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Joe Louis Walker Interview

July 7, 2017

Joe Louis Walker, also known as JLW (born December 25, 1949) in San Francisco and is best known as an electric blues guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer. What impressed me early on our conversation was his knowledge of music history and especially blues history.


When talking to JLW, I quickly understood that he was born at the right place and at the right time in musical history. Growing up in San Francisco in the 60’s right as the “Hippie” music scene was happening literally right around the corner from where he lived.


I asked Joe if he had ever considered writing a book about his musical experiences, “Yeah, I have and it’s been brought up before and something I would like to do, but I’m pretty busy right now and when I slow down some and I’m not (Thankfully) slowing down right now but it’s on the bucket list.”


His resume of artists he has recorded with or shared the stage with is nothing short of impressive! Yet, JLW is still a very nice and humble person to talk to in person before or after a show where he is more than happy to sign a CD or take a picture with a fan. Always with a great story to share, JLW is truly one of the good guys in the music business today.


JLW came from a musical family, and some of his early influences were of T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Meade Lux Lewis, Amos Milburn, and Pete Johnson. JLW shared with me that he first picked up the guitar right when he was around the age of eight, and he quickly became a known quality guitar player within the Bay Area music scene by the age of 16.


While publicly performing through his teens, he soaked up many influences (especially vocalists such as Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Bobby Womack and Otis Redding). In these early years, Walker played with John Lee Hooker, J.J. Malone, Buddy Miles, Otis Rush, Thelonious Monk, The Soul Stirrers, Willie Dixon, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Nick Lowe, John Mayall, Earl Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Jimi Hendrix. By 1968, he had become good friends with Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; they were roommates for many years until Bloomfield's untimely death.


After the passing of his friend Mike Bloomfield, Joe left the world of the blues and enrolled himself at San Francisco State University, achieving a degree in Music and English. Throughout this time, Walker was regularly performing with The Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet. After a 1985 performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, he was inspired to return to his blues roots where upon he formed the "Bosstalkers" and signed to the HighTone label. His debut album, Cold Is The Night was released in 1986. He began a worldwide touring schedule, delivering four more releases in succession for HighTone (The Gift (1988), Blue Soul (1989), Live at Slims Vol 1 (1991), and Live at Slims Volume 2 (1992).

After the long partnership with HighTone, Walker was signed by Polygram to their Verve/Gitanes record label. His first of many Polygram releases ensued with Blues Survivor in 1993. This marked the beginning of an eclectic era that merged many of his gospel, jazz, soul, funk and rock influences with his trademark blues song stylings. 1993 also saw the release of B.B. King's Grammy Award-winning Blues Summit album, which featured a duet with Walker (a Walker original, "Everybody's Had the Blues"). This was followed up by a live DVD release, featuring another duet with Walker (a rendition of "T-Bone Shuffle").


The album, JLW was released in 1994, featuring guests such as James Cotton, Branford Marsalis, and the Tower of Power horn section. During this period, Walker's touring schedule saw many re-appearances at the world's music festivals (North Sea Jazz, Montreux, Glastonbury, San Francisco, Russian River Jazz, Monterey, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, Byron Bay, Australia, Lucerne, and at the Beacon Theatre in New York City). Walker also spent years covering all the major western television networks (Conan O'Brien, Imus, Jools Holland UK, inauguration for George W. Bush, inducting B.B. King for President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton into the Kennedy Centre Honors, Germany, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) as well as numerous worldwide TV networks.


Blues of the Month Club was released in 1995, and was the first of three Walker albums that were co-produced with Steve Cropper. This was followed up by the release of Great Guitars in 1997. Walker's guest musicians on this release, included Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Otis Rush, Scotty Moore, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Steve Cropper, Tower of Power, and Ike Turner.


Also in 1996, Walker played guitar on James Cotton's, Deep in the Blues, a Grammy Award winner for "Best Traditional Blues Album". In addition, Walker won his third Blues Music Award for Band of the Year (1996) which was preceded by two similar awards for "Contemporary Male Artist of the Year" (1988 and 1991). Walker also won the 1995 Bammy (Bay Area Music Award) for "Blues Musician of the Year". He then released Preacher and the President in 1998 and Silvertone Blues in 1999 (his sixth album for Polygram). This sequence continued with In The Morning (Telarc 2002), Pasa Tiempo (Evidence 2002), Guitar Brothers (JSP 2002), She's My Money Maker (JSP 2003), Ridin' High (Hightone 2003), New Direction (Provogue 2004) and Playin' Dirty (JSP 2006).


In March 2008, Walker signed to Stony Plain Records, and recorded his first album for the label in April (produced by Duke Robillard). This album featured guest appearances by Robillard and Todd Sharpville, and was released in September 2008. His second album for the label was released in September 2009 entitled, Between A Rock and The Blues. This album featured Kevin Eubanks as a special guest, best known for his work as the musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This album garnered five nominations in the 2010 Blues Music Awards.

