Been There

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

“A lot of people think I started playing the blues in the mid 80s,” said Joe Louis Walker, who plays at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz on Friday, “but I was gigging in the 60s.”  Walker’s parents were from Arkansas, but settled in San Francisco because of work.  They both loved the blues, and by the age of 14, Walker was playing guitar and learning songs from their collection of blues 78s.  He left home aged 16 to seek his fortune in the then-growing music scene centered on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, answering “Guitarist Wanted” ads in the newspaper. His roommate at that time was Mike Bloomfield (of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and through him Walker was exposed to the city’s blues clubs. There they met and played with artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.  Walker very quickly became a fixture on the blues circuit, touring and playing with all the big names.

By the mid-1970s, the pace of Walker’s lifestyle was beginning to get to him.  “I was living the blues lifestyle during a time when everything was excessive.  I had to find another way to live,” he said.  His solution was to turn to a spiritual path, and in 1975 he formed a Gospel quartet, the Spiritual Corinthians.  He would remain with this band for 10 years, releasing an album, “God Will Provide,” in 1980.

In 1985, the Spiritual Corinthians were giving a performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  There, Walker’s interest in the blues was reawakened, and when the Corinthians’ tour ended, he took the opportunity to join the Mississippi Delta Blues Band for a tour of Europe.  He returned to San Francisco with his passion for blues fully reignited and formed a new band, the Bosstalkers.

The Bosstalkers released their debut album, “Cold Is the Night,” in 1986, and with theis release Walker was back on the blues scene with a vengeance.  The band recorded and toured constantly, earning the W.C. Handy Award for the best contemporary artist three years running.  Walker and the Bosstalkers released several albums on Verve records, including 1995’s “Blues of the Month Club,” which saw him reunited with the Spiritual Corinthians and also included a contribution by the Memphis Horns.  This album led “Downbeat” magazine to describe Walker as “arguably the most complete bluesman on the current scene.”

In addition to his solo career, Walker has collaborated with many other artists.  In 1989, he was part of the Celebration for Young America, an all-star blues festival at the White House, which also featured Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins and Percy Sledge.  He has also been a member of bands with Willie Dixon and B.B. King, appearing on the latter’s Grammy-winning “Blues Summit” album.  As a result of his friendship and collaboration with B.B. King, Walker led the tribute to King at the Kennedy Center in 1995.

Walker’s most recent recording is 2004’s “New Direction,” his first for Provogue records.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, December 22, 2005

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