San Francisco’s Fillmore District of the 1960s is known worldwide as the birthplace of psychedelic rock. But it was also a hotbed of modern electric blues, and it was the place where one of the genre’s top musical trailblazers, Joe Louis Walker
, was born, raised and schooled. The award-winning guitar slinger, deeply soulful vocalist and gifted songwriter has been releasing groundbreaking music since 1986, but his career goes all the way back to the mid-1960s. As a 16-year-old, he was the house guitarist at San Francisco’s famed musical playground, The Matrix, where he played with or opened shows for everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins (who once threw him off the stage) to Jimi Hendrix to Thelonious Monk. These ear-opening surroundings explain the ease with which Walker blends blues, rock, gospel, jazz and country, making it seem as if the walls between the styles never existed in the first place. The New York Times
raves, “Walker is a singer with a Cadillac of a voice. He delivers no-nonsense, gutsy blues. His guitar solos are fast, wiry and incisive, moaning with bluesy despair.” According to Living Blues
, he is “one of today’s modern musical masters.” Rolling Stone
simply calls him “ferocious.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Walker’s Alligator Records debut, Hellfire
. Produced by songwriter/drummer Tom Hambridge (producer of Buddy Guy’s two most recent Grammy-winning CDs, Skin Deep
and Living Proof
, as well as albums for Susan Tedeschi, George Thorogood and others), Hellfire
burns with rock energy and intense blues feeling. Walker, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the CD’s eleven tracks, says it’s the hardest rocking and most deeply soulful album of his career. His blistering blues guitar playing and gospel-tinged vocals effortlessly blend throughout the album. From the psychedelic overtones of the title track (a harrowing and personal tale of the struggle of good versus evil) to the slow, simmering and pleading ”What’s It Worth”
to the Stones-y rocker ”Ride All Night”
is the work of a man possessed. Walker’s original showstopper ”Soldier For Jesus”
(featuring vocal harmonies from The Jordanaires, who also appear on ”Don’t Cry”
) fits seamlessly alongside the other selections, making perfect thematic sense in the tradition of Al Green, Marvin Gaye or Prince, who all successfully combined carnal desires and gospel devotion.
Joe Louis Walker was born in San Francisco on Christmas Day of 1949. His parents were both from the South and they brought their love of blues with them when they headed west. Joe’s dad played blues piano, and his mom played B.B. King records. Even though he wasn’t raised in the South, his exposure to the blues was pure and real. Walker picked up the guitar as a child, and by the time he was 16 was regularly backing touring blues artists rolling through town. Out of the house and on his own, under the wing of famed musician/pimp Fillmore Slim, Walker worked the local club scene steadily as an in-demand musician. San Francisco’s music scene was quickly becoming a melting pot of blues, jazz and psychedelic rock, and Walker was right in the center of it. In addition to his work at The Matrix, he was a regular at Bill Graham’s famed Fillmore West.
The blues legends Walker accompanied shared not only musical knowledge but also their personal wisdom with the teenage up-and-comer. Fred McDowell, Ike Turner, Albert King, Freddy King, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many others taught, fed, and chastised the youngster. At one gig, Hopkins glared at Walker and, adding improvised lyrics to the song he was singing, ordered him off the stage for playing a sour note. Lesson learned, Walker backed Hopkins the next time he was through town and all was forgiven. Blues icon Willie Dixon told him to set his sights high. “What’s your style? You need your own sound,” Dixon preached. Walker took the advice to heart and developed his own fiery, melodic, and always unpredictable guitar attack.
Walker met guitarist Michael Bloomfield in 1968 and the two became fast friends. Bloomfield introduced Walker to many of the day’s top rockers, including Sly Stone, Carlos Santana, Steve Miller, Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonen (of Jefferson Airplane) and even jazz legend Wayne Shorter. Bloomfield helped push Walker’s blues in a more rock-fueled direction, and he became the single biggest influence on Walker’s sound. The two shared an apartment for years and remained close friends until Bloomfield’s death in 1981. Walker is quick to acknowledge Bloomfield’s impact, saying, “I can sometimes feel him in my playing.”
From 1975 to 1985 Walker performed nothing but gospel music, playing and singing as a member of The Spiritual Corinthians. During this period he attended San Francisco State University and earned two degrees, one in English and one in Music. While performing with The Spiritual Corinthians at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1985, Walker was inspired by the R&B, blues and rock music swirling around him. He decided he could no longer limit himself to gospel music and returned to playing the blues. On the strength of a demo tape sent to Hightone Records, Walker was signed to his first recording contract. In 1986, the label released Walker’s debut CD, Cold Is The Night
. Firmly rooted in blues, gospel, R&B and rock, the album caught the attention of music fans around the country. Billboard
called it “a contemporary blues find.” The San Francisco Chronicle
said, “He expertly updates the timeless urban blues sound.”
Since then, Walker has released 23 more albums and two DVDs and toured worldwide. He’s won four Blues Music Awards, including the 2010 Album Of The Year Award for Between A Rock And A Hard Place
(Stony Plain Records), and has been nominated for 43 more. He’s also recorded as a guest with some of the blues world’s best-known artists, including appearances on Grammy-winning records by B.B. King and James Cotton.
With each subsequent release, Walker’s audience continues to grow, as his touring schedule continues to expand. He’s played major European festivals, including Northsea Jazz Festival, Glastonbury, Notodden and Montreux, as well as festivals in Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Ireland, Turkey and Brazil. He’s appeared on national television, with performances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Don Imus Show
and Later With Jools Holland
in the UK.
Fans and critics have been celebrating Walker for years. Blues Revue
calls Walker “one of contemporary blues’ most dynamic and innovative musicians, releasing consistently exciting music. No matter what he’s singing, Walker’s approach is soulful, heartfelt and spellbinding.” Living Blues
says, “His fretwork is indelibly stamped with his own trademark blend of emotional heat and impeccable precision—even at his most flamboyant, Walker sounds as if he’s playing ideas, not just notes.” A bluesman of immense talent and drive, Walker tours constantly, playing concerts and festivals across the globe. Raining fire with his guitar and spitting brimstone with his vocals, Hellfire
begins a brand new chapter in Joe Louis Walker’s already legendary career.