In 2012, Walker signed with Chicago-based Alligator Records and released Hellfire, produced by Tom Hambridge. Billboard Magazine called it "One of the strongest albums in Walker's canon. Hellfire blows all over the map…gutbucket blues, joyous gospel, Rolling Stones-style rock crunch, and aching R&B. Walker's guitar playing is fine and fierce. Hellfire is a heavenly showcase for Walker's virtues."[6] In 2014, Alligator released Hornet's Nest, also produced by Hambridge. The Chicago Sun-Times said: "Hard rock to gospel, Hornet's Nest is proudly modern, designed to rest comfortably alongside anything from the Black Keys or Jack White. Walker's voice demands attention: scorching, imploring, always commanding, it leads this dynamic album along with his heavy guitar fills that lay the ground work for the horn-peppered soul, Memphis soul, gospel harmony, and a vortex of power chords and funk. He is living proof of the boundless potential of blues."


In 2013, Walker was inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame. In addition, that year, Walker was nominated in four categories for a Blues Music Award.

His current album Everybody Wants a Piece (2015) was nominated for a Grammy with former Johnny Winter side man Paul Nelson as the producer. JLW is also back by an outstanding group of musicians that round out the sound. They include: Philip Young on Keyboards (Sometimes Eric Finland will substitute). “L.B.” Lenny Bradford on Bass, Byron Cage on Drums and JLW on guitar and vocals.

*Some content taken from Wikipedia


G-Note Entertainment Magazine talked to JLW from his home in between European shows and before his appearance in Kalamazoo at the Kalamazoo Blues Association Blues Festival.


G-Note: Hi Joe, I know you just came in from Europe and have to go back in a day or so, are you getting any rest or is it always go, go, go?


JLW- “Lately, it been pretty busy with all of the European travel as well as all of the festival I am playing here in the states. But it's ok, I like staying busy promoting my latest CD called 'Everybody Wants A Piece'. It sort of a triumphant record, it like my album 'Hellfire' album from 2012 that did pretty good commercially as well as 'Hornets Nest' that came out in 2014 I worked with the producer Tom Hambridge and we had a real connection. “


“I wanted to do something that would appeal to a younger audience. Let's be honest, the blues has been diversified so much that young people all over the world are playing it their way – it's wide and open. Your music sensibilities are going to be different at 27 years old versus when you are 67 years old.  It's not the usual 1-4-5 Blues. That's not people listen to, sometimes they go back to the Blues masters but with social media, there is a lot of stuff out there.”


“Blues in particular has been diversified so much that you have old rock stars playing their Blues roots and of course, when they do that -they knock off the regular Blues musicians right out of the water. Take the rolling Stones for example, don't you think that their Blues album will get the Grammy for the Contemporary or Traditional but they'll get 1 for sure, that's just the way it is- hey man, it's the Rolling Stones!”


G-Note: You have always been a musician that likes to expand the net of the Blues, is that easier said than done?


JLW- “I have always tried to throw a very, very wide net. Couple of my songs on the new album. 'Gospel Blues' and 'Wade In The water' are both very close to my and the guys in the band. I have a Gospel background but I had to present it in a new way other than the Bruce Springsteen version and the Staples Singers version of ‘Water In The Water'. What is great is when we play it live, it could be the first time they have every heard the song it even though it's been around for generations.”


“I have always been a little adventurous in my music and the way we do it. Here is what it is, I try to make albums that I would like to hear and that interest me. My mind is open to hearing something differently. I know the effort that goes into re-packing a classic song. I love collaborations. I loved when B.B. King collaborated with Pavarotti. Same with James Brown and Pavarotti. People reach out to what it in their soul. “


G-Note: Can we talk a bit about the early JLW days in the 60's in San Francisco and growing there?


JLW- "I was there playing in my cousin’s band when I was 12 that would be 1962, before the 'Hippies' showed up. I went to Union High school, about a half a from the Fillmore auditorium. We used to have our battle of the bands there. There were no Hippies there it was like Harlem, it was African Americans along with some Japanese / Chinese district.”


“Me and my cousin got to play the so called 'Chitlin' circuit clubs then the Hippies came in, man we played for everyone, we played the Elks club. We played for the Hells Angels, we played for the Mayor, we played for Chevrolet, we played for everybody. We were doing tv and radio commercials.  Then we woke up one day, and heard all of this music from the house from around the corner and here it was the “Grateful Dead” they got the house around the corner!”


“So, you had this major, major music melting pot. I am so grateful to be born when I was born, where I was born. Think about it, FM radio was invented then, we played 4-5 bands play on the bill like Rap musicians do today. It was an incredible experience!”


G-Note: Do you think that in music we will ever see another Paul Butterfield or Grateful Dead band again?


JLW- “Well, maybe, but only if the people want it. There really has to be a call for it. You must have artist that are really artist among themselves. What I mean is back then it was only about the music and the message of the music. Now days, it about Facebook and how many like you can get, they didn't go on Star Search or American Idol to become famous. How many original songs do those singers sing?

They are doing everyone else material; how do you really get to hear what they must say? Are they really talking about the issues and struggles of the day like the Grateful Dead did, like Bob Marley did? They were antiestablishment not the other way around.”


“Think about this, do you think the guys you grew up listening to guys like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Bob Marley, David Bowie. Do you think the judges on those shows would accept them today? Can't you see them saying to Lennon, don’t you have another lyric other than Yeah, yeah, yeah? It will never sell! “


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