Grammy-nominated blues musician Joe Louis Walker shares life experiences, musical views and the importance of taking chances with your sound.

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Shortly before the Christmas holiday, I chatted with Joe Louis Walker. Sometimes known as JLW, he’s a Grammy-nominated blues musician with a career spanning nearly half a century.  If you’ve never heard of Joe, you’ve missed a great deal of music history.  With a sound self-described as “all over the place” and more than 20 records to his name, Joe has played with many of the industry’s legends and each has impacted him in some way. 

Joe shared with me a funny memory about one of his first experiences playing on stage with Fred McDowell. “I came roaring out the first show and played every guitar lick I could think of. During the break, he comes to me and says: ‘Joe, you’ve played every lick known to man. What are you going to do for the second and third shows?’ I told him: ