'Music Is Supposed to Be About Us' : Joe Louis Walker Talks 'Blues Comin' On'

 [Cover image credit to Joe Del Tufo]

It has been a great honor at Tower to talk to the Blues master Joe Louis Walker about his upcoming album, Blues Comin' On, which arrives this week on June 5th, 2020. Five years in the making, the album features a massive raft of collaborating musicians hailing from a variety of musical genres. 

Walker, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, has been a major contributor to the Blues and Gospel scene for over 60 years, and draws not only on the influences of early Bluesmen, but from Psychedelic Rock, Punk, modern Blues-Rock and more. A veteran touring musician who's traveled the globe, Walker may be partly grounded by quarantine, but look out for his presence in some of the first "drive in" music shows to be held in New York State. Nothing can stop this album reaching fans and nothing, apparently, can stop Joe Louis Walker's message of positivity and musical collaboration.

Hannah Means-Shannon: The new record, Blues Comin’ On, is coming out at Tower on June 5th, and it is the limited edition white vinyl record. How do you feel about the fact that your records are still being released on vinyl, and there’s even a resurgence in people buying vinyl right now?

Joe Louis Walker: Well, I’m of that generation, you know? It wasn’t just the records and the covers, it was everything that went along with it. I’m a collector. I’ve got about 5,000 records and my wife has about the same amount, so let me put it like this: When you have an LP. An LP means “long playing”. When you have a CD, a CD means just that, “compact”. When you have a song like “Day in the Life” by The Beatles, where there’s a gigantic orchestra, or you have Motown songs, where there are strings over here…When you have a long-playing disc, you have grooves on the disc where the music can breathe. When you put on the finale of “A Day in the Life” or Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” with the orchestra and all that, when you put them on a compact disc, you compress the highs of the music, and you compress the lows.

You get this tiny sound instead of this huge sound. To me, I’m just excited to know that I started off as a kid making records, went through the 8 tracks, cassettes, compact discs, and now we’ve come full circle again.

HMS: It’s amazing. I’m delighted too. And another reason I like records, though it’s more on the surface, is that you get to see this beautiful artwork on the album sleeves at a large size. You get to look at that and think about that when you’re listening to music. I know you get that on CDs, but it’s not at that size.

JLW: Well, everything about CDs is compressed. So, just to read who the musicians are who are on it, you basically have to be a munchkin. With my eyes, I’m getting out two or three magnifying glasses and it’s just frustrating!

HMS: Well, with your new record, that’s even more true, because people are going to need to look up all the collaborators you have on Blues Comin’ On. There’s a lot of information there.

Though that’s not new for your albums. You’ve been doing that for a while. I was wondering, logistically, how you go about making those recordings when you have so many people taking part. Do you have to just work with the schedules of each person, song by song? How do you keep it organized?

JLW: Basically, I just try to keep up with the idea of it, tracking, tracking, and tracking, and recording. What happens, sometimes, is being adaptable to what could happen. If I have collaborators, and I know that, on a song, in my head. The first one that I did like that was called Great Guitars. Bennie Ray and Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal. Little Charlie. And as I even mention these names, I’m often aware that the people who I’m mentioning are no longer with us. And I feel that, you know?

HMS: Sure. Of course.

JLW: Scotty Moore. My good friend on that record. All gone. I feel really, really fortunate that I’ve been able to do those records. To have those people on my record, playing what I wanted to play. And know that they trusted me, that though my name might be on the record, it’s a collaboration. It’s not, “You play this, I’ll play that.” I’m all ears when someone wants to add something or change something.

But when you fast-forward to now, I had to wait a long time because I started recording this in 2015. And I had a record coming out called Everybody Wants a Piece on the Mascot label. And during the course of that record coming out, I started on the new on ASAP. Then one morning, I had one of those mornings where you wake up and see that you’ve had a hundred phone calls. And you wonder, “Why is everyone calling?” And it was, “Oh, you’re nominated for a Grammy!”. So, when Everybody Wants a Piece was nominated for a Grammy, that stopped the progression of this album and that album had a long shelf life, a real long shelf life. So I really toured off of that record for about three or four years.

Quite honestly, it was about three years, then I had enough for a live record, and a DVD. So, to answer your question, I had to wait three or four times as long as normal. Then, people would say,“I can do it now.” And then two weeks later, “I can’t do it now.” I had to be adaptable with other people. The timing was hard. And my own schedule was like a dog chasing his tail.

One minute I was in Beijing, China. The next minute I’m doing a tour of Australia for a month. And all these things in between. But it all came together. And everybody that played on it was just really, really good. Some people I knew were good because we grew up together from 17 to 18 years old on the Blues scene. But some people I got to know, who were so good, like Waddy Wachtel. Me and Waddy are like brothers in the same lodge.

[Photo credit to Arnie Goodman]

When we first talked, it was like, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that? What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” I said, “Waddy, I can see why Keith [Richards] had you in the X-Pensive Winos, because you’re a producer on the stage.” There’s nothing Waddy can’t do, but if you listen to him, he will make your stuff better. We grew really tight on this record. I can see why Keith likes him, and I can see why he likes Keith. They are just walking, talking music. Really, seriously. They both have the same character.

When they walk in a room with a bunch of musicians, the musicians’ eyes just light up, because they know the music is going to be better. You just know it’s gonna be better. I love that. There’s no BS when it comes to music, and it’s refreshing. But then again, that’s the way I am, and I tend to gravitate towards people like that, and they tend to gravitate towards me.

Waddy’s the band leader for Stevie Nicks and has done that for years. Mitch Ryder is back. Almost all the people on this record have all had serious brushes with success on various levels, but they all are---I won’t say, “hungry” to prove themselves—but you can hear it in the music coming across. They all want to do their best. They all still sound great. So, I’m like them.

You can hear the song with me and Mitch Ryder singing it and you can hear why Mitch was so popular. There’s nobody who sings like Mitch Ryder, nobody. In that specific way. I think it comes from coming from that generation. That generation of, “We’re going to start a band. What’s the next thing? We’re going to go down in the basement and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.” It’s not like now, where it’s like, “We’re going to start a band. And let’s go on Facebook and see how many friends we can get. Let’s see if we can get on American Idol and get a million fans to like us.”

HMS: [Laughter] Yeah.

JLW: “And then after we do that, we’re going to be famous.” And at no point during that did they say, “Are we going to be good? Are we going to have our own sound?” Instead it’s, “I just want to be famous.” I can understand that, since that’s a big deal now. You can be on American Idol or The Voice, and win it, but it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. There are no short cuts to success.

But on this album, all these musicians, some of them have big names and some of them don’t, but it’s a great record. And I’ll tell you something, it’s actually a double record. I recorded enough for 18 to 21 tracks. The tracks with David Doyle and the BB King Blues Band weren’t even on the record. There wasn’t even enough room on the record to put them on there.

So, they’ll be on another record at another time.

HMS: Wow. That’s wonderful! I guess that takes the load off you a little in trying to get people in to record next time and make those schedules work.

JLW: But you know, I’m a restless soul, so I might take this next record and do something totally different. I don’t like to repeat myself. So, I doubt very seriously that my next record is going to be with a bunch of guest stars. So, I may have one or two of them. I don’t know.

I’m considering doing an album with a number of female performers I work with. I’d love to do a record like that. Not just Blues people, but people who do Gospel and others. People I work with. That’s something I really want to do. I’m also really excited about working with some more of the Jazz people I’ve worked with over the years. I’m a bit of a restless soul when it comes to doing the same thing. We’ll see where that leads.

HMS: Wonderful. Well, that’s very exciting. Everything you’ve just said sounds awesome.

Is there a theme or are there a couple of themes that kind of bind this record together, or is it more about Blues itself, given the title?

