Joe Louis Walker
Joe Louis Walker
Official Biography (courtesy of Joe Louis Walker)
One of the most surprising things about Joe Louis Walker - apart from his skills as a singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer - is the impact he has had as a performer who proves to international audiences that the blues are alive and very well indeed.
Only B.B. King has taken the blues further, and to more destinations, than Walker. Now, with a new internationally-released album on the Canadian roots music label Stony Plain, he's ready to pack his suitcase once again.
Witness to the Blues is a tour de force - a varied, smart, funny, hard-edged collection of blues that ranges from acoustic to rockin' horn-laden material that reminds you of Stax in its heyday. Walker handles the vocals (including a duet with young blues diva Shemekia Copeland), plays acoustic, electric and slide guitar, and adds some harmonica solos as well.
In fact, Joe Louis Walker, helped by guitar-master Duke Robillard (who produced the CD and played on many of the tracks), makes a major contribution to the much-needed campaign to bring the blues into the 21st century.
In many ways, Walker's story is unusual. Born in San Francisco (on Christmas Day 1949) and now based in Westchester, New York, he was part of the Bay Area blues scene in his early teens, and by the time he was 16 he had soaked up the sounds of the likes of T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, and boogie woogie pioneers Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. As he grew up, he found himself on stage with such disparate tutors as John Lee Hooker, Thelonius Monk, the Soul Stirrers, Steve Miller and Jimi Hendrix. And by the time he was 19 he had built a close friendship - they were roommates for many years - with Mike Bloomfield.
Bloomfield's tragic early death persuaded the young Walker to change his life. He enrolled at San Francisco State University, earning music and English degrees - and performing regularly with a gospel group, The Spiritual Corinthians.
In 1985, he came back to the blues, fronting a new band he called The Bosstalkers, and making the first of five albums for the HighTone label, before signing to PolyGram's Verve/Gitanes label, for whom he recorded another six albums.
These records served as an entrÃ©e into the European market. Sterling appearances at major festivals throughout Europe (North Sea Jazz, Glastonbury, Nottoden and Montreux among them) led to further tours and festivals in Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Ireland, Turkey and Brazil.
Along the way he played President George Bush's inauguration, helped President Bill Clinton induct B.B. King into the Kennedy Center Awards, and performed on America's most-watched late-night television shows.
Joe Louis Walker is a walking encyclopaedia of blues history, and blues vocal and guitar styles. In fact, one of the very few who can match his eclectic tastes in music is Duke Robillard, the veteran guitarist who founded Roomful of Blues when he was a teenager, and who has made a dozen albums for Stony Plain.
Holger Petersen, who heads the Canadian-based roots label, was delighted by the choice of Robillard as producer for Witness to the Blues. And for Robillard, the sessions were a joy. "There's a lot of diversity on this CD, yet it hangs together really well."
The material - more than half the 11 tracks were written by Walker - includes two traditional blues pieces ("Sugar Mama" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'") which he completely transforms. A highlight of the CD is a killer duet with Shemekia Copeland on the Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson classic, "Lover's Holiday."
The back up players are all musicians with long experience with Robillard, including horn players Doug James and Scott Aruda, Bruce Katz on keys, Jon Ross on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums. Robillard himself adds guitar parts on five cuts.
Both vocally and instrumentally, Joe Louis Walker is indeed a "witness to the blues," and the creative, sometimes startling approach to America's most significant music holds a bright lantern for others to follow.