'Blues is a Social Study of Survival': Joe Louis Walker on Adversity and Hope

We were delighted to talk to Blues legend Joe Louis Walker for a lengthy interview, and published the first part previously here on PULSE!

Now, with his latest album, Blues Comin' On out in the world, we bring you the remainder of our conversation that takes in the Bay Area Blues and Rock scene in the late 1960s and early 1970's, the origins and rise of Jimi Hendrix, the role of finding one's own musical voice, and even some tales from Tower Records in days past.

But it isn't just music history that Walker is kind enough to share with us. It's also the motivation that drives him to create and collaborate as a musician: keeping things real about the music he loves.


Hannah Means-Shannon: Regarding that situation that you grew up with, with the different generations and styles overlapping and sharing with each other, it seems like you’ve perpetuated that with your own career. Through inviting so much collaboration between musicians and taking part in collaboration. I wonder if you realize that you’ve probably kept that pattern going! If you hadn’t grown up with that mixture, other people might not have now realized that they can do it too.

Joe Louis Walker: Well, it’s funny, because when I played Gospel until 1985, with no secular music at all, and came back, I sent demos to record labels. And they were kind of accepting. They were Blues labels. They each said, “Well, Joe, I just want to hear you grinding out the Blues on your guitar. I want to hear you grinding it out.” And I just went, “I know you know the Blues, but I like the Blues too. When I used to eat meat, I used to like chicken, too, but not seven days a week.” You know what I mean? I like other things too. When you start pigeonholing a person into that, it’s up to me to define myself the way I see. I’ll give you a case in point.

I’ve been fortunate in where I grew up. And then I lived in a house with Mike Bloomfield, who was one of the greatest Blues guitarists, for quite a while. Mike, who was starting a band, The Electric Flag, would have me pick up the drummer, Buddy Miles, and show him around the Bay Area, since he didn’t know anybody. Buddy was about a year and a half older than me. Buddy would play the drums, and I’d play the guitar, and a friend of mine would play the organ, to keep his chops up until the band got started. And to make a long story short, Buddy would always tell me, always, “Jimi [Hendrix], Jimi, Jimi, Jimi!” And lo and behold, Jimi was coming to the Monterey Festival. And all my friends were going, but I didn’t go, and every one of my friends that went got signed! Every group! After the Monterey Festival.

To make a long story short, Jimi came to the Fillmore Auditorium. And it was a great show. With Jimi on the top of the bill, and Albert King. And afterwards there was a big party for Jimi. Mike Bloomfield didn’t drive very well, so I drove Mike to the party. I talked to Jimi a little bit. The point of my story was this: Jimi was what I would call a “regular”. He came through the ranks. People call it the “Chitlin’ Circuit”. He came through.

HMS: Oh, yes, sure. I know what you mean.

JLW: He played with all those brothers. He played with Ike [Turner]. He played with Wilson Pickett. He could play what they wanted him to play. But what was he was trying to present as himself was different. He was playing a ten minute guitar solo in the middle of “Long Tall Sally”. Little Richard was saying, “Hey, hey, hey! I’m the pretty one here.” And the same with Ike.

Jimi went to the UK with a dollar and fifty cents in his pocket. And the reason he was successful in England was—if Jimi had just played twelve bar blues in England, it wouldn’t have meant jack shit. But when Jimi started doing “Jimi”, it was, “Look out below!” No one had ever heard it.

And all those people he used to play with, like Little Richard, have said, “You know, it’s a good thing he went. When he went he changed the world. If he hadn’t have gone, he wouldn’t have been allowed to be himself.” Because it wasn’t as if Jimi went, got off a plane, and all of the sudden it was “Electric Ladyland”. It wasn’t like that. It was a progression. But he was allowed to be himself. To be quite honest, he was allowed to flip the script!

Because most of the time, it had been English guys coming over, doing Blues, and getting famous. Well, what Jimi did, he flipped the script and started doing more stuff like The Byrds, and The Beatles. The Beatles had a big hit with “Hey Jude”. He started doing things like The Rolling Stones. But he did them the Jimi way. And when he had the audience reeled in, that’s when he dropped the bomb on them.

