The Musical Matrix
A Q&A with Joe Louis Walker
By Geoff Gehman
At age 16 Joe Louis Walker played house guitar in a San Francisco club called the Matrix, where on any given night you could hear everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Thelonius Monk, Magic Sam to Pigpen. At age 63 Walker is a matrix all by himself. For nearly 30 years he’s been plugged into an electrifying grid of blues, rock, soul, R&B and gospel, tripping the circuits with the likes of Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt and Ron Wood.
On Aug. 9 Walker will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a rollicking roadhouse church. He’ll sample his 2012 CD “Hellfire” (Alligator Records), a terrific collection of wicked rockers (“What It’s Worth”), sneaky soulful tributes (“Black Girls”) and sacred-secular showcases (“Soldier for Jesus,” featuring the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s favorite backup singers). Exploring the stretch between heaven and hell is natural for Walker, who sought refuge from his demons by joining the Spiritual Corinthians gospel group and who befriended Mike Bloomfield, the immensely talented electric guitarist who succumbed too soon to his demons.
A 2013 member of the Blues Hall of Fame, Walker recently singed the telephone lines with candid comments about inspiration, fame and the importance of letting the game come to you.
Q: “Hellfire” was a deep, important record for you. What goals did you have making it? And what did you get out of making it?
A: I was trying to make a record that hopefully young people can enjoy, to get some newer people listening to the blues. And I was learning to trust my instincts in the studio. That’s a big deal for me.
Q: One of my favorite tracks on “Hellfire” is “Black Girls,” a tribute to the female singers who really give soul to rock and roll. I know you watched some of these ladies in action: the Ikettes, Margie Hendricks of the Raelettes, Merry “Gimme Shelter” Clayton—all of whom are featured in the new documentary “20 Feet from Stardom.” Have you ever considered cutting a record with some of these fabled backup vocalists?
A: I’d love to do something with those folks. But, then, I’ve done a lot of different vocal stuff with a lot of different people. B.B. King. Bonnie Raitt. The Jordanaires. The Gospel Hummingbirds. My old group, the Spiritual Corinthians. I’m open to pretty much anything and everything.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment, or moments, from your decade in the Spiritual Corinthians?
A: One of the most enjoyable experiences was a 50th-anniversary concert with the Soul Stirrers–the real Soul Stirrers. We had the Clark Sisters, the Truthettes, just a bunch of great people. We even had [Soul Stirrer patriarch] R.H. Harris. We didn’t have drums or a whole bunch of instruments because R.H. wouldn’t play with drums or electric guitars.
Q: I envy folks who went to the Fillmores West and East like I envy folks who went to Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play. After reading about your high-flying times at the Matrix, I wish I had been a fly on the wall there, too. Can you remember your first hair-raising, spine-tingling, earth-quaking time at the Matrix?
A: Well, there were a million clubs besides the Matrix back then. To be honest, there were better clubs, too. But when you look back, I don’t think there was any better club when it comes to making a cultural statement. The Matrix was a very special place because it booked the old groups and the new, the white with the black. It was a premier place to listen to older blues guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Magic Sam, up close. People like John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service or Pigpen from the [Grateful] Dead or Tommy Johnston from the Doobies got a chance to hang out with the old blues cats. You could see all the young hippie groups, too. It was all mixed up, and it was cool.
Q: Larry Coryell, who will be playing Mauch Chunk on Aug. 17, says that Miles Davis gave him a great piece of advice: “Never finish a phrase.” In other words, keep the phrase open so you remain open to something better. What’s the best wisdom you received from Mike Bloomfield, your old roommate and role model?
A: The one thing I really admired about Michael was his standing as a musician. He was so versatile. You could hear him playing on “Like a Rolling Stone” and Muddy Waters’ record “Fathers and Sons”; you could hear him playing with the Woody Herman Orchestra and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. On certain nights he could be the greatest, just like on certain nights Elvin Bishop could be the greatest. The only person I could put in a category with Michael is Taj Mahal. Taj could do Robert Johnson and then turn around and do the country song “Six Days on the Road” and be just as viable.
It’s almost as if in that particular time [the ’60s and ’70s] people were open in the way that Miles told Larry to leave the phrase open. They were open with their music, their art, their movies, their actions. It was a time when whites and blacks could play together in groups like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Booker T and the MGs, when everybody was searching for what they thought was right.
It’s that mixed-up element in America that’s inspirational. People from all over the world grab it and hold it close to them as a beacon, whether it’s music or politics or FM radio or sports. If you ask anyone what inspires them, it’s usually something against the grain. It could be Muhammad Ali. Or it could be Pete Seeger, one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. I’m glad they put these “American Masters” [programs] on TV so you can really see that what really makes us great, as a country and a people, is our collective soul.
Q: Did you gain a new understanding of America, a new appreciation for your country, when you lived in France for over two years?
A: France is a special place. You get up in the morning and you have croissants or a baguette and coffee at the bistro and you read papers and you talk about topics of the day. One time I came back home after a tour and my French friends said: “Joe, why are they letting New Orleans drown?” I didn’t really understand until I turned on the television and saw people on the roof [after Hurricane Katrina]. I remember Charlene Neville in her tribulation driving a bus over a bridge, running through a blockade, trying to get kids to safety.
