Interview, Joe Louis Walker, Legendary Bluesman, Martine Ehrenclou, Rock and Blues Muse

Photo: Joe Louis Walker by Arnie Goodman

By Martine Ehrenclou

Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Grammy nominee, four-time Blues Music Award winner, Joe Louis Walker is a true blues icon, a legendary guitar virtuoso, singer-songwriter who has recorded and played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Buddy Miles, James Cotton, Willie Dixon, Steve Miller, Nick Lowe, and John Mayall, to Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Doyle Bramhall II, Joe Bonamassa, and many more. He’s described as one of the genre’s top music trailblazers, a mesmerizing guitarist and soul-testifying vocalist. JLW has appeared on multiple Grammy winning albums, and has released armfuls of records of his own.

Joe Louis Walker’s new record, Blues Comin’ On, out June 5th on Cleopatra Records, features Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna), Eric Gales, Dion, Carla Cooke (Sam Cooke’s daughter), Lee Oskar (War), Jesse Johnson (The Time), Keb’ Mo’, John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful), Mitch Ryder, Waddy Wachtel, David Bromberg, Albert Lee, Jellybean Johnson, Arlen Roth, and Charlie Harper.

Martine Ehrenclou: I really enjoyed your new album Blues Comin’ On. You have some great artists on it too. Can you tell me about it?

Joe Louis Walker: I wanted to get people on the record who actually did stuff like Jorma (Jorma Kaukonen) did in the ’60s with The Airplane (Jefferson Airplane) and myself. We used to do benefits for everybody. We did benefits for Bread and Roses–the Mimi Farina organization. We did benefits for the Gray Panthers, the White Panthers. I wanted to get some people with that mindset from my generation and John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful) came to mind.

Dion wrote the song “Blues Comin’ On.” When I make records, I try to bounce it off friends, different cuts, especially if they wrote the song or if they brought it to me. That worked out real good with Dion because I returned the favor to him when I did the trio with him and Van Morrison on his record.

Then I think, if I have Sebastian now, I might as well get Arlen Roth. Arlen came in and played some serious… I won’t call it Rockabilly, I just call it Psychobilly.

Martine Ehrenclou: It’s an insane track. Arlen Roth is an insane player.

Joe Louis Walker: It is just straight out insane. I used to see Arthur Lee every time he came to the film auditorium with (the band) Love. Arthur Lee was someone young guys like me looked up to. I love blues but I like what Arthur was doing and obviously Jimmy (Hendrix) looked up to him. Arthur had it all.

Arlen Roth fit perfectly, so did Charlie Harper from the UK Subs. I did some sessions with Mitch Ryder on his record. Mitch returned the favor when he sang “Come Back Home” on this record with me, which was way cool. A big thing that I wanted to do too was to show listeners that some of these people may not be household names but they’re all still great musicians.

Martine: Oh, definitely.

Joe: Jorma was with Jimi at Woodstock. Jorma (Kaukonen) and Waddy (Wachtel) are all over this record.

Martine: I heard Waddy Wachtel playing a killer guitar solo on “Bowlegged Woman, Knock-Kneed Man.”

Joe: Yeah, but he’s on more than that. He’s playing acoustic on the Dion song. Waddy is just like my brother from another mother. I produced this record but my life was made easier having Scott Petito as my co-producer. Scott plays with everybody from James Taylor to Carly Simon to you name it. Waddy made his name with all those people, especially with Keith (Richards) and them. I have the best of all worlds. Not to mention that someone like Dion gave me his opinion and Sebastian, of course.

Martine: It sounds like making this record was sort of like a family affair, a collaborative effort. It’s so nice that you can get feedback from them, bounce ideas off of them, play on each other’s records.

Joe: I’ve done a whole bunch of interviews for this record and you’re the first person that said the same thing that I do. This is not a guest album. To me, it’s a collaboration and that’s the way I like it. I may be known for guitar and singing but in reality, I maybe take six guitar solos in this whole album and maybe sing lead on three or four songs. I’m singing harmony with Mitch Ryder. I’m singing harmony right up under his voice. With Carla (Cooke), it’s a duet on two songs.

On “Blues Comin’ On’ Dion said, “Make it yours,” which I like. That’s what I do when somebody wants to do one of my songs. I had to figure out an arrangement that would fit me. At the end, I’ll go to church with a call and response thing, but I was really stuck with what to do for the guitar solos.

Martine: So you brought in Eric Gales.