To be quite honest, in America, that’s what a lot of musicians like me have to do. I had to go to England to really play something different.In America, when I came back and released “Cold is the Night”, because it wasn’t a twelve bar blues album, nine out of ten reviewers said, “You know, the guy’s got talent, but he’s all over the place.”

And I remember telling Willie Dixon this and he said, “Joe, that’s your strength. Don’t you ever change that. Because that’s the way you grew up, listening to all kinds of stuff, and you’ve been able to corral it and make a sound that’s yours. Don’t worry about what critics or anybody says about you being all over the place.” Because, in essence, if you are ahead of the curve, people are going to pass on you. People don’t realize. The Beatles got passed on seven times. The Rolling Stones, nine times.

[Photo credit to Joe Del Tufo]

HMS: Yes. It’s crazy.

JLW: People don’t want to hear it, but the people who signed The Beatles, with "Meet The Beatles", on the Vee-Jay label, that was a black record label.

HMS: Wow!

JLW: Capitol passed on The Beatles. BMI passed. Every white label passed on The Beatles. Vee-Jay signed The Beatles and released the record, Meet the Beatles. Their stars were John Lee Hooker doing “Boom, Boom” and Bettye LaVette. I’d really like to ask Ringo [Starr] or Paul McCartney one of these days whether it’s true what they say—that John really liked being on a black label! [Laughs]

The record sold a trillion copied anyway. And you know what happened? The minute that Capitol saw the mistake that they made, they buried Vee-Jay Records. That’s just the business. But it goes to show that if you’re ahead of the curve, if people don’t like that you’re doing, don’t get discouraged. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and music may be in the ear of the beholder, but some peoples’ ears have paper in them!

And you know, I get this all the time, people saying, “Man, what the hell are you doing listening to the U.K. Subs?” And I say, “I’m listening for ideas, man! I like that Rock stuff. Can you find that Sticky Fingers record for me? Find me that Sex Pistols record!” [Laughs] Because that part about “God bless the Queen, cause she ain’t no human being”? I think that’s kinda funny.

HMS: I heard a story. I don’t know if it would be interesting to you. But it’s about Johnny Cash. When he was a young teenager, he was already singing, and his mother somehow got the money together to send him to singing lessons, though they were very poor. His mother sent him to a teacher, and he had two lessons with her, and she sent him home. He said, “What did I do wrong? Didn’t I try hard enough?” And she said, basically, “I have to tell you that you shouldn’t ever let a teacher do anything to you, now. Don’t let anyone change your voice. It’s so different that I’m afraid to work with you. I don’t want to influence you. So, stop.”

JLW: A good teacher will tell you that! I had a teacher tell me the same exact thing. “Hey, Joe, look—I know you want to sound perfect. But there are people in Nashville who would kill for your voice. Don’t mess with it.” [Laughs]

HMS: There you go!

JLW: But the hardest thing to do is to grow into who you are as an artist. Because you really got to put your armor on. You put your armor on. Think of Tina Turner. At the time that Tina Turner became big, everyone was singing, “Baby, Honey” [JLW sings this in a nursery rhyme, childish way]. And she’s singing like..[screaming]. And she hated her voice. And I said, “Tina, you’re voice is going to stand out. Because all those other singers sound like Betty Boop, and they sound the same. There are a few of them that sound different, but you are unique.”

If you put on a record from 1962 or 1963 and you hear any of those songs, her voice is so forceful. Her voice is still forceful! I know she’s sick right now, and we send our love. She’s not doing well, as far as I understand, but we love her.

But can you imagine Tina Turner going to a vocal coach and singing, “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la”?

No, man. Hell, no. She’d say, “You do that. I’ll go sing, ‘What’s love got to do with it, got to do with it?’”

When you think of people with unique voices, those are the people you listen to over, and over, and over. And they are not the greatest singers, but the minute they open their mouth: number one, you know who it is, and number two, they make you feel.

