Friday, October 3, 2014

Joe Louis Walker - The HighTone Records Years

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Over the past few years, Joe Louis Walker has certainly made an impact on the blues genre, most recently with two fine releases on Alligator Records, Hellfire and this year's Hornet's Nest, but longtime blues fans know that it's been a long and occasionally crooked musical path that Walker has taken to reach the level of success he is currently enjoying, with more than a few twists, turns, stops, and side roads along the way.  Walker has been one of the most talented and creative blues artists over the past quarter century, and part of the reason for this is related to that musical journey, which has to account for his absolute fearlessness in taking the blues in new and different directions.

Walker was born in San Francisco on Christmas Day in 1949.  His parents had recently arrived in San Francisco from Arkansas and both of his parents loved the blues.  In 1989, Walker told Mary Katherine Aldin in Living Blues that his father had more blues records than anybody he knew, except for his mother.  He and his friends also grew up listening to the blues via either records or his friends' fathers playing the blues in the neighborhood.  He was also exposed to gospel music because of his grandmother, who lived with Walker and his family.

Walker learned to play guitar in his early teens, learning from his cousins and older people in the community.  When he was 16, he was basically on his own and began playing blues and rock around town, where he ended up rooming for a while with Michael Bloomfield, who introduced him to artists like Earl Hooker.  He ended up playing and meeting Lightnin' Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, and many others, gaining valuable experience in the process, and even made a pilgrimage in the late 60's to Chicago with Bloomfield.

However, by the mid 70's, Walker left the blues scene, burned out by the lifestyle and the decline and death of several of his fellow musicians.  For several years, he played gospel with groups like the Spiritual Corinthians and the Gospel Hummingbirds.  Walker played with the Corinthians for ten years from 1975 until 1985.

Walker was always restless as a musician, never content to stay in the same place, so he ended up transitioning back to the blues over time.  When writing songs for the Corinthians, he found that they wanted to stick more to the traditional gospel sounds where he liked to mix soul and rock & roll sounds in.  Interestingly enough, most gospel music today follows that trend, mixing other musical styles in with the message, but at the time, it was more or less a new concept and so Walker found himself drawn back to the blues.

Walker recorded a demo in the mid 80's and sent it to several labels, including Alligator, Columbia, and Capitol.  He included a soul song, a gospel song, and two "House Rockin'" songs.  Iglauer, who had previously rejected a more traditional blues-based demo that Walker had previously submitted, told him that he enjoyed the two rockers, but ended up passing again.  Iglauer did, however, introduce and recommend Walker to Bruce Bromberg of HighTone Records, which worked out well because Walker had sent a copy of the demo to them also.  HighTone already had a pretty impressive roster, including Robert Cray, Frankie Lee, and Phillip Walker, so Joe Louis Walker was a pretty smooth fit.

In May of 1986, Walker began recording for HighTone.  His debut, Cold Is The Night, was released late that year.  It was an amazing release, with Walker writing or co-writing nearly every tune with Dennis Walker and Bruce Bromberg, who also produced with Walker, giving the disc a nice raw and unvarnished feel.  There were some memorable standouts like the desperate title track, the aching "One Woman," "Fuss and Fight," the Dennis Walker/Lowell Fulson-penned "Ten More Shows To Play," and "Don't Play Games."  His piercing lead guitar work, influenced by artists like Hooker, Freddie King, Bloomfield, and Mississippi Fred McDowell) and his gospel-influenced vocal style (in the style of Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding) were a breath of fresh air and gave notice that there was a new face to be reckoned with on the blues scene.  I still play this one on a regular basis, some 27 years after I first bought it.

In 1988, Walker released his second HighTone album, The Gift .which ranks as one of his very best recordings to this day.  He wrote several of the tracks himself, among them highlights like "One Time Around," the moving title track, and "Main Goal."  His bass player, Henry Oden, wrote "Shade Tree Mechanic," and co-wrote a couple of others, such as "1/4 to 3."  Walker's band, the Bosstalkers (Oden, Kelvin Dixon - drums, Jimi Stewart - keys) were impeccable in support and Walker even got a hand from the Memphis Horns on several tracks (Los Lobos' Steve Berlin played sax on "Mama Didn't Raise No Fool").  Even on his second effort, you get the sense that Walker was striving to improve and add new facets to his brand of blues.  The vocals and guitar work was as powerful as his previous release, but the addition of the horns on several songs moves Walker's sound more toward an urban setting.  The Gift made many critics' Top Ten list for 1988 and deservedly so.

1989's Blue Soul saw Walker expanding his sound even more.  "Prove Your Love" featured Melvin Booker and Donnie Boone from the Spiritual Corinthians on background vocals, giving the track a really nice R&B vibe.  Tracks like "T.L.C." and "Personal Baby" are in a similar R&B/soul vein and Walker shows that he's a very good soul singer on these tunes.  Another member of Los Lobos, David Hidalgo, contributed accordion to the swampy "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On."  Walker wrote or co-wrote eight of the nine tracks on Blue Soul, and he really impresses on the slow blues, "City of Angels," and the acoustic closer, "I'll Get To Heaven On My Own," his first foray into the country blues style, but definitely not his last.  When I first heard Blue Soul, I figured that it would be the one to get Joe Louis Walker over.......move him not only to the top of the heap in the Blues World, but maybe get him some attention similar to what Robert Cray had received a few years earlier.  It was an amazingly well-balanced release.

Blue Soul completed Walker's HighTone work in the studio, but the label released a pair of live albums in 1991 and 1992, capturing the singer/guitarist in peak form during a November, 1990 set at Boz Scaggs' San Francisco nightclub, Slim's.  Live at Slim's Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are a mix of Walker's more popular original tunes from his albums and some interesting takes on cover tunes.  Walker rarely does cover tunes on his albums because, as he said in Living Blues back in 1989,....

"Yeah, I don't do cover songs (on recordings).  I do some of them live.  I have a real theory about 'em (covers).  I can't do 'em better than they've been done.  But what I do sometimes live - I change them."

On these live albums, he does several covers with the occasional twist, including Clifton Chenier's "Hot Tamale Baby," "Little By Little" (with harp from guest Huey Lewis), and "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" (a duet with Angela Strehli) on Vol. 1.  On Vol. 2, he covers Ray Charles ("Don't Know You"), Earl Hooker (an incredible version of "Blue Guitar"), Little Milton ("Love At First Sight"), and the Rosco Gordon favorite "Just A Little Bit."  HighTone combined the high points of these two sets into one disc (plus three previously unreleased tracks), Heritage of the Blues: Ridin' High Live, in 2003.

The live recordings brought Walker's HighTone era to a close.  When he next resurfaced in the studio, he had signed with Verve Records and was recording on their Gitanes subsidiary, releasing Blues Survivor in 1993.  Friday Blues Fix will look at this phase of JLW's recording career in a future post, but for any fans who have recently become familiar with Walker through his recent recordings for Alligator or Stony Plain, the HighTone recordings are as impressive and original as his more recent work.

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