Joe Louis Walker

Photo: Joe Del Tufo

Joe: I didn’t. I was on tour with the Supersonic Blues Machine and the guests on the tour were me, Eric and Billy Gibbons. So, I played the song for Billy and Eric at the same time and Billy nailed it. He says, “Joe, you take a solo then Eric takes a solo and that’s what we’re going to do.” But Billy had some very important family business when the tour was over so, he couldn’t do it at that time and I had to get the record finished.

I said to myself, “Instead of me doing one solo and Eric doing two, just let Eric go,” because I love the way he plays. Just let him do what he does and do that left-handed thing that only he can do.

Martine: He’s on fire.

Joe: Yeah. He simply never plays bad and I think that’s because he plays from the heart. His eyes are closed and he’s channeling his music. I hate to put it like this but when Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder play, you wonder why does the blind person sound so good? Because they have no outside influences at all. They don’t look at anybody in the audience that looked like they lost their puppy or somebody’s arguing with their girlfriend. It’s all inside. All they do is they hear the emotions coming back because their hearing is so good. Eric is sort of like that. He sort of channels his stuff.

Martine: How did you decide to bring in all of these musicians for the record? How’d the process work?

Joe: Well, some songs I knew would fit certain people. Like me and my bass player, Lenny Bradford, we wrote “Seven More Steps” and I knew that I wanted Albert Lee. I knew I wanted that Gypsy thing that he does. He’s one of those musicians where… and not to get too technical but when you’re taking a solo over a chord progression, most musicians will simply play their pentatonic scale over the progression as the progression moves.

So, if you go from A to B to C to D to E to G and the keys in A, they’ll solo in the key of A. Albert Lee is one of those guys who can solo in A to B to C to D to E to G. You know what I’m saying? Literally, there’s that movement that he does.

His guitar playing is clean as a bell. It’s like talking to someone with perfect English diction because there’s no fuzz tones. There’s no freaking, wah wah pedals. There’s none of that crap. (Laughter.)

Martine: (Laughter) He doesn’t use any pedals at all?

Joe: No. It’s all in his head, his hands and his heart and I like that because I don’t like using pedals that much. I don’t denigrate anybody that uses them but it has a tendency to make a lot of people sound the same and sometimes you can buy a pedal that pretty much plays the guitar itself. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter) Tell me about the song, “The Thang” featuring Jesse Johnson from The Time.

Joe: The Thaaaaang. (Laughter)

Martine: The Thaaaang. (Laughter) What a great song. So funky. Can you tell me about it?

Joe: That’s the song I wrote in 1985 and I’m always waiting for an opportunity to do the song. When I’ve got hooked up with Jesse I was thinking it would be a good to switch it up to like I did with Arlen on “7 & 7 Is.” Since Jesse likes that left-handed guy and I knew that left-handed guy and Juma Sultan played with the left-handed guy, let’s put a tag at the end and just let Jesse go on further like a little bit of a “Manic Depression” type of thang. (Laughter) Every time I played that cut for Waddy and Jessie’s part would come, he’d say, “Look out below!” (Laughter) There was no notes for me left to play. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter)

Joe: All I did was play the feedback guitar. When you hear guitar feedback, that’s me (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter) You’re too humble Joe.

Photo: Michael Weintrob

Joe: It was wicked. He just played the coolest funkiest riffs, is what I’m saying. What’s so cool is that I have Vanessa Collier playing the horns on it and she takes the solo. Bless her heart. I’m so proud of her.

Martine: She’s really talented.

Joe: I’ve had a lot of young people come through my bands and they see the things that I had to go through as a band leader. The way you become a successful band leader is you ask everybody that’s a band leader before you, “What did you all do wrong? (Laughter) So that I don’t do it.” (Laughter.)

When I was around B.B. (B.B. King), B.B. would tell me. Buddy (Guy) and John Lee Hooker would tell me. I think of all the young people I’ve ever worked with, I’m going to tell Vanessa like B.B. told me, “Joe, you’re going to have a long career.” I think Vanessa is going to have a long career in different genres.

Martine: Tell me about the conversation with B.B.

Joe: How many? Which one? (Laughter) He would tell me certain things, like in the ’80s when I came back to playing blues and he let me open shows for him in ‘88. He said, “Joe I have been around and I can see you’re on the same label with Robert Cray and you’re friends with Stevie Ray and all you guys and I can see you’re real talented and you’re not really getting the promotion that they’re getting and you’re not getting that type of success.” He said, “Don’t worry because you’re going to have a long career,” and that was 32 years ago.