JLW: The name of the record was going to be called “Feed the Poor”. The reason it was going to be “Feed the Poor” was because Jorma Kaukonen, who wrote the lyrics, writes poetry. And he told me and sent me some poetry, saying, “Check it out”. And then I read some lines that he wrote, “People lying in the gutter, No father, no mother, Everyone walks past, Because they’re hypnotized by money’s trance.”

And that drew me in because I’ve been poor. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been hungry. So we were going to take some of the proceeds from that song and donate that to foodbanks in the UK and the US, since he’s from the UK and I’m from the US. When he wrote that, it inspired me.

If there’s any light I’d like to shine on this record, it is to help feed the poor. And the music that goes along with it, it’s Blues-based, it’s Rock-based, it’s psychedelic—I’m from San Francisco! [Laughs]

We lived in the Bay Area and I played up the road from the Grey Panthers, the Black Panthers, the White Panthers. Wavy Gravy was in my neighborhood. When I looked at all the things we did, they were community-based. Women's rights. Men’s rights. Gay rights. Civil rights. We all had done that. I’m not talking about gigs here and there where they pay you to go places. I’m talking about being ensconced in a mission together.

Literally, when a lot of young people came out to San Francisco, they were leaving a situation to be able to be who they were. To find themselves. While they were doing those things, a lot of people were doing that in other places. Trying to find themselves. Getting rid of old and antiquated ideas from their parents. Ideas that it used to be this way, to be that way. Well, just because it used to be that way didn’t mean that it couldn’t be changed for the better. The people on this record knew that. You get Carla Cooke, whose father was Sam Cooke. She’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve met in my life.

And you get Charlie Harper, of the U.K. Subs, and I think the U.K. Subs’ first record was Punk Blues music or something like that. And Charlie thought of himself as a Blues guy. You’ve got my good friend Albert Lee and all of us mixed in there. You’ve got Jellybean Johnson. I’m actually talking to Jellybean right now, because Jellybean is out in Minnesota. And Jellybean is coming out of the whole multi-racial, multi-cultural context. A lot of people don’t realize that the band The Time was the first multi-racial band. Then when you flash forward to Prince, who was a direct descendant, musically, from The Time, that’s all multi-racial. When you see what’s going on in Minnesota now, it breaks your heart. Because those guys, Prince, Jesse Johnson, on and on and on. Their music chimes into that.

And if there’s one thing about this record, that I really want to highlight, it’s that you have older black guys, younger black guys, older women, like Carla Cooke, you have my punk friend from England, Charlie Harper. It literally is an amalgamation of what music is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about “us”. That’s something that I’ve always, always felt makes music stronger.

I’ll tell you a story. I was fortunate enough to play for several presidents. I was invited to the White House for the inauguration of George W. Bush, non-partisan. And Colin Powell was there. And he’s a down-to-earth guy. We started talking about stuff. I asked him what he thought the number one export was that America had given to the world. And I just knew he was going to say, “Freedom”. But he said, “Joe, that’s the dumbest question in the world. It’s music!”

Because he can see it. When you go around the world, you can see it. People are so grateful for music and the way it’s changed their lives. And I’m talking about everyone I know. Everyone who I know, from Mick Jagger, who I know very well, all the way to the kid playing at the pub in Wales. Or you go to a club Kyoto, Japan. Or you go to the Blue Note in Beijing. They are so grateful for American music. Because American music does represent music. It really does. It does represent rebellion, to a degree. It’s really cathartic.

HMS: In a broad sense, it’s American music, but historically, the beginning of that is the Blues. The Blues export, right? It started that relationship.

JLW: Yeah. Well, it’s the original rebel music. It is. You think about it. I played Gospel for ten years, and I’ve played Blues for fifty. And I’ll tell you. The only difference is that one is singing about his God, and other is singing about his Baby.

