I was a fan of the great bluesman Joe Louis Walker for many years before Blues Revue Magazine (RIP) asked me to write a feature article on him in 2003. I very much enjoyed a pair of phone interviews with Walker, and sent them this piece, which ran in that year’s June issue.
“They have this saying,” explains Joe Louis Walker. “While we’re making plans, God’s laughing”.
Walker chuckles to himself. “Believe me, I don’t have no strategy, other than, when I do this, I’ve got total control or we ain’t gonna do it”. He’s just finished a 16-month stretch that saw him release four top-notch records, but rather than being a plot to corner the blues market, he’s simply savoring his freedom from the major-label grind. A seven-record deal with Verve/Polygram ended with in 1999, allowing him to negotiate one-shot recording contracts on his terms. “I guarantee them that when I give them something, it’ll be something that we all can be proud of, or I’ll give them their money back,” he says. He now has complete musical control, and just as importantly, a break from distracting big-label politics. “It feels like being off of Mr. Polygram’s plantation,” he exults, “although Polygram treated me nice. I’m just not a baby act any more”.
“I’ve got a lot of different styles of music in me, and I’d like to pursue them without somebody saying, ‘submit the album, and we’ll try to find the hit off of it, and we’ll find the geographic area that we think this should be in, and you gotta go talk to this person, that person, kiss this person’s butt, play for these hacks. I don’t care about selling 20 million records. I care about me being who I am”. At 53, Walker’s legacy is on his mind. “I want to be able to, 10 years, 20 years from now, have my children – or somebody’s else’s children – listen to a record and say, ‘boy, those guys sound good but that guy sounds different. I don’t want to sound like this guy or that guy, or the same thing over and over”.
Last year’s Pasa Tiempo, on Evidence, is Walker’s farthest-ranging work yet. Latin-tinged jazz instrumentals like the title track and the lush “Barcelona” are powered by ace rhythmatists Leon Ndugu Chancler and the late Master Henry Gibson, while jazzmen Wallace Roney (on trumpet) and Ernie Watts (sax) float gorgeous melodies and solos above. “The producer was insistent on Wallace, which was cool with me,” says Walker. “I heard him on a few occasions, and I thought he was really a sensitive player”. The record’s not all jazz; a smoky instrumental version of “It Hurts Me Too” stands out, while a fervent take on Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” is the record’s beating heart.
Walker’s three other recent releases remain firmly in the blues camp. The soul-drenched In The Morning was cut with first-call New York rhythm section G.E. Smith and T-Bone Wolk, with whom he previously recorded an epic version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for the compilation The Blues White Album. “We fit like a glove, me, G.E. and T-Bone, and Steve Holly, a great drummer,” he says. The album was recorded, of all places, in Portland, Maine – in January. “We holed up there for about 4 or 5 days and did the whole thing. Yeah, it was cold, but I’m used to that. I toured Norway, you know…you gotta go where you gotta go”.
She’s My Money Maker, on JSP, is a strictly-slide affair that finds Walker laying down some fierce lap steel, an instrument he learned from Mike Bloomfield in the 60s. “That’s who taught me a lot about lap steel, more about the tunings with slide”. In return, Walker says, he “used to drive him to gigs sometimes, ‘cause he was bad at driving. For him to get from point A to point B was ONE SPEED” he laughs. Walker also lap-slides through Guitar Brothers, a cooking set of blues that teams him with Chicago-style guitarist Otis Grand. Despite its musical success, the project was a difficult one that seems to have left a bitter taste. “I produced a couple of Otis’s records. They were pretty stressful, but that one was the most stressful thing I’d ever dealt with”. The two haven’t talked since. “You know, I’ve helped Otis with his career from the minute he picked up the guitar to become professional, up until Guitar Brothers. I just feel like he needs to go his way and I need to go mine, I’ll leave it at that. There’s a saying in Arabic, ‘may God keep you…may God keep you away’”.
Walker has been dealing with other personal conflicts as well. In a 1998 Blues Revue interview, he stated that as he aged, he hoped to live off of his catalog and pick and choose the gigs he’d do. Apparently, the man upstairs got a big kick out of that.
“When you’re successful, sometimes people see themselves as instrumental in what you’ve done. I ended up getting married to somebody who wasn’t who they said they was, and they ended up trying to get part of my royalties. I’m in the process of trying to straighten my catalog out because I don’t know how much it’s been tampered with. We’re in the process of getting this person out of my business”.
