Interview and story by Eric Gleason
For a man who’s met or played with nearly every modern blues legend, Joe Louis Walker is remarkably humble. Growing up in San Francisco in a time when the men we now know as legends were reaching the height of their prowess and popularity, Walker found himself surrounded by people who would make most of us star-stricken and unable to speak complete sentences, much less play fluid, soulful guitar licks that could give many a blues legend a run for his money.
The challenge in interviewing someone with such a storied career and impressive resume (23 albums, four Blues Music Awards) is trying to find time to talk about it all within the confines of a 20-minute conversation. We’re talking about a man who shared a house with Michael Bloomfield; who’s played with Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Ike Turner, Albert King, Freddy King, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many others.
Yet, as you talk to Walker about his career and his friends, he’s not dropping names. The way he talks about playing with some of these people is like the way I tell people about my last road trip with my friends: this is what we did; this is who was there; and this is what it meant to me. No pretention, no sense that he’s trying to impress anyone – it just is what it is.
In the brief time we had to talk, there just wasn’t enough time to find out about all of his experiences with blues royalty and give him enough time to talk about his own body of work, including his latest album, “Hellfire,” his new relationship with Alligator Records, where his music comes from and, most importantly, where it’s going:
Q: You’ve got a big new deal with Alligator Records now.
A: Yeah, I’m on Alligator now, and it seems to be working out for both of us.
Q: This is kind of a big deal. So how did it come about that you signed with Alligator?
A: Well, you know, I feel the same [laughs]. It’s a pleasure. They’re working very hard, and we’re working very hard, and it opened some doors that we haven’t had open in a while. It’s a good fit. It’s a good fit, and so far so good.
Q: So when did this deal come about? Was that last fall?
A: I signed with Alligator at the beginning of the year, maybe the end of last year. Me, my wife and my manager all paid for this record, and we shopped it around, and Alligator seemed to be the most likely home for us, and it’s sort of proven out to be true. I’m very happy, and I hope that they are, too.
Q: I didn’t realize that you’d funded this yourself and then shopped it around.
A: Oh yeah.
Q: I read that you worked with Tom Hambridge on this album.
A: Yes, yes, and I met Tom through Murali Coryell, Larry Coryell’s son. I played on Murali’s record [also produced by Tom Hambridge], and we got together. One thing lead to another, and we started working together ourselves.
Q: Did you write most of the material before going into the studio or while you were in the studio?
A: No, we had a lot of it written before, and we did a lot of pre-production work. We wrote a bunch of songs in a couple of days. And actually, that was the easiest part.
Q: Recording in the studio was the easiest part?
A: Doing the pre-production work. That really was.
Q: You wrote, what, six or seven songs on this album?
A: Yeah, something like that.
Q: Do you typically write that many, or is that more or less than usual?
A: Well, it depends. It comes in spurts, and sometimes it might be a couple of years. You know when you get the feeling…
Q: When you get the inspiration?
Q: So you don’t have a process for writing your songs? You just take it as it comes?
A: Well, yeah, yeah, I do it all different kind of ways, you know. I go in a room with some people, and everybody can throw out some lines and some music, or it can be one of those long term, long distance things. I find when it comes naturally you can feel it, and everybody in the room can feel it.
Q: Did that happen with any of the songs on this album?
A: Yeah, some of the songs I had been working on, like “Soldier For Jesus” and stuff like that. I know why those songs were sort of finished. Other songs like “Hellfire,” I needed to hear something, and Tom and Richard definitely they got it real good so they were able to add the missing pieces.
Q: So were some of these songs stirring in your mind for a while before you went to the studio?
A: Oh yeah. Some of them were songs that were already on the [pre-production] tape, but I didn’t feel like they were realized, so to speak.
Q: You’ve had a storied history in blues and rock music, meeting and playing with a lot of legendary people.
A: Well, I was just sort of fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, you know, and it was sort of good for me that it was in my formative years so that I wasn’t too jaded when I was young or too pessimistic. I didn’t see as much I’ve seen now, so you know, you’re still fresh. I’ve tried to tap into that as much as I can.
Q: Any memories that really stand out from all those experiences?
A: Oh, yeah, I got a lot of memories. A hell of a lot of memories… performing and sharing the stage with Thelonious Monk, stuff like that… with Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker, Fred McDowell, Freddie King, Albert King… B.B. King… guys who were really ground-breaking people in what they did. Just to see how they did it, you know.
Q: Were there any lessons you took out of your experiences that you’ve applied now that you’re a bandleader and songwriter?
A: Well, I try to. I try to. Every situation’s sort of different, you know, and everybody’s sort of different, and so is everybody’s coping mechanism. Everybody’s wired different. But some things you try to aspire to. You try to be as diplomatic as someone like B.B. King; as sincere as someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan; as ground-breaking as somebody like Scotty Moore or Carl Perkins, people like that, or Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra, Les Paul – people who really had to really go against the grain, really had to stand up and do what they did, and be sort of vilified for it. They still reached so many people and will always reach them.
