes naturally to me and that’s because there are no real limits there. I think a lot of that is because of how I grew up in San Francisco.”

He then adds: “Blues has always had something like an imaginary electric fence that can electrocute you if you try it. But if you can get through that fence, you need to have something to do and something to say. However, there has always been experimentation: I think of someone like Earl Hooker, who had a double-neck guitar 20 years before Jimmy Page. And Earl Hooker knew what to do with it too! It was not for show.

“Going back to the first album I recorded, when I went back to playing blues instead of gospel, the title track is not a 12-bar blues. There are only two or three 12-bar blues songs on that album,” he continues. “I could do the same thing over and over again, and people would like it. People were like, ‘Wow, you sound like Magic Sam when you sing that,’ or ‘Man, you sound like Elmore James when you play slide.’ But where does that put me as a musician?

Ultimately, Joe Louis Walker is doing what comes naturally to him. “I think Willie Dixon got me down,” he says. “I used to go to Willie’s to try to learn a little bit from him. One day he told me: ‘I have discovered your style. You are everywhere, but you know what? Does it work for you. Don’t change it. I’m not everywhere just to be everywhere, but at certain points, I like the John Lennon stuff as much as the Muddy Waters stuff. I do what I don’t do to be different. I do it because I have something different to say”.

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