Joe Louis Walker – Interview

Blues Coming On is the latest album from Joe Louis Walker, veteran producer, prolific songwriter, arranger and performer. He’s  a musician with many honors and is a Blues Hall of Fame inductee. As a guitar virtuoso he is  best known for electric blues but can seamlessly shift among blues, rock, rockabilly, soul and gospel styles. Blues Coming On is an assemblage of outstanding musicians and performers, whom he has known and worked with for more than fifty years: Dion DIMucci, Mitch Ryder, Jorma Kaukonen, Eric Gales, John Sebastian, Carla Cooke, David Bromberg, Albert Lee and Keb Mo, just to name a few. Joe’s approach, throughout his career has been one of collaboration.

It was an honor to talk to music legend Joe Louis Walker about growing up in San Francisco in the 60’s, playing at The Filmore as a teenager and about his influences, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Bobby Womack and Otis, Thelonious Monk, Willie Dixon and John Mayall, Muddy Waters, James Cotton  and Jimi Hendrix, all of whom he performed with. 

Maria Passannante-Derr: How are you doing during these extraordinarily difficult times?

Joe Louis Walker: We are all in uncharted territory. We are on pins and needles every day because we don’t know if we are open or closed. I listen and believe in the medical experts. We are all navigating some rough waters. Quite honestly, I do not know anybody in this country who is doing well. You got kids, grandkids, grandma who you can’t see. We have all got to pull together, it is as simple as that, with the virus and the social issues. We don’t have a chance to mourn our dead people. It’s a lot of stress and we are in a political season which is now a blood sport. It’s a lot for us to deal with. I wish everyone would take a deep breath, try to pull together and put each of us in each other’s shoes and say, “I see it my way now let me try to see it your way.”  

MP-D: If it weren’t for Covid, what would you be doing now?

JLW: I am supposed to be heading toward Minneapolis and then go to Michigan but there are severe outbreaks there and I can’t afford to be there right now. It is just not healthy for me. Then I am supposed to be in Chicago. I love Chicago but not right now.

MP-D: You started out as a teenager playing in the Bay area with some unbelievable influences such as Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Otis, John Lee Hooker, John Mayall, Muddy Waters? How has your style changed over the years?

JLW: I played with all of these people that you mentioned. I was fortunate I was born in San Francisco and raised there in my formative years. I was also fortunate to be born in 1949. I was part of the group of musicians, now close friends of mine, like Shirley King, Bonnie Raitt, Rick Estrin, all my buddies. If you listen to our music, it is as diverse as hell. We came of age in a generation where we were trying to find our own way. We stood up for women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, for young people who wanted to shed the old mores. There was a school of musicians, maybe eighteen years older than us, people like Jorma who was making musical history but to us he was just “Jorma from the hood”.

MP-D: I saw a video of you some years ago as the emcee inducting and honoring B.B. King with your outstanding version of “Rock Me Baby” at the Kennedy Center along with performances by Dr. John (“The Thrill is Gone”), Bonnie Raitt (“Every Day I Have the Blues”), Joe Williams and Etta James.

JLW: The show was great but the rehearsal with Etta was rough! Nothing or no one was ever going to change Etta’s view of the world. She was like Nina Simone, very political. Etta came out of the projects in San Francisco so I knew Etta and her sons and her cousins for decades. It was so refreshing to be around people like Dr. John because he speaks the truth and he would tell you just how he feels and how things were good in the old days but now they are just ‘very weird’.

Growing up, I was fortunate that my father brought his music with him from Cleveland, Mississippi and my mother brought her music from Arkansas. I was the youngest in the litter so all the music of my older brothers and sisters and my grandmothers passed on down to me. As a youngster, I grew up in the Fresno/Madera area, picking produce. When I got older, I read the bible to my great-grandmother. All my grandmothers are Cherokee Indian, on my mother’s side and on my father’s side are from Mississippi.  After we moved to San Francisco, my Dad sent me to Catholic school but after Catholic Church I would go to the Baptist Church with my grandmother so I got a taste of everything.

