Joe Louis Walker: Music is ‘one of the greatest transformational things in the world’

Joe Louis Walker interview

MICKEY DENEHER

JOE LOUIS WALKER

Born in the San Francisco Bay area, Joe Louis Walker has been playing his brand of blues-rock since he was a teenager in the 1960s. He’ll perform at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., Nov. 29 at 8 p.m., with the Greg Sover Band opening.

His recent CD/DVD, Viva Las Vegas Live, was put out, in part, due to popular demand.

“The record company wanted to do a combination live DVD/CD,” said Walker, 69, “and I thought, ‘Yeah, that might be a good idea,’ and we did it and we’ve been getting a pretty good response. When you play quite a bit during the year you see what songs people really enjoy. People will come up and tell you, ‘Oh will you play this song or play that song?’ People will let you know what they enjoy and we want them to see it so that’s why we did a live DVD.”

Whereas many artists with the longevity of Walker’s stay true to their core group of musicians, some go in a different direction, changing their band members frequently. Walker has some strong views on both sides of that coin and went in-depth when asked about his band and philosophy.

“My bass player has been with me for about 10 years, my keyboard player about six, seven or eight years now, the drummer has been with me for a while,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have some great musicians that have always been around and into the music. Sometimes you get these great musicians and try and connect with them but everybody’s got a life and you realize that. Some guys want to spend time at home with their loved ones or what have you, so you do the best you can as far as keeping a good team on the field, so to speak.

“Freelance is not a bad word if you’re a musician. Because let’s say you’ve graduated from The Berklee School of Music or something like that and you’re looking for … the best opportunities. You may start off with one group and then end up with another group and then end up working your way up into your own thing, and freelancing is a way to get a lot of experience.

“Look at bands that you really enjoy. Since we’re talking about blues in particular, take Muddy Waters, who had great musicians that went on to be great bandleaders themselves: Little Walter, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, Carey Bell. They all went on to lead their own bands. Muddy didn’t try and keep all those guys in his bands just for longevity. He figured, ‘Hey, you’re doing your own thing, great!’

“Now flip it around with someone like B.B. King, who pretty much had sometimes the same guys for 10, 12, 20 years. Same kind of bandleaders but a different philosophy. I mean no disrespect to B.B., but if you compare the two, Muddy spawned so many bandleaders and famous people and B.B. … how many bandleaders can you claim came out of B.B. King’s band that did the things that came out of Muddy Waters’ band? Not very many, right?

“So it’s one size doesn’t fit all. I sort of prefer the Muddy thing because I feel that the more people you play with, the more different ways you go about looking at it. One person will play a song one way and another person will play it another way, and you really do breathe new life into old songs. That’s what I loved about Muddy Waters. He was 60 years old and yet he would hire a guy that was 28, 29 or 30 as long as he could play solid music.”

The cover of Joe Louis Walker’s CD/DVD, “Viva Las Vegas Live.”

Walker said his father was an important early influence on him.

“My father played records at home when I was a little kid, and it just so happens that he was from Cleveland, Miss., so he played a lot of that (delta blues) type of stuff for me. My mom played B.B. King records a lot in the early- and mid-’50s when I was a kid, and I just got to hear all the music and I liked it. My older brothers and sisters played a lot of early rock ‘n’ roll so I got a good taste of everybody from The Howlin’ Wolf to Sonny Boy Williamson to Little Richard and all that stuff that they played, and I really got fascinated with the music, and even before I could pick up an instrument I was fascinated with the sound. Fortunately my father really respected music and the musicians so my mom didn’t think it was out of the ordinary for me to want to play an instrument, so I got a little support like that.”

Walker attributes his style and formation to the era in which he came of age: the tumultuous ’60s.