A good friend of mine, who was born in Algeria but raised in France, turned to me and said: “You know, Joe, did you ever wonder why America has to always be in a war?” And I told him: “I’ll be honest, I don’t know, man.” Maybe it’s because people are just numb; maybe they think that war is a natural state because that’s the way the country was discovered. Things might be different if more people could see the effects of somebody getting shot in the head, if the picture had a human face.
That’s why I’m glad I’m a musician. I have a release for what I do. And my release is positive, whether I’m playing music for 200 people or 2,000. And I can give them a positive release, too.
Q: You’ve said that your biggest fans were your mother and the late Lee Atwater, the former Republican Party chair who probably loved to play blues guitar more than he loved to lobby. What did Lee do for you besides getting you an invitation to play at the first George Bush’s presidential inauguration?
A: Go figure, right? That’s the dichotomy; that’s the power of music. Lee just liked the blues. By him liking the blues, he treated the blues guys—and the rock guys—he hired with respect. Because of Lee, I got to go to the White House on a couple of occasions, I got to give the first George Bush a guitar. I also got to play in this big inauguration concert. It was, believe me, a very, very strange thing.
I was the first act to come on and at the table of honor were Coretta Scott King, Barbara Bush, Martin Luther King III and old man Bush. The only one not there was George W. Bush; he was backstage with Lee Atwater, leading the fun parade [laughs].
I had my own segment and I played with the Willie Dixon Dream Band. There was Koko Taylor; Cash McCall, Willie’s guitar player, and [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ronnie Wood. And then I did a bunch of different combinations with Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan, Albert Collins, Joe Cocker, the MGs without Booker T.
It was more like a rock concert I found out, way later, than I thought it was. Let’s just say it was very interesting to see how everybody enjoyed themselves; let’s just leave it at that [laughs]. Normally, at affairs like that, it’s divided according to political parties. Well, for that one night, it was just a party. Let me tell you, it wasn’t about to not be a party [laughs].
Q: Is there something that you recently discovered that’s made life easier for you as a professional musician, some hard-won epiphany?
A: I’d say that the last seven, eight, 10 years I’ve started enjoying my career a bit more. I enjoy my fans. I enjoy being around Taj Mahal or Ronnie Wood or Mick Taylor or Phil Neville or whoever. These are my kind of guys.
When you’re working all the time, it’s not easy. Musicians really don’t have a day off, unless you’re a really, really big musician; then you have a few days off from a tour. But even that’s not happening that much these days. Even the big acts are touring because the music industry is in such bad shape. The record companies are in dire straits and the clubs aren’t having it easy by any stretch of the imagination. And uniqueness and originality are being questioned.
When I was 17, 18, I was living in houses with people like Michael Bloomfield and seeing all sorts of folks coming through, with a lot of people dying—Jimi [Hendrix], Janis [Joplin]. I saw how they were just totally unprepared for what became the classic rock and roll industry, or, if you want to call it, the cash cow. It’s that classic situation where everybody’s struggling for that slice of pie, that success which is linked to stardom which is linked to “Oh god, when I get there I’m going to feel so much better and my life’s going to be so much better.”
It’s like that line from that Eagles song [“Hotel California”]: “They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.” Well, that beast has grown so much it pretty much ate up the mother and father.
I guess my epiphany is that I’m glad I started when I did because people have been aware of me for a long time. They know that I like to play all styles of music, with blues being the most important. They know that I like experimenting, that I like to get out of my wheelhouse. They know that I’ve stayed true.
Q: So, Joe, what do you do on the road to keep yourself comfortable?
A: I like to warm up by singing gospel songs, like my grandmother used to do. It just loosens you up. It’s important to stay loose on stage. The tighter you get, the more it takes the fun part out of it.
Q: What projects do you have on the front burners? I’ve read that you’d like to cut a record with Johnny Winters, a fellow blues-rock guitarist and your soul brother, and that you’d like to write an autobiography.
A: I’d like to do both projects. A friend of mine told me that if you start writing so much about the past, you sort of start neglecting the future. I was one of those guys when I was young I always wanted to be older. Now that I’m older I sort of want to be younger. I’ve imbibed everything known to mankind, but I’m not too worried because my grandmother lived to 100 and I have great genes.
I feel great. I love playing with friends of mine. Now that we’re older it’s special that we can sit around and talk about stuff and laugh. I could laugh with Ronnie Wood about that inauguration concert and the fact that between the two of us we saw just about everything—and, man, I mean everything.
Joe Louis Walker: The Scoop
(1) The first song he couldn’t forget: The Drifters’ “I Count the Tears.”
(2) His father played blues piano and his mother played B.B. King records.
(3) He received degrees in music and English from San Francisco State University.
(4) He’s written songs (“Black Girls,” “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk”) with JoJo Russo, a car-shop owner and car renovator-designer in Pittsburg, Calif., where Walker once lived.
(5) On his 1997 CD “Great Guitars” he duets with the likes of Otis Rush, Bonnie Raitt and Little Charlie Baty.
(6) His song “Highview,” which appears on his 2008 record “Witness to the Blues,” honors his friend Peter Green, the original lead guitarist for Fleetwood Mac and a rare musician who has given B.B. King “the cold sweats.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He can be reached at email@example.com.