HMS: Right.

JLW: You’ve got someone screaming at the top of his voice, “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away!”* [*From The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”] Then you start believing it!

It takes a lot of nerve to say, “Rape and murder”, that “It’s just a shot away”. You can’t sing it like this [JLW sings the lyrics in a gently chanting, ineffectual voice]. No, no that won’t work.

HMS: No! That’s a very good point.

You talked about having to go over to England to sort of find yourself in that way. Is that still true for musicians, do you think? Is America more open to change now, musically?

JLW: It’s as simple as this. And I say this with no vitriol, just straight up. America likes its heroes to be what’s reflected in the mirror. So instead of Little Richard selling a million copies of “Tutti Frutti” [JLW sings the title in falsetto], we’ve got Pat Boone singing “Tutti Frutti, Oh Rudy!” [JLW sings in a baritone.]

HMS: Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

JLW: And there’s still some of that today. America wants its own reflection in the mirror. Blues is big. But Rock is much bigger in America. And Rock-Blues. And I’ll just be honest, Rock-Blues equates to this: two verses of “my baby left me” one verse of “my baby came back”, nineteen guitar solos, and then one more verse of “my baby came back”.

I’m sorry. It’s heavy. But it’s really hard to be believable when you haven’t experienced certain things. When you start singing now about “Little Red Rooster”, like Howlin’ Wolf, it’s hard to sound believable. You have to find another way to be authentic. What better way to not have to focus on the lyrics than to focus on the number of guitars you play? That becomes important.

I ain’t knocking that. I’m just saying that’s not the criteria for me, as an artist. The criteria for me, as an artist, is to have some adversity that can relate to a hundred, a thousand, a million other people. And that can relate to them, for them to find solace in that, and find something cathartic, so by the end of the song, you can find some hope.

HMS: Right. Sure.

[Photo credit to Michael Sparks Keegan]

JLW: For me, that’s what Blues is about. And I always tell people when they ask me that question: What is Blues to you? For me, Blues is a social study of survival. It really is. I’m serious. And why? Because it was born out of abject, just flat out miserable, conditions. To find a way to socially comment about those conditions, without being a victim of those conditions, while you were still in those conditions, you come out with the Blues. Finding different ways to say something without being punished for it, or whatever. That’s what the Blues came out of.

Now, the other side of that coin is Gospel. Gospel is, “God’s my favorite!” Well, maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. Depends on what day it is, I guess. [Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t want to offend anybody’s religion, but if God is listening, can you say this today?

I think that Blues has got a serious history of being something that…Musicians ask me this all the time, saying, “Joe, how should I play this? How should I play that?” I say, “Man, I can’t tell you, but I’ll show you and you can feel it.” Because there is blood, sweat, and tears behind a lot of this stuff.

I’ll tell you this. Blues didn’t start on a five million dollar tour bus, with 18 different guitars, and five thousand dollar Armani suits. It didn’t start like that, and that’s just the reality of it. When you get that dichotomy, I don’t call it the Blues no more. I’ll call it good music, if it’s good music. But, what the Blues comes out of is a set of circumstances.

Basically, it’s holding up a mirror to America. When you really get back to it, with the political songs. Now you have so Blues guys saying, “Don’t talk about anything political, dude!” Well, maybe if you’re from Beverly Hills. It’s political where I come from. But then again, if you’re from Beverly Hills, what have you got to play?

HMS: Sure, yeah.

JLW: That’s the thing about it. But God bless you if you do. It is a means to express yourself, and everybody expresses themselves differently. But when it comes to Blues and expressing yourself, I do believe the people that lived the Blues, as opposed to playing the Blues, have more of a foothold into the essence of it.

HMS: I can definitely see that.

Thank you for staying and talking to us for so long. We really appreciate that.

JLW: Well, yeah! When they said that Tower was back, I wanted to talk. We had some great shows at Tower in San Francisco, out on Bay Street. I love Tower Records.

