Born on December 25, 1949, in San Francisco, CA. Addresses: Record company--Blue Thumb Records, The Verve Music Group, 555 West 57th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

Guitarist Joe Louis Walker interprets not only the blues but also a bevy of diverse musical genres, tempered with aspects of contemporary jazz. Diversity of style is the hallmark of his talent, and critics praise his bent for improvisation and his boundless adaptability for performing jazzy styles and themes. Walker's trademark is a wellspring of extraordinary energy that explodes into melody and permeates his performance. The core of his genius lies in his ability to channel his energy into a remarkable juxtaposition of musical styles and musical instruments. His performance on assorted instruments, including the dobro, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and harmonica is rivaled and surpassed only by his extensive collaborative efforts with a spectrum of musicians who stand each at the forefront of his or her own respected discipline within the music world.

Walker was steeped in jazz and blues as a child. His parents were migrant farm workers from Arkansas. When they moved to California they transported an extensive collection of 78 rpm blues recordings. Walker, who was born in San Francisco, California on Christmas Day in 1949, grew up listening to the treasured music. He revered the old record collection and learned to appreciate all music in general. As a result of his intensely religious upbringing, gospel music, according to Walker, fused the substance of his being. He sang gospel at his grandmother's church as a child and again professionally in his early career. He never let go of the gospel beat and maintained that gospel serves as the underlying theme for all of his music.

In grade school Walker amused himself by checking out the various instruments from the school music department. Everything musical appealed to him--violins, accordions--every instrument captured his imagination. He brought each home and played with it. At around 12 years of age he bought an inexpensive guitar and learned to play. He took lessons when he was 14 and also learned techniques from his cousins, who by that time had formed a band. In short time Walker joined the band, stepping in as a performing member when one of the cousins went alone on tour. Walker and his cousins played at dances, Elks Clubs, even at San Francisco's Fillmore Community Center Auditorium. Additionally, as he matured he developed an appreciation of the soul music recordings that his brothers and sisters enjoyed.

Walker, still in his early teens, performed in nightclubs around town, where he had to supply false identification because he was underage. In time his obsession with music led him to ignore his schoolwork. His studies suffered desperately, until he stopped attending school altogether, a situation that led his father to issue an ultimatum and confront him with the option of returning to school or leaving home. Walker accepted the challenge and set out on his own at age 16. He took up residence in San Francisco's artsy Haight Ashbury district and survived by answering want ads for guitar players. He drifted between bands, frequently as a stand-in for a regular member, and quickly developed a flexibility of style that he retained even as a solo performer.

Before long Walker fostered a friendship with session guitarist and Paul Butterfield Blues Band cohort, Mike Bloomfield. Walker and Bloomfield became roommates and frequented a popular club called the Matrix where they performed as the opening act for stars like Muddy Waters. Opportunities unfolded easily for the talented Walker as he made the acquaintances of prominent professional bluesmen, including Lightnin' Hopkins, Freddie King, and John Lee Hooker.

Walker experimented briefly with psychedelic rock and spent time jamming with the Grateful Dead and the late Jimi Hendrix during the 1960s, until a brief bout with substance abuse led Walker to reevaluate himself and his career. He expanded his repertoire in the 1970s and joined the Spiritual Corinthians, a performing gospel quartet, in 1975. With Walker singing tenor, the Spiritual Corinthians cut several records including their 1980 release, "God Will Provide." Gospel, Walker asserted repeatedly, was the substance of his music always. When the quartet disbanded in 1985, Walker toured Europe with the Mississippi Delta Blues band. That same year he found himself enervated by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and, as a result, immersed himself increasingly into modern blues styles throughout the remainder of the decade. He made three albums for High Tone in the late 1980s, and spent time developing his skill on the electric guitar.

Walker emerged with renewed energy in the early 1990s. He signed with Verve Records in 1992, and his first album with that label, Blues Survivor,featured two tracks with his former colleagues, the Spriritual Corinthians. By mid-decade he had formed an ensemble with Tom Rose on guitar, Mike Eppley on keyboard, Tony Saunders on bass, and Curtis Nutall on drums. Together the five versatile musicians performed live, frequently as a back-up band, at venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their repertoire extended from R&B to blues and funk.

In 1994, Walker recorded JLW with the distinguished harp (harmonica) master, James Cotton, and reciprocated the favor in 1996 by contributing to Cotton's Deep in the Blues, a Grammy-award winning album. Also heard on JLW, were jazz saxophone player Brandon Marsalis, and pianist Terry Adams. Walker's next album, Blues of the Month Club, released on Verve Records in 1995 featured the Memphis Horns and the guitar styles of the album's co-producer, Steve Cropper. Cropper was heard again, not surprisingly, on Walker's Great Guitarsin 1997. Walker personally orchestrated the 1997 album with many of his own compositions, embellished by an impressive assortment of great guitarists from all genres and eras; Ike Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Rush, Taj Mahal, and "Gatemouth" Brown among others contributed to the disc. The notion of Great Guitarswas not unanticipated because throughout his career Walker made a tradition of sharing his spotlight with a wide spectrum of collaborating musicians, including blueswoman Debbie Davies, and vocalist Angela Strehli.

By 1999, with the release of Silvertone Blues, Down Beat tabbed Joe Louis Walker as a hands-down winner. "If Joe Louis Walker were a stock car racer, he'd be the clear favorite who laps the field again and again," the publication noted of Walker and went on to praise his "killer slide guitar," on an "album [that] has no weak spots." Walker played both electric and acoustic guitar, along with dobro, harmonica, and piano on Silvertone Blues; he also sang and played Hawaiian (slide) style guitar. The album features guest performances by Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar and vocals, and by James Cotton on harmonica. Kenny Wayne contributed his piano styles; Joe Thomas added acoustic bass; and Chris Sandoval is heard on drums.

For three consecutive years, in 1988, 1989, and 1990, Walker received the W.C. Handy Award as Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year. He performed at the Pocono Blues Festival on July 27, 1997 and played at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon on July 5, 1999. Additionally he participated at B. B. King's Blues Summit. Throughout his musical adventures, Walker habitually collected posters from all over the world, and he displays the scores of souvenirs with pride as decoration on the walls of his music room.

In the year 2000, Walker contributed to the soundtrack of Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, a Robert Mugge film. For that project Walker assisted Robert Santelli with the musical direction. Also featured in that work were Billy Hector, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and [the new] Roy Rogers. Hellhoundsis a quasi-documentary that portrays the story of an obscure depression-era bluesman from Mississippi. The film includes concert footage and explores the mystique of a poor and humble blues artist who, unlike Walker, lived and died with little fanfare.

Walker maintains an extensive guitar collection that serves to reflect and to emphasize the versatility of his talent as well as his love for music. The assortment includes an array of name brands and models; some are acoustic, and some are electric. In all Walker stands commended for his talents as a guitarist and songwriter, as a bandleader, and for his production skills.

by Gloria Cooksey

Joe Louis Walker's Career

Signed with High Tone Records, 1986; released Cold Is the Night, 1986; The Gift, 1988; Blue Soul, 1988; Live at Slim's Volume 1, 1991; Live at Slim's Volume 2, 1992; signed with Verve Records, 1992; released Blues Survivor, 1992; JLW, with James Cotton, 1994; Blues of the Month Club, 1995; Great Guitars, 1997; Silvertone Blues, Blue Thumb, 1999.

Joe Louis Walker's Awards

Contemporary Blues Artist of the Year, W. C. Handy Award, 1988-90.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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