As a result of the breakup of his marriage, Walker is now raising a 13-year-old son and two younger daughters on his own. “It’s a very trying time. It’s hard being Mom, Dad, covering the legal things, getting divorced from that situation, the kids having to deal with the trauma, but you know…it’s everything for a reason, and when you get through these kinds of things I think it makes you stronger”. It also has complicated Walker’s touring schedule. “I can’t really up and leave like I used to. I took my kids to France when I toured in September – we just stayed at one club and played for two weeks. So I’m going to be trying to do more stuff like that”.
Well into his fourth decade as a performer, Walker is certainly no longer a “baby act,” but he is old enough to look back and offer a few pearls of wisdom. “I feel fortunate, ‘cause I was able to play with guys like Earl Hooker, Freddie King, Albert King. To have Robert Jr. cuss me out in the studio…that’s how you learn how to play. You don’t learn by everybody saying ‘Oh, my God, he’s 16 and he sounds like a 65 year old guy!’ That’s great, man, but like Willie Dixon used to tell me, ‘we got to find you a style. What is your style, Joe?’ If you can play like BB King and Buddy Guy, that’s great, but he said, ‘a bad rendition of you is better than a good rendition of somebody else’. So I always figured like that. For younger guys, a big part of being able to carry this here on is, number one, learning from the source. If you can go and open up for Muddy for two weeks in Toronto, and him come down to hear you and critique you, go to dinner with him and have him call you motherf—– this and motherf—– I liked that. Lightnin’ Hopkins kicking me off the stage – I loved it, you know?” Walker laughs. “It just made me stronger, and next time I seen him, ‘Oh, you’re still around?’ ‘Yeah, I’m still around”. A lot of these young cats, you know, making this big money’s cool. But I’m talking about being a musician. If I was them, I’d take some of these old cats on tour with me. I’d make records with them. The thing about most of these young people now is that they have these managers, record companies, this, that, and they want to put them in the Grateful Dead!
“There’s so much money involved in the blues, because the name blues alone is synonymous with credibility. That word is a path for somebody’s attention. They always use the word blues for credibility, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I mean, you know, do it. You can’t have a House of Blues and have blues once a month! Maybe it should be, The House of Everything Else, And Then The Blues Once A Month! I’m not saying it in a vicious manner, ‘cause the House of Dan Akroyd been good to me. He put me on that House of Blues Hour many times, so…I’m just using that as a for- instance. You have people using that word who really don’t even play it.
“The best compliment I could give anybody in the blues world is that they’re a regular. Like Duke Robillard, he’s a regular. Billy Branch is a regular. Carl Weathersby is a regular. Lucky Peterson’s a regular, Kenny Neal’s a regular, Ronnie Earl is a regular, people like that. Cause they’ve done some shitty gigs, man! Ronnie and them, they played with Earl King, Duke played with Joe Turner. It just ain’t like them giving lip service to somebody, saying ‘Oh God, he sounds so much like T-Bone Walker,’ they studied that shit, man…they played those shitty gigs, and they know what it feels like to go out there, knowing you’re playing something good, knowing you’re doing something right, and you got a purpose. And you know what? They hire you last, ‘cause they’re going for the flavor of the month, because they got all the press”.
Walker is on a roll. “Hey, this is the Year of the Blues, right? Those guys that I mentioned…I would love for one of those guys to break through. And I don’t mean, cross over – I mean break through. That would give me encouragement. It don’t have to be me, but if I could see Lucky Peterson get out there, as great a musician as he is, and become successful, I’d be happy. If I could see Duke Robillard be successful, I would be happy. Cause that’d make me feel like, hey, there goes one of my peers, without the big promotion machine, without the big record company, without the hype, without the Disney Channel, without the Grateful Dead, without this slant or that slant, just pure musicianship and determination and stick-to-it-iveness, and they got to a point in their career where they received some of the success that they should”.
Joe Louis Walker is a regular. Dreaming ahead, he talks of a “jump-blues funky jazz” record with pals Charlie Haden and Robert Jr. Lockwood, name-dropping Levon Helm as the drummer he’d like. Let God laugh; this major-label emancipation has been a boon to blues fans, and there’s every reason to think the best – and the most different – Joe Louis Walker is yet to come.