Martine: Wow. Well, he was right.

Joe: He just told me, “You’re going to have a long career because you make your music inclusive.” He said, “You’re not one of those guys that tries to make your music exclusive. In other words, you play different styles of your music. You might do a Beatles song, Joe. You make it yours.”

Martine: Tell me about your songwriting process. You’re known as a prolific songwriter.

Joe: I have no ego when it comes to writing a song. I write with everybody. I get ideas from everybody. It’s that B.B. thing–just make it inclusive. I like to shine light on people that influenced me.

Martine: That’s very cool.

Joe: Like this record here. The reason I did (the song) “7 and 7 Is” not just to piss the blues people off, (laughter) but I just wanted to give props to Arthur Lee. Because Arthur Lee was the guy that was counterculture.

No disrespect but I couldn’t aspire to be Eric Clapton. That door wasn’t open to me. Jimmy (Hendrix) sort of kicked that open but before Jimmy kicked it open, Arthur Lee did. And there was two groups that used to come to the Fillmore all the time that me and a bunch of young brothers like me could aspire to be and that was Arthur Lee and Love and the Chambers Brothers. The Chambers Brothers were really a gospel group but somebody got hip to the psychedelic thing and they said, “Okay, we’re going to get you some guitars,” and boom.

Martine: Do you write songs ahead of time? Or do you write when you have an album that you have to put together?

Joe: I do it in all different ways. If I’m going to the studio to do one record, I’ll start recording two records. I’ll see what’s the thread that’s running through the whole proceedings, something to latch on to that will give me a focus. I’m always working on another record in my mind because that gets me motivated.

Martine: That’s so interesting.

Joe: I’m 70 but I’m a young 70. I’m a vegetarian. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I like to swim. I can’t wait for the gyms to open up and go back to swimming. I’ve learned being around music all my life that this is what I do but it isn’t the only thing that I do. I’ve lived with so many people and been around so many people that survived, and I’ve seen the ones that are extremely successful who have survived–they have to have other things that they do.

There’s a few that just do this, like Mike Bloomfield couldn’t do this all the time. I lived with Bloomfield for a long time and he despised the business. I can see why because I’ve seen some of the things that he went through. His whole thing was, “If your heart wasn’t in everything you did, don’t do it for any amount of money.” And that is sort of the antithesis of music now. When Mike was coming up, you couldn’t use his music to promote Dial soap. They offered him $20 million. The Beatles, you couldn’t use their music to promote a product. Bob Dylan wouldn’t do it.

That was how idealistic that generation was and that idealism permeated itself with social consciousness and doing benefits and marching for women’s rights, gay rights and civil rights and people being able to have interracial marriages and all. We were doing all that including FM radio. If it wasn’t for us, they’d still be playing records that were 2 minutes and 37 seconds long. It was a lot of firsts and I see a little bit of that coming around now with the social involvement with young people. I’m really interested in what the music is going to look like in about a year and a half.

Martine: Me too. Some of it’s already pretty interesting.

Joe: Yeah. I used to tell some of the young people coming through my band, “You don’t have any skin in the game. Just to be quite honest, you never really had to suffer for anything. You didn’t have a Martin Luther King get assassinated. You didn’t have a JFK get assassinated. You didn’t have a freaking Vietnam. You didn’t have any of that shit.”

I grew up on that. But what’s happened now within the last year or six months, just to see all these young people out there wanting fairness, regardless of what color, and seeing how they’ve got treated when they wanted fairness, seeing that this is not a white-black thing, it’s a right-wrong thing. It’s a good-bad thing and it’s a generational thing also.

Of course, you’ve got knuckleheads. If you’re young and a knucklehead, you’ve got time to change but if you’re an old knucklehead head, you’re really a sorry son of a gun. You know what I mean? (Laughter)

Joe Louis Walker

Photo: Michael Sparks Keegan

Martine: (Laughter) I know exactly what you mean.

Joe: So, I’m very proud of all these young people.

Martine: I am too. The knuckleheads aside, it’s very moving.

Joe: And in the middle of a pandemic all over the world. Very, very inspirational. But you also have people now that are out of work that never ran out of work. You have musicians like me considered non-essential workers. As you know, the music business is in a freefall. I have friends that bought homes. Now, they can’t even pay the mortgage. They don’t even know where they’re going to be living. They’re selling all of their equipment. It is really rough.

Martine: Horrible.

