Born: December 25, 1949 in San Francisco, California
One of the most popular and creative artists on the contemporary blues scene, guitarist Joe Louis Walker has made a career of blending his disparate influences – blues, rock, gospel, jazz, and soul – into a genre-busting and electrifying original sound. A popular draw on the U.S. and European festival circuit, Walker has performed with some of the best that the blues have to offer and held his own with legends like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, among others. It's a mark of Walker's ability and innovation that he has earned a whopping 48 W.C Handy/Blues Music Award nominations on his way to four wins.
Bay Area Blues
Born on Christmas Day, 1949 in San Francisco, Joe Louis Walker picked up the guitar at the young age of eight years old. Influenced by the sounds of artists like B.B. King and T-Bone Walker (no relation), the young guitarist developed a unique style that allowed him easy entry to a thriving Bay Area music scene as a teenager. Walker's sound evolved further as he shared a stage with musicians as diverse as John Lee Hooker, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
When guitarist Michael Bloomfield relocated to San Francisco from Chicago, he and Walker struck up a friendship, and the two men roomed together for years until Bloomfield's tragic death in 1981. The death of his friend caused Walker to reevaluate his life, and he returned to school, earning degrees in music and English from San Francisco State University. During this time, Walker also performed regularly with The Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet. A 1985 performance by the quartet at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival inspired Walker to return to his blues roots.
HighTone Records Era
Walker formed his band the Bosstalkers and signed with the Oakland, California based roots music label HighTone Records, who released Walker's solo debut, Cold Is The Night, in 1986. The album proved to be an auspicious debut, introducing the guitarist to the blues community outside of the Bay area, earning Walker a W.C. Handy award nomination for "Best Contemporary Blues Album," which he lost to former HighTone labelmate Robert Cray. The Gift, from 1988, would earn Walker his first W.C. Handy Award as "Contemporary Blues Male Artist."
Based on the success of his HighTone releases – 1991's Live At Slim's, Volume 1 earned the guitarist his second W.C. Handy Award as "Contemporary Blues Male Artist" – Walker was signed by Polygram Records to their Verve imprint. Walker made his major label debut with 1993's Blues Survivor, an acclaimed album that began to reveal Walker's eclectic musical influences while featuring more polished studio production. Also in 1993, Walker performed a duet with the great B.B. King on Walker's "Everybody's Had The Blues," from King's Grammy® Award-winning Blues Summit album.
Polygram Records Era
The following year's JLW mixed even more jazz and gospel influences into Walker's heavy blues and rock brew, the album featuring guest performances from Chicago blues legend James Cotton, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and the Tower of Power horns. With 1995's Blues of the Month Club, Walker began a successful relationship with producer and Stax Records legend Steve Cropper, the two musicians producing three albums together. Walker would add his talents to Cotton's Grammy-winning 1996 album Deep In The Blues. Walker and his Bosstalkers band were also in high-demand as a festival draw, winning the 1996 W.C. Handy Award as "Blues Band of the Year."
Great Guitars, from 1997, was more memorable than its predecessor, featuring guest stars like Cropper, Bonnie Raitt, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Otis Rush, and others. Walker would end his major label association with what many critics consider the guitarist's best albums of the decade, 1998's Preacher and the President, and the equally-acclaimed Silvertone Blues in 1999. While the former album would find Walker bringing strains of Delta-inspired slide-guitar to his sound, the latter would follow a more traditional blues direction, Walking adding more slide to his original tunes, Walker even covering Robert Nighthawk's "Crying Won't Help You."
Walker enjoyed several high-profile late-night TV appearances in both the U.S. and U.K. during the late 1990s, and he was chosen by President Bill Clinton and Hilary Rodham Clinton to induct the legendary B.B. King into the Kennedy Centre Awards. Walker also performed at President George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001. Walker's half-dozen Polygram albums raised his profile with European audiences, and he performed at all the major overseas festivals during the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, including Glastonbury, Nottoden, and Montreux. The guitarist would also lead his band through tours of Japan, Australia, Ireland, and Brazil.
Walker would release a number of albums during the 2000s for a variety of U.S. and European labels, the most notable of these being 2004's New Direction and 2006's Playin' Dirty. Signing with Canada's Stony Plain Records, Walker would find the perfect musical foil in guitarist and producer Duke Robillard. The two blues enthusiasts would collaborate on a pair of critically-acclaimed albums, 2008's Witness To The Blues, which features a red-hot duet with singer Shemekia Copeland, and 2009's more blues-rock oriented Between A Rock and the Blues, which would earn Walker his fourth Blues Music Award for "Album of the Year." Walker moved to Alligator Records for 2012's Hellfire album.
Recommended Albums: One would be hard-pressed to find a clunker among the nearly two-dozen albums released by Joe Louis Walker over the past 25+ years. Of Walker's early work, The Gift stands tall as one of the artist's best, while the HighTone release Live At Slim's, Volume 1 is a good representation of Walker and band in a live setting. You'll find a solid example of Walker's mid-career work in 1998's Preacher and the President, and 2009's award-winning Between A Rock and the Blues rocks the house, but 2012's Hellfire is a definite career milestone and a reminder that Walker is still going strong a quarter-century after his debut album.
Joe Louis Walker - Select Discography
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- Cold Is The Night (HighTone Records, 1986)
- The Gift (HighTone Records, 1988)
- Blue Soul (HighTone Records, 1989)
- Live At Slim's, Volume 1 (HighTone Records, 1991)
- Live At Slim's, Volume 2 (HighTone Records, 1992)
- Blues Survivor (Polygram Records, 1993)
- JLW (Polygram Records, 1994)
- Blues of the Month Club (Polygram Records, 1995)
- Great Guitars (Polygram Records, 1997)
- Preacher and the President (Polygram Records, 1998)
- Silvertone Blues (Polygram Records, 1999)
- In The Morning (Telarc Records, 2002)
- Pasa Tiempo (Evidence Records, 2002)
- Guitar Brothers w/Otis Gran (JSP Records, 2002)
- She's My Money Maker (JSP Records, 2003)
- Ridin' High (HighTone Records, 2003)
- New Direction (Provogue Music, 2004)
- Playin' Dirty (JSP Records, 2006)
- Witness To The Blues (Stony Plain Records, 2008)
- Between A Rock and the Blues (Stony Plain Records, 2009)
- Blues Conspiracy: Live On The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (Stony Plain Records, 2010)
- Hellfire (Alligator Records, 2012)