HMS: Did you do many store-located performances there?

JLW: Yeah! It was a cool thing. You’d go to the store and they’d give you two to three albums. And I’d spend all day at that Tower Records, going through the catalog of stuff, and finding stuff I’d never seen. You know, just reading album covers and finding hidden treasures.

HMS: Yes, you wouldn’t know stuff existed until you saw it, right? You had to look, to be there, and to be going through the records. And that was like being in a library. You would learn from that.

JLW: It was! It was really cool because you’d strike up a friendship with the people who worked there. It’d be like, “Oh, man you’re going to be doing a free concert here?” “Yeah, come down and check us out!” You’d play in the parking lot. Tom Petty played in the parking lot.

HMS: Oh my god.

JLW: Yes, at that Tower Records. A lot of people did. I think The Ramones played there, and the Blues bands. It was just a great time.

[Photo credit to Mickey Deneher]

HMS: That’s amazing. Thanks for telling me about that.

Well, you probably know about the Tower motto: No Music, No Life? Did you ever hear that?

JLW: I forgot that. I remember seeing the logo many, many times. It was “No Music, No Life”?

HMS: Yes, you could write in two different ways, with “No Music…” and “Know Music…”

JLW: Oh, yes!

HMS: We try to ask people in our interviews what that phrase means to them in their life.

JLW: [Laughter]

You’re asking me that after three months of not being able to play music anywhere! I’m ready to play!

HMS: I was going to ask you about that, but I wondered if it was too painful a subject. I was going to ask you about live performance and how big a part that plays in your life. How often are you usually with people, playing live with an audience, or playing with friends?

JLW: All the time. All the time. In fact, life is measured by how many days I get to go home. I have two suitcases. One packed all the time and the other one being cleaned while the other is on the road. It’s like music gets in your blood and it’s hard to get out of your blood.

And it’s more than that. It’s the whole thing of when we come to town, it helps the hotels, and it helps the restaurants, and you see friends in Barcelona or something that you haven’t seen in twelve or fifteen years. And you see friends in Greece or somewhere you haven’t seen. It’s the connectivity that’s gone.

Well, how am I doing? I wasn’t doing too good until yesterday when I learned that now I’m going to be doing some of the gigs that are drive-ins.

HMS: Oh, that’s wonderful!!

[Photo credit to Mickey Deneher]

JLW: Yes, I am going to do a drive in at Tupelo Music Hall on, I think, July the 24th or something like that. I’m also fortunate that I have a record coming out, and I’ve been on some other peoples’ records.

Me and Dion and Van Morrison worked together on a record together that’s out now.* [*Blues with Friends]

Captain Kirk, yes THAT Captain Kirk from Star Trek [William Shatner]—I did a Blues record with him that should be coming out sometime.

HMS: See, you’ve helped so many people out, too. You have all these collaborators on your records, but you go and help with theirs, spreading that connectivity. You’re everywhere.

JLW: I love playing with other people. I love a challenge. That’s one thing I figure that music is made for.  Okay, so you do your own thing. You get some notoriety. And you think, “Oh, I man I sure wish I had played with so and so…” So, you call them and ask, “Will you be on my record?” And they say, “Wow, sure!” It’s a dream come true, so in a way you’re like a kid in a candy factory. For me, that’s one of the biggest things about doing this: Playing on everybody’s record. And I don’t dial it in. You don’t have to be a gigantic name for me to be on your record.

HMS: That’s so cool that you do that, and it seems very reciprocal. The more willing you are to help other people out, the more willing they are to take part in your projects. It seems like good karma.

JLW: Yeah. It is. It’s good for me to be able to help people, because a lot of people helped me. Boy, when I write my book, I’m going to have four or five chapters on people who helped me!

HMS: Are you thinking about doing a book?

JLW: Yes, some day I’m thinking of putting some things down. I have a little bit of a human interest story to tell.

HMS: Well, that would be wonderful.

Make sure to come back and tell us more stories about music and about Tower!

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