Joe Louis Walker speaks the ‘language of music’
Special to the Sky-Hi News
Joe Louis Walker is laughing. The sound is infectious, and echoes across the phone as he tells a story from his youth: how he got his very first guitar.
“I didn’t have an instrument,” Walker said. “If I wanted to play, I had to borrow one from somebody. So my mother made a deal with me. I played football on Saturdays, loved football. But she said, ‘if you take lessons, on Saturdays, instead of playing football, I’ll buy you a guitar. If you’re serious about it.’”
Young Walker, often referred to as JLW, was quite serious. He played all the time, and worked with his teacher to uncover what he calls “the language of music.”
“It was almost like I found the Holy Grail,” he said. “I was so fortunate to have this teacher. She taught me chord structure, and how to read music.”
The lessons were a life-changing experience for young Walker, who came from a musical family, his father played blues piano and his mother listened to B.B. King, but didn’t have any formal training up to that point.
“My cousins taught me to play over the years,” Walker said. “And when I started taking lessons, I became more valuable to them.” Eventually, he joined their band. When he was just 14, the group played in a Battle of the Bands contest at the Fillmore Auditorium. They were asked to record a demo, and according to Walker, “things just took off from there.”
“You remember New York City’s Apollo Theater in the 1960’s?” Walker said. “The Fillmore District was just like that. I got to see the changes in music when the Love Generation, the hippies, came to San Francisco. I was part of all that. A lot of great music came from that.”
By age 16, he was playing gigs all over the San Francisco Bay area, opening shows and performing with musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Ike Turner and Freddy King. He found these artists inspiring, but worked to develop his own unique sound.
“I wanted to do the Blues my way,” Walker said.
In 1968, Walker met guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who would later become one of his biggest influences. The two quickly became friends, and lived together for many years. “I don’t think anyone who heard his music didn’t say, ‘Who is THAT?’” Walker said. “He gave me versatility, told me to be as much as I could as a musician. Don’t play the same thing all the time.”
Bloomfield’s advice worked, and Walker continued to perform and tour. But after many years, the hectic schedule and lifestyle took a toll and Walker decided he needed a break. “I got tired of the treadmill and the excess that came along with it,” he said. “I was a big part of the partying Blues scene, and I figured, I just had to make a change.”
In 1975, at age 25, Joe Louis Walker left the Blues, performing only gospel music for the next decade. He went to college, earning degrees in Music and English. When Bloomfield died in 1981, Walker made another life-altering decision. “I was pretty down,” Walker said. “But someone was smiling down on me, and after Mike died, I went to rehab. Got back up.”
In 1985, after nearly a decade away, Walker started playing the Blues once again.
“Music is my religion,” he said. “I had to get back to what I do, to what I feel, and to express myself. I need gospel, but I had unfinished business. I needed to come back.”
Walker has been recording albums and touring the world ever since, playing solo and collaborating with some of the most influential musicians of our time. When we spoke last week, he was still reeling from the loss of Blues great B.B. King.
“I used to open for him,” Walker said. “We did so many things together, I did three records with him. It’s so personal. My mother grew up on B.B. King. That was her generation. She listened to him everyday. I took her to meet him once. She was shaking and trembling, and he treated her like she was family. That’s just the way he was.”
Walker is looking forward to his performance at Grand County’s Blues from the Top Festival in June. “I love to come to Colorado, its God’s country,” he said. “I used to live in Fort Collins and play in Boulder. We’re planning to spend a few extra days here to visit friends. We’re going to have fun.”
Joe Louis Walker will perform at Blues from the Top on Saturday, June 27th. For more information on the festival, check out the website: http://www.grandblues.org.
This is the second in a series of articles profiling performers who will be featured at this year’s Blues from the Top festival in Winter Park June 26-28.
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