I went to junior high a block from the Filmore when a guy named Charles Sullivan ran it and he let us young people have some “battle of the band” time. I was there, in San Francisco, from the beginning, part of the California scene.  In fact, I almost went to Altamont and I am so lucky that I didn’t go.  At the Filmore, I opened for Thelonious Monk and Muddy sometimes for two weeks at a time when I was a youngster. Initially, I was a go-fer (go for this, go for that, go for cigs, barbeque) and then they would let me play because these old guys, like Freddie King, Muddy and BB could see a bit of themselves in me when they were young. The “Wolf” always had a kind word for me. I would go to the matinees on Sundays which were $1.00 instead of the $2.50 ticket on Thursdays. Matinees would be for the blues guys at The Filmore. It usually held 750-1,000 people; but, on Sunday afternoon, maybe there was 100 people. One day The Wolf said to me “What do you do son?” and here I am 100 pounds soaking wet and I said to him, “I am a blues man”! He laughed and laughed at that one.

MP-D:  Since your first album in 1986 you are a prolific artist, songwriter, producer and performer of albums each year. What inspires you as an artist year in and year out?

JLW: Somebody once said I am like a man catching a plane who is a little bit late running for the gate. My first album did not come out until I was thirty five although I had done demos and auditions. I made more money as a sideman. I was known everywhere as the “Frontman Sideman”. Then I put the blues down from ’75-’85 and when I came back it was for a two month tour in Europe. When I returned, I made some demos.  To be honest, I look upon myself as a “tweener” who fell between the cracks.  I am not as old as a Buddy Guy and I am 10-12 years older than my friend Stevie Ray, rest his soul. So every time I get an opportunity, I try to make the most of it. I am not one of those people where it has to be about me. I like collaborating with musicians like on my new cd that showcases musicians like Carla Cooke (daughter of Sam Cooke), Mitch Ryder (we sing harmony together) and Dion (he wrote “Blues Coming On”). I am inspired by collaboration and by the young people that come through my band and move on and are doing good.

MP-D: A lot of thought went into this album. There are some original songs and some original arrangements. How do you produce a Joe Louis Walker album … what is your approach?

JLW: I like to go into the studio and give everyone a template of what to do but give them room to bring something to the table and we dialogue on what works. There are some songs on this album, for example, “Wake Me, Shake Me” recorded with Carla Cooke. I wrote that song  in 1970 and first recorded it in 1971. Here is my Joe Louis Walker rule, “I don’t listen to only me”. On this record, I lean on Scott Caputo a great musician, my co-producer, who has played with everybody like Carly Simon and James Taylor, I also lean on my “brother from another mother”, Waddy Wachtel, an outstanding producer in every sense of the word and what he did with Rondstadt and Stevie Nicks and his experience with a mix of all those people that they, in turn, played with. All these great musicians, like Dion, who recorded seven versions of “Blues Coming On” before he was satisfied. Dion gave me a demo of that song two years ago with him singing two verses. I had to create the rest and fill out the orchestration so I had Waddy and Dion playing acoustic on the first verse and I am playing electric and Eric Gales playing a guitar solo. Before you know, it began to build and “BOOM”, there were nine people playing on that song. I tried to make it sound simple and straight forward and it “rang true” with that seventh version because it was cohesive. Then the question was what to do with the solos because there were three passes so we each took a solo. So, it is not just all about me.

MP-D: Will there be future endeavors and projects with these people?

JLW: There have already been live shows, like John Sebastian, on acoustic, playing with me up in Beacon, New York. Dion, John and I have played many benefits together. Me and Bromberg are tight so we are going to do a show together. There is that connection where I have played on their records and they have returned the favor. Bromberg comes out for the gigs as does Jelly Bean Johnson.  I played on Mitch Ryder’s record last year.

MP-D: John Sebastian, on harmonica, and Keb Mo, from the Delta Mississippi school, on slide guitar do a great job on a song you wrote, “Old Time Used to Be”. Additionally, there are some other “harmonica heavyweights”: Leo Oskar with Carla Cooke on “Someday, Someway” and Charlie Harper, from the UK Subs on “7 & 7”.

JLW: And we got Rick Estrin, my home guy, who plays harmonica on “Bold Legged Woman ”

MP-D: There is a harmonica player on “Lonely Weekend” with David Bromberg on slide guitar?