“Times are so tough, I’ve been gone so long.” I can guarantee that there are some artists who are going to write songs right now about, “I can’t breathe.” And songs about the Police State. Because it’s cathartic. Get it out there. And if people feel the same way, maybe you can make a change.

HMS: Yes. Absolutely.

Historically speaking, your position seems to be unusual to me. Because you are very inter-generational. You’re someone who could gain experience and look toward the past in Blues, but you’re someone who has decided to look a lot toward the present and the future as well. Is that hard for you to make those decisions? Do you think you’re weird in that way?

JLW: [Laughter] I like that! Weird! I like what you call it—inter-generational. You know what I call it? I’m a “Tweener”. I’m not as old as Buddy Guy. Though I’ve played with Buddy and I’ve had him on my records. I’m not as old as Muddy Waters, though I’ve played with Muddy. I’m not as old as Howlin’ Wolf, who was always very generous to me. But I’m not as young as Christone [Ingram], or Vanessa Collier, or Bryan Warhall, or Selwyn Birchwood. So, I’m what you call a “Tweener”.

But what I grew up on, fortunately being in the Bay area, was that I grew up on was being able to go to the Fillmore Auditorium and see our Battle of the Bands when I was a teenager. I was in high school half a block away. And then see the hippies come. And then see Howlin’ Wolf, whose records my Dad used to play when I was young. And then see The Yardbirds who were doing Howlin’ Wolf. And then see Jorma [Kaukonen] in the same show, and The James Cotton Blues Band. To be able to see Zappa and Muddy Watters in the same show!

HMS: That’s crazy!

JLW: You got the whole thing. You get the bill with fathers and sons. You get the younger guys doing older stuff. And the real respect and the real camaraderie, 90 percent of the time.

The one time I saw Little Walter, the only time I saw Little Walter, I went to the Longshoreman Hall in San Francisco. And I got to go with my Dad, who was one of the first African-American Longshoremen in San Francisco. I saw Little Walter and Bo Diddley backed by The Grateful Dead.

HMS: Oh my God…

JLW: I’ll tell you something. Since I was like six years old, my Dad would play Blues records all the time. I didn’t know Blues music from anything else. I just knew it was the music my Dad played on the record player. So when I got a guitar, that’s what I wanted to play. And when I started playing that stuff, going around guys my age, they asked, “Why you wanna play that old-time shit?” When I got to be 13 or 14, I would ask for the ads in the music paper to see who was looking for someone to play lead guitar. Because these guys, in my mind, they couldn’t play lead guitar.

I loved George Harrison, but his guitar solos were like twenty seconds long. Little Walter’s solos would go around a couple of times. You’d grab a lick here and you’d grab a lick there, and next thing you know, you’re getting the theory a little bit. I won’t get too technical. But I could see all that. And that informed the way that I grew up, doing what I wanted to do.

And then getting a little older, playing with guys, and jumping on stage, I got to know those older guys. And all of them, to a man and a woman, said, “Joe, do yourself.” BB King: “Joe, be yourself.” “Do that stuff you do.” That, to me, means, respecting what’s been there before, but it also means, try to project myself as someone who has learned from that. Who has learned from Jimmy Page when he was in The Yardbirds. Seeing how he’d play. Seeing how he’d warm up. Seeing how it works.

The way that he’d warm up? You’d hear the Jimmy Reed records playing a mile away. Every Blues and Rock and Roll record they’d play when they were kids, that’s how they’d warm up. That’s how they’d get inspired. I did that too. I’d listen to it. Then I tried to do my own thing.

In reality, you cannot improve on Elmore James. Elmore James didn’t approve of Robert Johnson. Elmore James did it the Elmore James one. But I guarantee they are similar. You cannot improve on Magic Sam doing “Sweet Home Chicago”. But you can do it your way.

The Blues Brothers were a comedy act musical act, but they turned a whole generation onto “Sweet Home Chicago” doing it their way.

Stay tuned for another installment of talking to the great Joe Louis Walker about his new album, Blues Comin' On!

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