2013 Blues Hall of Fame inductee and guitarist Joe Louis Walker has a firm understanding of the difference between pop prosperity and musical talent, and short-term and long-term success in the music industry.
“Somebody could be a star in ten minutes nowadays, but that doesn’t make you a singer. It doesn’t make you a musician, just because you’re famous in ten minutes,” Walker said. “Because usually what happens when your famous in ten minutes is that you’re career might last ten minutes, or your talent might last ten minutes.”
Walker, who hails from San Francisco’s Fillmore District, has seen, heard and done a lot throughout his five-decade career. After growing up in a family of musicians, he started his career in 1964, a time when his hometown was a gumbo of musical genres.
“A good community for music was coming up in my neighborhood and different neighborhoods,” Walker said. “Everybody knew each other, Sylvester Stewart and Freddie Stewart of Sly Stone, Larry Graham, Tower of Power, hippie guys, Jefferson Airplane….What happened when we all played – White, Black, Brown and Yellow – we all ended up playing at the same places. So everybody rubbed shoulders together and then when the Fillmore Auditorium became sort of hippiefied everybody was really on the same bill.
“So you would have a bill where Sly Stone would be on the bill with The Grateful Dead would be on the bill with Muddy Waters. I mean literally, you would have Ornette Coleman Jazz Quartet on the bill with Howlin’ Wolf and Jefferson Airplane. So that’s the type of environment that I come out of.”
In the early part of his career, he played with John Lee Hooker, Buddy Miles, Thelonius Monk, Muddy Waters, Steve Miller, Nick Lowe and Jimi Hendrix. And you can still hear all of those influences in his sound. His latest release, Hornet’s Nest, released in 2014 with Alligator Records, has the drive of classic rock, the pain of the blues and the looseness of psychedelic rock.
All of that plus new music from his upcoming release Everybody Wants a Piece, available for preorder and slated for an Oct. 9 release with Mascot Records, can be heard on Aug. 23 at The State Theatre. Walker attributed his longevity in part to his versatility as a musician.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed that I’ve always sort of had, in some way or at some time, someone to help me or someone know that I’m versatile enough to go from playing with Matt Murphy from The Blues Brothers or Steve Cropper to playing with the Thelonious Monk Institute, Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter to go to do a duet with Joss Stone,” Walker said. “I’m versatile and it’s not a jack of all trades, master of none situation. I’m a fan of all music and that’s what I grew up with.”
Walker said that growing up with such a diverse community of musicians and styles of music made “every day training day.”
“I feel like that was the best experience for me, opening up shows for people like Thelonius Monk, to be around great musicians like Sly Stone and Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, John Handy, all kinds of different people,” Walker said.
Many of the musicians who chased whatever creative ghost was inhabiting San Francisco and the Bay Area did not make it out of that era, several of them succumbing to drug addiction or drug-related illnesses as the wave of the ‘60s came crashing down in subsequent decades.
Walker narrowly escaped that fate, moving to Vancouver from San Francisco in 1968, and straightening out his life over the next decade or so, eventually graduating from San Francisco State University with degrees in Music and English.
“It was just too much excess. Where I came from everybody was into excess, from The Grateful Dead to Sly Stone to all the guys who moved out to the West from the East Coast….You had to come out there to play,” Walker said.
“But across the board, it was a lot of excess and a lot of people were dying from it, so I figured if I didn’t change my game I would be throwing dirt at the graveyard myself.”
• For more information about Joe Louis Walker, visit joelouiswalker.com.