JLW: That is John.

MP-D: It is Interesting how you bring together these different musicians playing different genres on the same instruments.  Then you have Carla Cooke’s singing on your original, “Awake Me, Shake Me”. What was it like to work with Carla Cooke?

JLW: She is just incredible. She is a very spiritual person. We had planned some shows this year with her and Mario Valens, Richie Valens’ brother. Carla is great to work with, the range of her voice is limitless and the expression of her voice is limitless. I told Dion that I had Sam Cooke’s daughter on the record and he sent me a photo of him and Sam Cooke. It was so cool. I sent the photo to Carla and she had never seen it.

MP-D: I want to come back to Blues Coming On because the great, Eric Gales, a friend and professional colleague of yours, is playing guitar on that track.

JLW: I first met Eric about 1992 when he was 17 years old. I was making an album with James Cotton in a studio in Memphis. The producer, John Schneider asked if he could bring in two guys to watch us and they were, Eric Gales and Derek Trucks (Allman Brothers Band) and I have known them ever since that time. Both are “wicked” guitar players and there is nobody that sounds like either one of them.

MP-D:  You are a producer, songwriter, arranger and a live performance artist and we have already discussed how some of these songs on the album evolved, what about “The Thang” featuring Jesse Johnson and “Feed The People”?

JLW: I recorded ”The Thang” at a live show, in San Francisco, with Robert Cray back in 1986; but, I always thought it needed something and it wasn’t the right time to release it.  When the album opportunity came about, my people said to me “What about Jesse Johnson from The Time? He’s playing the blues”. I sent him the track; and, we incorporated a riff with a different time signature, similar to a Jimi Hendrix song called “Manic Depression”. I just let Jesse do his single string picking. We went back and forth again and again and he brought it alive.

As to the first track, “Feed The People”, a young man, Gabriel Jagger (Mick’s son), sent me a poem he wrote about how we have got to be our brother’s keeper. That had to marinate for two and one-half years before it evolved into a song.

MP-D: What does this album represent in your career?

JLW: I think it is another step in the journey. I enjoyed making it but I enjoyed being with the people even more.

Blues Coming On

Joe Louis Walker, producer; Album Band: Scott Petito, engineer; & bass; Lenny Bradford, bass; Byron Cage, drums; Dorian Randolph, drums; Juma Sultan, percussion; Eric Finland, keys; Bruce Katz, keys; Amalia Rubin, back up vocals.

Track list with guest artists:

“Feed the Poor”, feat. Jorma Kaukonen (guitar, Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna); songwriters: Joe Louis Walker & Gabriel Jagger;

“Blues Coming On” feat. Eric Gales (guitar) & Dion (guitar and vocals); songwriters: Dion Di Mucci and Mike Aqualina;

“Someday, Someway” feat. Carla Cooke (Sam Cooke’s daughter, vocals) & Lee Oskar from War (harmonica); songwriter: Jimmy Barnett;

“The Thang” feat. Jesse Johnson from The Time; songwriter: Joe Louis Walker;

“Old Time Used to Be” feat. Keb Mo (slide guitar) and John Sebastian (harmonica, Lovin Spoonfu); songwriter:  Joe Louis Walker;

“Come Back Home” feat. Mitch Ryder (vocals); songwriter: Lenny Bradford;

“Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man” feat. Waddy Wachtel (guitar); songwriter: Bobby Rush and Ron Davis;

“Awake Me, Shake Me” feat. Carla Cooke (vocals); songwriters: JP Love and Joe Louis Walker;

“Lonely Weekends” feat. David Bromberg (slide guitar), John Sebastian (harmonica); songwriter: Charlie Rich;

“Seven More Steps” feat. Albert Lee (guitar); songwriters: Joe Louis Walker and Lenny Bradford;

“Uptown to Harlem” feat. Jellybean Johnson (guitar); arrangement: Joe Louis Walker; songwriter: Betty Mabry;

“7 & 7” feat. Arlen Roth (guitar); Charles Harper from UK Subs (harmonica); arrangement: Joe Louis Walker; songwriter: Arthur Lee.