A 2013 inductee into the Memphis, Tenn.-based Blues Hall of Fame who’s released 25 albums and worked with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Joss Stone, Joe Louis Walker nonetheless spent an entire decade out of secular music.
Walker, a singer and guitarist, performed gospel music from 1975 through 1985. A visit to New Orleans to play with the Spiritual Corinthians at the 1985 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, however, changed his direction. He suddenly returned to the blues and blues-rock he’d cultivated under the auspices of Mike Bloomfield, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Ronnie Wood and many more.
“So it was something like an epiphany,” Walker said of his experience at Jazz Fest 29 years ago. “It wasn’t that I got tired of playing gospel. It was just that it was time for a rambling soul to ramble on.”
Walker will be back at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell at 5:40 p.m. Friday at the Blues Tent.
The variety of music in New Orleans echoes the eclecticism of Walker’s native San Francisco Bay Area. When he was growing up there during the 1950s and ’60s, Oakland had the blues, zydeco musicians played regularly in Richmond, San Francisco did its psychedelic thing and serious jazz was in the air, too.
Walker had the talent and experience to make his re-entry into secular music successful, beginning with the gospel music and blues records he’d heard as a young child. He later joined his cousins’ band, the Brougham Brothers, a group who played blues for older black audiences and the hits of the day for young crowds.
“So after I’d been cutting school since I was 14, playing in nightclubs, not coming home,” Walker said, “my dad told me, ‘You know what? You think you grown. So go on out there and see how you like it.’ ”
Leaving home at 16, Walker became a member of the vibrant 1960s Bay Area music scene. He found a place to stay at Bloomfield’s house. Bloomfield, a guitar star from Chicago, played for Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” sessions and performed with Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Music Festival. He later led the Electric Flag.
“I was in a lot of places where music was gestating,” Walker said. “I met a lot of people who went on to become famous, but I knew them when they were just trying to learn how to do what they do.”
The aspiring artists Walker met included Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone, and Stewart’s guitarist brother, Fred; Bob Weir (the Grateful Dead); and Carlos Santana and his brother, Jorge. Walker also met established acts like Sugar Pie DeSanto, blues men John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson and Freddie King and, from the U.K., the Yardbirds and Van Morrison.
All the while, music was a Bay Area constant. “Seven days a week, like New Orleans,” Walker said.
A few years after being at Jazz Fest in 1985 triggered Walker back to the blues, he toured Japan with two great New Orleans artists, vocalist Johnny Adams and singer, guitarist and songwriter Earl King.
“When people think of New Orleans music, they think of the Neville family, the Marsalis family, Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, Mac Rebennack, people of this stature. But unless you gig, you don’t know the great Tan Canary, aka Johnny Adams, the ninth wonder of the world. And you don’t know Earl King, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.”
Working with Adams and King enriched Walker’s life in the ’80s and ’90s, just as performing now with Herbie Hancock, Brandford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, Joss Stone and others enriches it now.
“It’s all music to me, in big bit tent and a big trough,” he said. “Everybody goes to the same trough, but when they come out, they do something different with it. To me, that’s what music’s about.”