Blues artist Joe Louis Walker to perform in Mercersburg
MERCERSBURG, Pa. — For legendary blues artist Joe Louis Walker, music has no color.
“I say I listen to Muddy Waters in the morning and John Lennon at night,” he said during a telephone interview from his Hyde Park, N.Y., home. “To me, there’s no difference. Maybe music-wise there is, but when it comes to content and delivery and speaking straight to the point — there is none to me.”
That means for Walker, good music is good music. And he should know what good music sounds like. He’s a four-time Blues Music Award winner and a 2013 Blues Hall of Fame inductee. He’s appeared on a slew of Grammy-winning albums, produced around 30 albums of his own, and this year was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for “Everybody Wants a Piece.”
Walker will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, at the Mercersburg (Pa.) Mansion House. Before his arrival, he took time from his busy schedule to chat about music — his and those who influenced him.
Although he’s known for his abilities on the guitar, the 67-year-old said that wasn’t his first instrument.
“My first instrument was the violin, then the accordion, because I went to a school where you could check out an instrument like you could a library book,” he said, noting he attended a Catholic school for the first six years.
He was around 8 years old when he finally got his hands on a guitar and has been playing it ever since. But Walker said it was never really about those instruments, but about the sounds he could make.
“I just enjoyed making music on any kind of instrument, to be honest,” he said.
He said what he likes about the guitar is “it’s easy to carry. It’s easy to make music on, you don’t have to have years of instruction. And let’s be honest about it, the guitar is a sexy instrument. You know? It’s true. Look at the guitar. And, no disrespect, but look at the harp. Can you imagine four singing, ‘She loves you. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah’ with a harp? It’s not going to happen.” He laughed.
As the youngest of five children, Walker said there was “all kinds of music in the house” while growing up in San Francisco. He credits his Deep South-born parents for making blues a part of the genres they heard. His mother had a huge crush on B.B. King who Walker called “my mom’s generation of Michael Jackson.” His older siblings listened to Little Richard, Chuck Berry and “because they didn’t put faces on the cover of albums,” Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I always knew that music was always going to be my path,” he said. “Not that I didn’t have other instruments. I always felt music was something I gravitated toward. My dad saw that as a kid, so he encouraged it. My mom saw that and she encouraged it. All my cousins were musicians so we had kind of a family band. All the people from my neighborhood were musicians.”
Then when the family moved to Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco during the ’60s, the type of music that Walker was exposed to was expanded even more.
“It was just a big, big musical community,” he said, noting later, “everybody was supportive of the music.”
Walker said he’s appreciative of being in the area during its musical expansion of the 1960s and ’70s.
“I thank my lucky stars I was born where I was born when I was born,” he said.
That meant by the time he was 14 years in 1964, Walker was part of the musicians union.
He took every opportunity he could to play when he could, and expose himself to as many different types of music as possible while the political atmosphere of the hippies, the Black Panther and White Panther movements.
And every bit of his life experience he has poured into his music.
After decades of playing blues, Walker needed an artistic break and pursued gospel music. He laughed off another report that he got burnt out of blues when he successfully performed gospel for a decade.
“All I did was go back to gospel,” he said. “I came out of the church.”
He said he really got burnt out of secular music. But eventually felt it was time to return fully to blues and has been there ever since. But that doesn’t mean he turned his back on gospel, either.
“I still play gospel music. There’s a gospel group on every record I’ve done,” he said. “I think that music is the one thing that brings people together. That’s what I try to remember. Also, you can put in music the things that are going on in your life or you’ve experienced. And you find out that a lot of other people have the same experience or going through the same thing. So I look for a format to do that in. And when it gets to be regardless of what format I’m working with whether it’s gospel or blues or whatever, and I can’t express myself in that context it’s time for me to switch up a little bit. That’s what I felt with gospel. I did a lot of stuff there and it was time to find another vehicle to express myself. That’s why I moved on. That’s why I went to gospel.”
Walker said what the bottom line is “I’m a restful soul musically. To be able to express myself I’m very cognizant of the legacy I’m leaving with music, and I cannot be a one-trick pony.”
That means he’s trying to follow in the musical footsteps of those who came before him while still forging his own path.
“I think all the artists I grew up enjoying and a lot of musicians I was inspired by were usually the ones who were always searching,” he said. “Either they were lyrically searching or cutting the fat down and getting straight to the point. Case in point someone like John Lennon who could go from writing songs like ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,’ which is very intricate stuff to something like emotionally and straight to the point to ‘Imagine.’ You could go all the way from ‘A Day in the Life’ to ‘Imagine’ ... he was very unique in getting to the point.”