“I was sort of fortunate where I grew up, and the time when I grew up,” he said. “To be around so many musicians where I lived, in the Fillmore District, and to be able to have our Battle of the Bands at the Fillmore Auditorium before the hippies got there, before Bill Graham, before The Family Dog and Chet Helms … fast forward a year or two and there was this big configuration of everything meeting at once. There were young kids leaving their different areas of The United States trying to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out,’ and you had a lot of people and things just meeting at the same time in the mid-’60s. You had women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, senior rights. People who did not want to have the baggage of previous generations. People were rebelling, growing their hair long, mixed relationships, on and on and on. There was Native American rights with Russell Means and all of those people occupying Alcatraz … Kent State and all of that was part of a musical movement as well as part of a movement that was about change. I think the music sort of infused the change and the change was infused by people trying to change themselves so as not to have what went on in the past.

“I think everybody heard from their parents, ‘Get a real job,’ at that time, and I think the ones who didn’t do what their parents told them to do and get real jobs ended up being The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, and the Joe Louis Walkers (laughs). But I did have a real job, it was music. I did have a real calling: It was trying to make music a conduit for change. And I think that was done in my generation, from The Beatles to B.B. King. That all made a change, and I feel like the effects of that change are still ongoing because a lot of those people who were alive to make those changes are still alive now.

“So to make a long story short, I feel that blues in particular were one of the things that gave young people a voice … just by The Rolling Stones playing the blues … was a statement unto itself (laughs). And I know that because they were called everything but a child of God when they came to The United States playing that kind of music, and they knocked a lot of walls down, as did a lot of the English guys. Then some of the American groups followed suit, and I think that is still part of musical history, and part of our history, and it’s still being written.”

With all of these ingredients in what appeared to be a multicultural soup coming to a boil, how did Walker separate himself from the pack and begin his long successful career? And what sticks with him now, after all these years?

“My take on the blues, and presenting my style of it, is not the same style as Muddy Waters or Son House. Mine is based on my experiences and all of the different elements that infused my life. Everything from John Lennon to Muddy Waters and Bob Marley … that catches me because those three … were all groundbreaking people who literally bucked the system. To me there was no difference between John Lennon and Muddy Waters. Every song that they did, you could understand. You didn’t need a thesaurus, and if you knew anything about them as people you knew that they were stand-up people and groundbreakers. You knew that there was something special about them and the same thing with Bob Marley.

“You know there’s something special. And what it is, is the truth. When you listen to them sing, and the stuff they sing about, it’s not esoteric … I mean no disrespect to Paul Simon or someone who writes in all different styles, but you can pick up a John Lennon song and read the lyrics and understand it just like you can a Muddy Waters song.

“Of course, you can also get some psychedelic stuff. But if you pick up a song and you read the lyrics, you know just where they’re coming from. Bob Marley … you know exactly where he’s coming from, and where he stands. Usually they stand for people who are downtrodden and trying to raise up humanity, and I can say this for a fact: In my generation, when I was 16 or 17, if you walked into a room and said that you wanted to be famous, you’d get laughed out of the room. Everybody wanted to be a better musician, They wanted to make a difference through their music for a whole generation. There was no ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Voice’: Everybody had a voice, there were no idols. Be a star? All of the stars were in the sky, there were no stars walking around the streets, so in that context, music is sort of sacred. It can literally transform your life, it can help you dream, it can make your dreams come true and it can really transform you as to what you think you are into something that you will and can be, and there’s nothing like that.

“Basically, those three that I mentioned are all poor people. Liverpool, played there, Jamaica, played there, Mississippi, played there. And believe me, there ain’t much difference depending on where you go. I played there in the ’80s and I can’t imagine what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s. It had to be rough. So you think of that and the background that these guys came out of, and you think about where they went to. Humble beginnings, this whole crazy thing of you’ve got everything you want and crazy, crazy adoration, incredible where people will do anything for you, say anything for you. So how do you not lose yourself and how do you go back and find yourself?

“Music is probably one of the greatest transformational things in the world. It can take you so many places and bring you back and redeem you and save you. It’s incredible. It really is.”

For tickets to the Sellersville Theatre, visit st94.com. For more about Walker, visit joelouiswalker.com.

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