While many young'uns spent their years 'twixt 12 and 20 just listening to music and attending concerts, Joe Louis Walker was a bit more proactive. At age 16, he became the house guitarist for the legendary San Francisco rock club The Matrix, he played with or opened shows for everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Lightnin' Hopkins to Thelonious Monk and Freddie King. He also became close friends with blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield.
Later, after a decade spent performing nothing but gospel music with the Spiritual Corinthians, Walker returned to his brand of blues-rock in 1986, releasing 23 albums since then. The latest, Hellfire, is his first for legendary blues label Alligator. And -- as the title would indicate -- it's full of fiery tracks.
Rocks Off spoke with Walker about the new CD, an infamous incident with Hopkins and how Texas is like a big garden for growing guitar players.
RO: What brought you to Alligator?
JLW: Well, it's simple. We made a CD and shopped it around and they pulled the trigger on it.
RO: Was there something you wanted to do on this record that maybe you couldn't or didn't on any other?
JLW: I was able to do what I wanted. I was also trying to achieve...to bring more younger people to the blues. And a lot of times what they listen to is more intense and has more energy. So I tried to have some of that on the record.
RO: Throughout your career, you've had one foot in rock and the other in the blues. Do people sometimes try and get you to commit to one genre or the other?
JLW: It happens all the time. A lot of people want you to stay in a category. I know it doesn't matter to musicians, but it does a lot with record companies and critics, for better or for worse.
RO: In your record-company bio, it talks about a time when Lightnin' Hopkins threw you off the stage at the Matrix.
JLW: Oh, it wasn't any big deal. I used to jump up on the stage and play with people. Mike Bloomfield, too. And nine times out of ten it wasn't any problem. But Lightnin'...he was a bit more particular (laughs). I was a young guy, 17 or 18, and I got excited and did it, but he wouldn't have it. But he was cool to me. I have fond memories of him.
RO: So does the bio make a bigger thing about it than it really was?
JLW: He didn't throw me off. It was more like, "Hey, get out of here, kid!"
RO: What other Texas musicians did you admire?
JLW: Lots of 'em. Johnny Clyde Copeland helped me out. Oh, Jesus Christ, people like Peppermint Harris and Grady Gaines. His brother, Roy Gaines, just came out and played with me a few months ago. Joe Hughes, rest his soul. Teddy Reynolds...all those guys from Austin like Clifford Antone and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie.
There's so many cats. Little Doyle [Bramhall] Jr., and Sr., Lou Ann [Barton]...I was going to move to Austin! They just grow guitar players in Texas. Then a lot of great clubs like A.A.'s...Fitzgerald's...Rockefeller's.
RO: I saw the clip of you on Conan O'Brien's show recently playing "Ride All Night" off the new record.
JLW: Yeah. But on those shows, they pick the song that they want you to play. Unless you're Bob Dylan! That one wasn't so much blues, though. I would have done something different, to be quite honest.
RO: You're playing Houston as part of a slate of performers at an outdoor festival. Do you approach those kinds of gigs any differently from a headlining club show?
JLW: Not really. I just put my best foot forward!
Joe Louis Walker performs Saturday, April 28, 4:30 p.m., on the Americas Stage at the Houston International Festival. See www.ifest.org for more.