Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Joe Louis Walker: The Frisco Kid
Blues guitarist and vocalist Joe Louis Walker is a living, breathing, walking, strumming piece of recent American musical history.
A product of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury District, he was already living in the predominately African-American neighborhood to greet the hippies who made it their Mecca during the 1960’s. His junior high school was only a block away from the famed Fillmore West auditorium, where as a youth he played in “Battles of the Bands.” As a young man, he lived with Mike Bloomfield, famous for his guitar playing on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues band. Their house became a site where musicians such as John Mayall, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and Country Joe McDonald would show up to jam.
Walker even traded jokes with Jimi Hendrix.
He has since spent his life in the company of notable musicians—both onstage and off. He sought musical tips from Earl Hooker, Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf and developed close friendships with Buddy Miles and Stevie Ray, among others. He opened for Thelonious Monk at the age of 18 and over the years has played with Huey Lewis, Boz Scaggs, John Lee Hooker and all three Kings of the Blues: Albert, B.B. and Freddy. B.B. tapped Walker to play on two albums.
About six months ago, Walker joined forces with Murali Coryell, son of guitarist and fusion pioneer Larry Coryell.
On Sunday, the two played the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, where they were joined for a few songs by another blues notable, saxophonist and keyboardist Deanna Bogart.
Beldon’s Blues Point had a chance to talk to Walker then about his life, his collaboration with Murali Coryell, and his latest album, Live on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, recorded live on a boat cruise with Bogart, Johnny Winter, Curtis Salgado, Watermelon Slim, Tommy Castro and others.
His new album and his work with Murali were obviously the news. But I just had to know about those meals with Muddy, shared in Toronto, a city not known for its soul food:
BBP: There’s a story about you and Muddy Waters, that he actually cooked for you one time.
BBP: How did you get together with Murali? That’s a great combination.
JLW: Well, I’ve know Murali 20 years...Murali, Shemekia Copeland, Bernard Allison, Joe Bonamassa, all those guys I’ve seen them all…Susan Tedeschi, they’ve been playing for 20 years I knew them all when they were kids, literally and it does my heart good to see them all…all of them are good. Little Truck, I knew Little Derek when he was in the studio, from the beginning times, you know in the studio with us and they all were just..Chris Thomas, whose Chris Thomas King now? I mean they were all youngsters then, you know, all of them. And all of them had been playing a couple of years then. All the Neals. All of them. So, I mean, I’ve known them all, but me and Murali have always had a very very close relationship. I know his father, I did some things in England with his father Larry. People had told me about him and in fact my wife told me about Murali before we were married and I went down to see him and I was just knocked out. I mean he could sing like Al Green and play like Freddy King, you know. And write. He’s like a triple threat. Really quadruple because he plays all instruments: keyboards, drums, organ, bass. And he plays jazz, he can play blues, I mean he is the whole package.
BBP: He adds sort of a jazz—sort of undercurrent—to your music. Would you agree with that?
JLW: Yeah, well I play a lot of jazz, I play with everybody from Herbie Hancock to John Patitucci, I opened up for Thelonius Monk. I played a lot of rock with Huey Lewis, Boz Scaggs, you know. To me there ain’t but two types of music, good and bad. I play a lot of blues—Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King—I played with them all.
BBP: Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death. I understand that you knew him?
JLW: Yeah, I knew Jimi, I knew Jimi through Buddy Miles. I knew Buddy when he first came to the West Coast to play in the Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield because I was living with Bloomfield at the time. So through Buddy I got to know Jimi Hendrix, you know.
BBP: Did you guys ever play together or jam together?
JLW: No, I never played…sitting in a room joking around. I never went on stage with him. But he came to a couple of my gigs. Came to one gig I did and of course I went to several gigs he did. He became a big star. But I’d seen him years ago in a different situation when he wasn’t a big star, you know, so it’s a small world.
BBP: What situation was that?
JLW: Well, I’d seen a show. Sort of a soul gospel show and I found out later, in fact, somebody had taken a picture. They said “you were at that show, Joe?” And I said, “Yeah, I went there.” They said “you know the guitar player was Jimi Hendrix.” But he wasn’t Jimi Hendrix then. I think he was Jimmy James or somebody like that.
BBP: And one thing I was wondering was, your slide style. I guess you got a lot of that from Fred McDowell? Who were some of the people who influenced you the most as a guitar player?
JLW: Well I was fortunate enough to learn slide guitar from—I played with Earl Hooker, Mike Bloomfield and Fred, and then of course Muddy showed me a few things. I’d watch him and ask him questions. But I got into very various different styles of music. I played the gospel ten years, so I listen to people like Bobby Womack and people like that. I listen to a lot of soul, guys like Jimmy Johnson, the one from Muscle Shoals. There’s another blues guy Jimmy Johnson. Albert King, Buddy. I like rock guitar players, certain guys I like. I listen to Jeff Beck. I like Jeff when he does his thing. There’s a lot—so many great musicians, you know what I’m saying? A lot of jazz players, Kevin Eubanks, George Benson, people like that. Murali Coryell and his dad.
BBP: You played with a gospel group for several years in the eighties. How did that influence what you are doing now?
JLW: Well I played gospel from 1975 to 1985 and it’s good training ground for musicians. Teaching discipline, how to sing, how to sing in harmony. You travel and it’s a good training ground for musicians.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about the new album. You have several musicians playing with you. How did you get all of that together?
JLW: Well a lot of my friends on the boat were on the cruise with me performing. Like Johnny Winter and Curtis Salgado, Tommy Castro, Duke Robillard and people like that, so I just asked them all, told them all I was making a live record, you know, and—I like live records. I’ve had a lot of success musically with live records. So it was really good in that context and everybody played great.
BBP: Do you plan to do a live record with Murali?
