For guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer Joe Louis Walker (headlining the Bradenton Blues Festival on Dec. 2), a life in music was pretty much a given.
Growing up in San Francisco, “My father turned me on to different styles of music,” he says, “and so did my mother. All my cousins were musicians; they had a band, and when one left I took his place.” From his early teens, he recalls, “We were playing all over California, everything from Elks Clubs to community centers to motorcycle clubs and nightclubs, working weekends and weeknights.”
The famous Fillmore District, home to a thriving and diverse music scene, was his native territory. “All I can say is, I was fortunate to grow up in that environment,” he says. “It was like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. I benefited from all the different cultures there, from Japanese to Jewish to African-American, and from the movements going on in civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. It all had a real impact on me, as a musician and a person.”
He played in those early years with a Who’s Who of musicians, from John Lee Hooker to Thelonious Monk to Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix, honing his skills and earning a widespread reputation. But he took something of a break from the blues as an adult, earning a degree in music and English and performing more regularly with his gospel quartet, the Spiritual Corinthians. “I’m a restless soul musically,” Walker says. “You can get on a treadmill playing the same thing all the time. And you know that saying, ‘Be careful what you ask for’? I’d seen some of my friends get what they asked for, and it destroyed who they really wanted to be. Gospel wasn’t about making a gold record. It was inspirational, and about making a joyful noise. I did that for about 10 years, and I still play some gospel now.”
He mixes those gospel roots, along with R&B and funk, on his latest Grammy-nominated album, Everybody Wants a Piece (his 25th in a long and prolific career). But the Blues Hall of Famer is still identified primarily by his blues music, which comes across as both raw and personal.
“I don’t think that’s unique to the blues,” he says. “Any artist gives you a look inside; you have to peel away the onion. If you listen to John Lennon’s ‘In My Life’ or ‘Help,’ or Neil Young’s ‘Old Man,’ those are personal, too. Those songs are cathartic, and they connect with millions of people who felt it but couldn’t say it.”
But, he adds, “The blues is really, really good at it. ‘Me and my woman only get along one day at a time/one day’s rough, the next one’s fine’—everybody can relate to that. It’s like people talk.”
When he’s not on the road, Walker likes to “just sort of chill” at his home in upstate New York, which he loves for its history, its terrain, and its views of the Hudson. “It never ceases to amaze me, there’s so much to see here,” he says. To see Walker, buy tickets at bradentonbluesfestival.org.