Joe: Just to add insult to injury, I’ve got partners that had tours set up for Europe. They can’t even go to Europe now because we’ve been banned from Europe. You try not to get too negative with these things. You can’t play the hand you’re not dealt. You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt and the hand that we’re dealt right now is the situation with musicians is very, very untenable. We’ve all read what Live Nation wants to do next year.  Musicians take 20% less and on and on. I don’t even know what to say other than, “If you really want to kick somebody when they’re down, just join Live Nation.”

Martine: A lot of people are pissed off about that, fans too.

Joe: Yeah, that is just one issue. I heard on the news that there will be no more plays until next year. They don’t even know when next year. No more Broadway plays. I have friends that make a good living playing in the pit orchestras. That’s good money. Healthcare, the whole nine yards.

If that’s not going to open up, a lot’s not going to open up. Between all those things and the streaming (income) not going to musicians and different things, it just may be a time for the musicians to try to get together to try to come up with something to salvage what we do. I think the drive-in theaters things is good, playing at outside. I’m doing a couple of them. I’m playing on 23rd or 24th next month at the Tupelo Music Hall up in New Hampshire.

Martine: That’s cool.

Joe: Friends in England just sent me a thing about Live Nation trying to buy up 200 of the drive-ins they have there. When President Teddy Roosevelt broke up the conglomerates that ran the United States, there was going to be six companies running the whole country and he broke that up.

That’s why we have those laws against that. I may lose a lot of gigs but I’m going to say it–I think it should be like that in the music business. I think that about Live Nation, AEG and all those places. Just to have one entity dictating to musicians that, “Okay, you’ve got to take 20% net less next year than this year.” Who in the hell left them in charge? What crystal ball do they have to say that there isn’t going to be an antidote tomorrow so that we can go back to doing what we do two months from now?

Martine: True. They’re probably trying to recuperate their losses from this year.

Joe: Yeah. Join the club. Ain’t we all. (Laughter)

Martine: What do you think musicians can do to come together and change things?

Joe: I think that what could be done is this–when you want to learn how to make Italian food, go to Italy. Get some of the people that used to work for Live Nation. Get some of the people that used to run record companies. Get some of them and say, “Hey listen. We want to keep this going. The industry that you made all your money off, the industry that you love, now you retired, you’re living large. Can you help us to figure out a way to keep it going to where it can be equitable?”

Go to some of the artists that are extremely successful and say, “Hey, Paul. What do you think?” I’m sure he’s got some feelings on it. Ringo let his feelings be known when he found out that a lot of these acts won’t even have opening acts. That’s because the powers at be don’t have a budget for opening acts.

It should be a thing of a “we” instead of a “me.” It shouldn’t be that one company can dictate to a bunch of musicians and artists what they’re going to be making, that they’ve got to take less, that they’ve got to do this and do that.

Martine: I agree. It leaves the musicians with little power.

Joe: Sure does. But we do have power because we have the product. But we sort of dropped the ball on that when we just started going for every little thing like SoundScan ,which I call SoundScam. All that crap. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter)

Joe: Come on. Whoever came up with that? (Laughter) I was living in France. I come home (I open my mail) and it says, “You’ve got SoundScan. You’ve got to count your records and send the thing to the Nielsen Company.” I said, “The Nielsen Company is TV ratings.”

When did they get in the music business? And who’s to say that the guy that was running the Nielsen Company isn’t the cousin of some cat who’s selling his records and every time his cousin sends in a ratings thing every Thursday, he doesn’t put an extra two zeros at the end of it. (Laughter) You know what I’m saying? Holy shit! Come on now. I was in France for three years and you guys laid down for that? You’ve got to be kidding me. Somebody should have called me and told me. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laughter) Oh, that’s funny. How’s it been staying home for you? Your tours probably got canceled like everyone else.

Joe: I just went in the studio for the first time in two and a half months about a week ago and I had to do some guest things for people and it felt good. It was just me in the studio by myself and an engineer. They had to clean the whole studio out, special air filters, it’s the whole process. That takes longer than me doing my musical bit. So, it’s a different world but it felt good to be in my element, you know?

Martine: Oh sure.

Joe: Because just looking at TV and Facebook and whatever, I was driving my therapist crazy. (Laughter.)

Martine: (Laughter) It’s been such a pleasure talking to you. I have enjoyed it so much. I have enough for five interviews.

Joe: In my life they call me Joe Lewis Talker. (Laughter)

Martine: (Laugher) It’s been great. Thank you.

Joe: All right. Thank you. Take care.

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