JLW: Actually, we played the North Sea Jazz Festival with a bunch of acts. Stevie Wonder, Damian Marley and we got a live record out of that. We might release it someday.
BBP: One thing that I was curious about. Duke Robillard, you have a long relationship with him. He produced one of your albums. He did several songs…
JLW: Couple of my albums. He produced Witness to the Blues and he produced the one—along with me—the one that just won the blues music award Between a Rock and the Blues. Well I’ve known Duke a long time and we’re sort of kindred souls. He plays a lot of different styles and I play a lot of different styles so when I went to look for a producer I went to look for somebody that I had that sort of type understanding that, I wasn’t just going to play just one style of this or one style—I’ve never been known for that. And so with Duke I never did have to explain what I’m doing or “well it’s sort of this and sort of that.” It was either that it was good or it wasn’t that good.
BBP: And who would you like to collaborate with in the future who you haven’t done so with yet?
JLW: Well, I’ve done a lot of stuff with a lot of people. I got to get back to you on that one. (laughs). No, Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock and Youssou N’Dour.
BBP: Who was that last one?
JLW: Youssou N’Dour. African artist from Senegal.
BBP: I know you’re from San Francisco and you were kind of into that Haight Ashbury scene when you were very young. Tell me a little bit about that and what it was like.
JLW: Well I lived in Haight Ashbury before the hippies got there. I was in Haight Ashbury when it was like Harlem. It was totally African-American. Fillmore auditorium, I went to junior high school a block from there. We used to have our battle of the bands at the Fillmore auditorium and so I seen it change. And I played the Fillmore Auditorium for Bill Graham. And I played for the hippies and I seen it coming and I seen it go. And I seen a lot of people get affected by it in a positive and a negative way, you know. I think it was good, especially for people to sort of leave a lot of restraints and old different type of morays and be able to have new ways where they could express themselves and leave the old thing behind. But I think a lot of people just sort of—excess hurts anything.
BBP: How about musically? What was happening then?
JLW: Well it was great, you know. You had a bunch of young guys wanting to play all kinds of music and when Bill Graham got the Fillmore Auditorium and Chet Helms got the Family Dog and there were also all kinds of other shows. I mean there was also Sly (Stone) and his brother Freddie and everybody. Tower of Power, all of the homeboys. So there was a lot of different music going around. A lot of people were just learning to find themselves. Everybody from the Dead to Quicksilver Messenger Service to Sly Stone to Tower of Power to everybody, you know. And it was a great thing. I’ve never met anybody from the Bay Area who didn’t say that coming from there was a good thing for them. A lot of guys left places to come there. But the guys who were from there, you know, the guys who were from there knew by traveling around that a lot of places were so repressive and uptight. Shit, George Harrison came to San Francisco, you know, to see what it was about.
BBP: What musically do you remember most from that time in your life?
JLW: Uh, Opening up for Thelonious Monk. That was probably something that a lot of people can’t say they did that (laughs). You know, that was very interesting.
BBP: How old were you when you did that?
JLW: About eighteen.
BBP: What was that like? What happened?
JLW: You know Monk was—I know it was his first time playing the Fillmore and playing for that type of crowd, you know. So he’d play and he’d get up and then (tenor saxophonist) Charlie Rouse and the other guys would stay as he played his introduction and solos. He’d go stand behind the curtain and pull the curtain back a little bit and just sort of gaze at the hippies…he’d come back out, play his part, come stand behind the curtain —I just got the feeling that he was feeling it out. And I don’t blame him. Because he’d been used to playing in New York, you know, and stuff like that when they took his cabaret card. To go from that type of repression to come to that kind of freedom, I’ve seen so many cats just— just blossom. It just effects you. It’s got to. And it’s funny for me because I was used to that kind of freedom to play In different places, to play in Mississippi, Chicago in ’69, which was an eye-opener for me.
BBP: How did that change you as a musician?
JLW: It didn’t change my music it just made know that I was fortunate to be where I was from. And that I was definitely going back there (laughs). But a lot of these places are changing now. Chicago’s different from the ’68—the Democratic Convention of 68, you know. Mississippi’s a little bit different now.
BBP: So you’re saying there was more racism in Chicago at that time, then where you were from?
JLW: There was more repression under all circumstances. They didn’t like hippies, they didn’t like nothin.’ I mean it was the old guard. It was Mayor Daley. Not the young Mayor Daley but the old Mayor Daley. And Mississippi, well, you know—“Eyes on the Prize.” All you got to do is put the PBS special on, you’ll see it (laughs).
BBP: How would you advise a young guitar player coming along as to how to play better?
JLW: Well, you know I can’t really say other than what I did. And what I did, I was fortunate that every blues guy that came to town I literally went to them and asked them. I didn’t stay in the audience, I went to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I mean I must have met every blues guy that came through the West Coast. Hell. Jesus Christ, man. I opened up for Fred McDowell for a week at a time. Lightning Hopkins kicked me off the stage when I was young and stupid. Earl Hooker. I mean everybody. If I could get to you, I’d a got to you. And some of them accepted me. But none of them really told me to stop. They just said well “you know, everywhere I go I see this kid.”And so I think, when you—if you want to learn opera you go to Italy. That’s where they teach opera. If you want to learn how to play the blues go to blues guys. It’s one thing to play along with a record. It’s another thing to have a conversation with somebody and ask them “how did you do that? How did you do like that,” you know? That’s what you got to do.
BBP: Which one of them told you something that stuck in your mind to this day?
JLW: Well, I can’t put that on here, man. There’s something Muddy told me about playing the slide guitar.
BBP: Yes, you can.
JLW: No I can’t (laughs). And I ain’t going to do it! Big Bill Morganfield (Muddy’s son) will kill me.