Q: They were originally vilified and really struggled, but they persevered and by the end of their careers they became legends and heroes.
A: Yeah! And if they live long enough — just go down the line — if they live long enough they have people winning Grammy Awards, Oscars and whatever else, talking about how hip it was that they knew Hubert Sumlin… [laughing] … when they didn’t know him!
Q: Did you know Hubert Sumlin?
A: I knew him very well.
Q: Did you play with him quite a bit, then?
A: Quite a few times.
Q: What kind of man was he? I have to apologize here because I only got to see him a couple of times in Chicago and a couple of times when he came to Albany, but I never had a chance to meet him.
A: One of the nicest people you’d ever meet. And a real unique musician, real unique individual. You can’t find anyone in the world that plays like him. You hear his guitar licks all over the place, but you’ll never hear anybody that sounds like him. There’s people who can sound like B.B. King; they can sound like Albert King; they can sound like Freddie King… you can’t sound like Hubert Sumlin. You can steal his licks, but you can’t sound like him. And I think that’s due to his personality. I mean, I’ve never met anybody like him, and I’m sure there will be nobody like him.
Q: He was really a huge loss to the blues music scene. Was he the sort of guy who was a big influence on you as a player, too?
A: He’s one of those guys like, I gotta say, like Matt “Guitar” Murphy and people like that. Everybody plays a Matt “Guitar” Murphy lick; everybody plays a Hubert Sumlin lick; everybody plays a Carl Perkins or a Scotty Moore lick, maybe they don’t know it.
Q: Some of those licks are like the alphabet. Everybody uses them, even if they don’t know where they come from.
A: Yeah, it’s kind of a rite of passage that you sit at home, listen to that stuff, digest it and learn how to play it. And when you do, you feel like you got ahold of it. You feel like you can step up another level.
Q: How about other influences on your playing and your music?
A: Well, you know, I’m sort of all over the place, so I have a lot of influences in a lot of places that people wouldn’t think. I listen to African guitar players. I try to get some of the feeling that they get. And of course all the Gypsies – Django Reinhardt and them. I listen to a lot of stuff – soul, Bobby Womack, gospel guitar, blues, rock ’n’ roll.
Q: Certainly you can hear that on your latest album. You’ve definitely got that rock ’n’ roll influence in there. You’ve definitely got that gospel and soul influence. How about the African music influence and the Gypsy music. I didn’t hear that as obviously on this album. Do you feel like that’s in there in any particular place?
A: Well, not so much on this record, but on previous albums and on a project to come. I’m going to go to Africa and do a record with some different friends I know. We’ve been working on it for years now, but we haven’t had the opportunity to go.
Q: That will be a great album, for sure.
A: We’ve got a lot of songs we’ve been working on with different musicians over there. I know we’ve got enough songs for an album or two.
Q: Do you have a project planned in the works now?
A: Well, no, because a couple of things happened. With the reception that “Hellfire” is getting and signing with Alligator Records, that sort of takes precedence. And right now ain’t the time anyway because of all the political upheaval.
Q: Right, depending on where you go, it can be a dangerous place right now.
A: And when it comes to that, music doesn’t stand a chance.
Q: You mentioned all the attention that “Hellfire” is getting. Was this more than you expected?
A: If I say it’s more than I planned, that means I set my sights pretty high, but I expected it definitely to be a step up from what I’ve been doing for the last few records. The record companies just aren’t on the level of Alligator. That’s not a knock on them. It’s just money. It’s a financial thing.
Q: Right, Alligator is the marquee blues label and has more resources for you.
A: And when I put their resources and my resources together, it’s like it was definitely the right place at the right time. Coming out of the gate, we did very good, and so I’ll be touring Europe in June. And then at some point, I’ll be going to South America, Argentina and Chile.
Q: Have you been to South America before?
A: Yeah, I’ve been to Brazil.
Q: Do you have a lot of fans there?
A: I’m fortunate, you know. People know who I am. But I haven’t been there in a while, not since the late ’90s.
Q: Do you have a favorite place you like to go to play or visit?
A: I’d be lying if I said I had a favorite place. I think when you’re a musician, you’re sort of like a mercenary. You don’t get too attached because you got to keep moving. It may sound corny, but my favorite place is my hometown, San Francisco.
Joe Louis Walker and his band with Murali Coryell will be playing at Pauly’s Hotel in Albany at 8:30pm tonight (Friday, April 13). Tickets are $15 at the door; $12 for members of the Capital Region Blues Network.
Concert review and photos of Joe Louis Walker at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, 5/11