Blues Hall of Fame inductee and four-time Blues Music Award winner, Joe Louis Walker returns to Bluesfest for the fifth time in 2018. Walker paid his dues in the sixties as house guitarist at San Francisco’s famed musical playground, The Matrix. It was here that he played with or opened shows for everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Albert King and Thelonious Monk. His friendship with guitarist Michael Bloomfield was pivotal in steering Joe in direction which would lead to a career spanning 5 decades, 23 album releases and numerous world tours. AM’s Greg Phillips recently spoke to Joe about his career and upcoming trip to Australia.
Hello Joe. I believe you’ve been in the studio today. What have you been recording?
More songs for the next record. We’ve been working on 8 or 9 songs, hoping to get a record out before March next year before I get to Australia.
Would you say that there is an overriding theme to the album?
It’s a variety of things. A lot of singin’, a lot of soulful stuff on this record.
Will you have any special guests on the album this time?
Well yeah, I’m going to have a few people. It started out with a whole bunch but I have a few friends that may play on this and a couple of young ladies that might sing on it too.
Do you enjoy being in the studio Joe?
Well you know, I got used to eventually feeling comfortable in the studio. The first thing you have to get used to in the studio is your singing, especially hearing your own voice and then some things you do live on stage don’t jive in the studio. It’s more of a controlled atmosphere and you have to listen and you have to listen for parts that are going to be there that aren’t there yet. You may have to leave a little space. I sort of became comfortable with that in the 90s. You trust yourself and you don’t try to sound perfect. That’s the kiss of death. You don’t have to sound perfect, you just have to sound human.
What have you learned about getting a good recorded guitar sound?
Well the thing about guitars is that there’s so many different ways that you can go and it has been my experience that there is no particular way to do what you do. My other experience is that when you experiment with stuff, sometimes you think that hasn’t worked. You listen back sometimes and you go man, I think that really does work! That’s how just about everything has been invented or discovered. It wasn’t like Einstein was going out hunting for the theory of relativity, it’s something that happened. It wasn’t like Ike Turner was coming up with the fuzz tone for guitars … the amp fell out of the car and he didn’t have another amp, so they just let it buzz. The next thing you know, everybody wants that sound. That’s usually how things happen upon. It’s like I tell my kids, it’s not the things that you plan in life that change your life, it’s the things that you don’t plan. It’s the same thing with music or any art. So I don’t plan guitar sounds. What I do plan is different guitars. There are some guitar players that are known to play one guitar … BB King with Lucille, Albert KLing and Lucy. I’m not one of those people. To me a guitar is a piece of wood and some strings. It’s what comes out of your heart and your hands and your mind. The guitar does what you have it do. You could get a guitar just like BB King but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna sound like BB King. That’s the way I look at guitars. BB King would sound the same way on any guitar he played and he played all of them. I know because I knew him real good. When Fender first came out with guitars, he was playing a Broadcaster, a Telecaster, a Nocaster, Stratocaster. He tried Gretsch, he tried everything until he ended up making that Lucille. To me an instrument is just that … it’s an instrument. It doesn’t take the place of a person, it just what the person wants it to do.
“It’s like I tell my kids, it’s not the things that you plan in life that change your life, it’s the things that you don’t plan.”
Studio technology has moved on a lot since the blues forefathers recorded their music. It’s easier to get a great sound now but is it harder to keep the original blues essence? Was the primitive recording gear part of the appeal of that music?
The studios back then weren’t that primitive but what it was more …. everyone was in a room playing together. The bass player didn’t come in on a Sunday and the drummer on a Monday and then the lead vocalist on a Tuesday. Everybody played together and if there were any mistakes, well they just stayed on the record. It showed how great the bands were like the Texas Upsetters who backed Little Richard or Fats Domino’s band where all those guys… it showed how great they were that they could go in and they would do one or two takes and they would have it. Whereas now … the best word I heard for technology was what Malcolm X called it and that was Tricknology because you can trick the people into thinking this is what it is. But the average person doesn’t give darn about the latest trick you can do in the studio, what they care about is creating honest music. If the music is honest, you can have a note that doesn’t belong there because that is human, that’s the human part of it. When it gets too technologically perfect it takes the human element out of it.
You have played Bluesfest before. What are your memories of it?
I think this will be my 4th or 5th time. The last time I played Bluesfest, there was a bunch of us on the plane together … myself and Leon Russell, rest his soul and George Clinton. My friend Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s bass player said when you’re playing look down at the audience. I looked down and the audience just parted like the red sea and Bob Dylan walked all the way down to the front of the stage. He stood there for a while and watched us play then he walked off but it was cool. It’s cool when other musicians dig what ya doin’ and for Americans, there are like 2 or 3 great songwriters who are untouchable. One is Smokey Robinson, another is Curtis Mayfield … real poets … and the other one is Bob Dylan.
You’ve recorded over 20 albums, how do you go about putting your set list together?
