His name conjures the memory of a great black boxing champion. And though Joe Louis Walker wasn’t named after the Brown Bomber, he has this quality in common with him: Joe Louis Walker is a heavyweight.
He’s a heavyweight whom you may not know of, though he’s got credentials that other guitarists of his or any generation would kill for: He’s a member of the Blues Hall of Fame. He has made 25 albums and performed or recorded with the likes of guitar masters Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Guy and B. B. King. He was recently one of 37 artists (out of a field of 400 in various disciplines) to be named a USA Fellow from United States Artists, an honor that carried with it a $50,000 award. The New York Times has raved about his “Cadillac of a voice” and solos “moaning with bluesy despair.” Rolling Stone has boiled his style down to a single word: “ferocious.” And for all you know, you might have passed him on the street; he lives in the City of Poughkeepsie.
Call Walker a musicians’ musician, if only because other musicians know how good he is better than all but the most attentive blues fans; or maybe a hidden treasure. A man of his accomplishment would seem to deserve better – a bigger audience, at the very least. No one could blame him for being resentful. But resentment isn’t a song that Walker sings when talking about his career. “I’m signed to a record company, Mascot Records. I’ve got a new album out, Everybody Wants a Piece. It’s my 25th record under my own name. I’m touring, keeping my nose to the grindstone.”
Walker grew up in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, the son of parents who loved music and saw that he got exposed to playing it. “Back then, in school you could rent an instrument and try it out. So I tried accordion, violin.”
Those forays didn’t take. But when Walker picked up a guitar at his cousin’s house, it was a different story. He wasn’t even a teenager then. But by the time he was – when he was 16 – he was the house guitarist for the legendary Bay Area club the Matrix, where he opened for or performed with the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk. At the same time, San Francisco was the epicenter of a new musical universe, exploding with new sounds, new bands and new blends of rock and blues and folk and gospel and country. Walker absorbed and learned and, above all, played in that atmosphere of wild-eyed exploration and discovery. He became a regular player at Bill Graham’s famed Fillmore West.
In 1968, Walker met and became fast friends with the legendary guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who introduced him to such rock luminaries as Sly Stone, Carlos Santana, Steve Miller and Bob Weir. Bloomfield shared an apartment with Walker for a couple of years, and he became the biggest single influence on Walker’s playing. “Sometimes,” Walker has said, “I feel him in my playing.”
Then, in 1975, Walker’s life took an unexpected turn. He agreed to play bass for a gospel music gig that promised to go for maybe two weeks. Instead, he spent the next ten years playing guitar and singing with the Spiritual Corinthians gospel group. “Sometimes chance comes along and leads you somewhere you hadn’t planned,” he recalled. “I’d lost track of a lot things, living on the [musical] treadmill. And the one thing you can say about the treadmill is, it can have a tendency to chew you up and spit you out.”
He’d seen enough people in the business suffer exactly that fate. It wasn’t going to be his. During those ten years away from the treadmill, the man who’d gotten a musical education from some of the world’s master musicians took a more mundane educational route: graduating from San Francisco State University with degrees in Music and English.
Then, in 1985, while performing with the Spiritual Corinthians in New Orleans, awash in the city’s musical heritage and practice, he returned to playing the blues. The next year, he had his first recording contract and has hardly stopped working since then. He was back on the treadmill, but with a lifetime of cautionary experience behind him.
No one knows better than he how the music industry has changed since those halcyon San Francisco nights. Time was, he said, a musician could write a song and “take it around,” and people would hear it and they’d like it or not. It was a fairly simple process. “Now, it’s more convoluted: You watch American Idol and 10 million people see you and the record companies come in and swoop up the losers,” he said.
The world of pop music is a young person’s business, he said. The music’s all “prefab,” and its practitioners are less interested in being musicians than celebrities. Not like it used to be; not by a long shot. His voice grows wistful, remembering how it was back then.
At 65, Walker sounds like a man at peace with a celebrity-free life that, any way you look at it, was and continues to be amazing. “I’m still in the business. I’ve been more fortunate than some. But you’ve gotta keep swinging. You can’t get a hit unless you take a swing.”