I always do something old and something new and I try not to do the same stuff on tour because I just get bored. A lot of times I listen to what people want me to play. But always something old and something new and part of my show is a bit of a remembrance for some of the guys aren’t here anymore, people that I knew, people that I liked. I do a little Chuck Berry, I liked it when I was playing shows with him. When I met him in the 80s he was very kind to me and gave me nothin’ but encouragement. That’s special to me. I do a homage to BB King, cos he was always nice to me. I do a homage to Fats Domino, he was always extremely nice. A lot of those older guys were very supportive. So we give props to what I call the originators cos that’s what they were.
In another interview you said that when you are in the company of the greats, you keep your mouth shut and your ears open. What kind of things do you learn when you play with a BB King or Albert King?
With someone like BB he’s like your uncle. He would tell me things that would be boring to other people but things like pay roll tax. Simple things that might sound stupid to you or somebody else. When you are a musician and you’re wearing a suit and you’re wearing a shirt … well sometimes the shirt will rise, so BB taught me how to take the shirt and put it into your underwear, so that it doesn’t rise up when you’re on stage and you don’t look like a dufus. Just simple stuff. With guitar players these days you can easily change strings but back in the day you couldn’t so much so they would wipe them down with alcohol, you don’t need to change strings every darn show. They couldn’t afford to do that anyway, so they’d wipe them down. I would listen to Albert King talk about buses and the temperature of my car and how the fan would run hot. Things that you would ask your uncle or your dad if you were a kid. I would say, well I don’t wanna know about fixing a car Albert and he would say … well that’s the problem! The first person I ever saw with a computer in their house was BB King that he got from Japan. He would say, do you know about this and I would say, well a little bit … and he’d say well that’s your problem. I take my hat off to them because they all wanted to better themselves.
“Everybody plays Little Wing and they forget, there is no guitar solo in Little Wing. They sometimes play a 9 minute thing but there is no solo, it’s a beautiful ballad … Most guitar players use it as an exercise to play every freakin’ note they know.”
You also supported Thelonious Monk. I guess you found those performances inspiring too?
It was something special because he was who he was but to be quite honest, he was just one of many musicians that came and performed at the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco where I used to live. We all knew Thelonious Monk was special, so I would just watch him and talk to him a little. He was also very supportive. He would tell me to learn to read the music and learn the piano, your voicings and inversions. Everybody thinks Thelonious Monk was this loose musician, he was very, very well educated in music, believe me. They hear Thelonious Monk and say those are the wrong notes or Miles Davis but those were the right notes for them. They didn’t want to play the same notes everyone else played. As much as you try to sound like Monk, you’re not going to sound like Monk or Miles Davis. Same with Jimi Hendrix. Everybody plays Little Wing and they forget, there is no guitar solo in Little Wing. They sometimes play a 9 minute thing but there is no solo, it’s a beautiful ballad. At the end he plays a little legato to accentuate the Little Wing but people don’t get it. Most guitar players use it as an exercise to play every freakin’ note they know.
What guitars are you currently playing on stage?
I’ve been playing Zemaitis guitars quite a bit. A guy made a guitar in homage to me, it’s called a Cara guitar and it’s the Joe Louis Walker Hellfire model. I also play a guitar out of Japan called a Rozeo, which is a nice guitar which is like Chuck Berry’s old 350T, which I always loved. It’s semi hollow body but its a hollow body too and you get the best of both worlds. I got some Gibsons and Fenders. I don’t have as many now. I use to be a collector and had about 99 guitars but not anymore.
We often talk about guitars and amps with guitarists but when did you first become aware of the importance of good quality accessories such as cables?
I’m not one of those people. I am not Eric Johnson. I just take a cable from a shop and plug it in. I don’t get hung up on what kind of strings. I don’t get hung up on what kind of guitar. The best thing I can tell you is this … I used to go down to the Iridium where Les Paul played. Les Paul and Chet Atkins would play together. When they played together Les was as loose as a goose, just a cool dude. After they got off stage one time, all of these guitar players ran over to Les Paul and were asking him how do you do this, how do you get that? he just said read my book. Then they went to Chet and asked the same sort of questions. Chet took his guitar and he just set it on the stand in front of them and he said how does it sound now? They were like, it’s making no noise Chet. He said that’s my point! When guys get hung up on chords, strings, a guitar just like BB King or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix …. you’re not going to sound like Clapton or Hendrix. They played on every guitar known to mankind and they still sound the damn same. That’s why I don’t get my mind into that.
What are you most proud of Joe?
I’m fortunate. I was talking to one of my friends since we were kids, we used to play in the sandbox together. He owns an internet company. I feel like we literally came from nothing. We came from the projects. We went from the outhouse to the penthouse. The name of my book is going to be From The Projects To Paris because I went from 5 kids living in 2 rooms to be able to realise some of the dreams that my mother and father and grandmother had for me and that makes me feel good. The chance that they took on me, buying me a guitar when we had no money. I was able to make it pay off in that respect. My father didn’t live long enough to see me get real well known, my mother did. One of my grandmothers did, so that thrill is something for me to be proud of.
JOE LOUIS WALKER IS PLAYING BLUESFEST ON THURSDAY 29TH & FRIDAY 30TH MARCH, 2018. Ticket info here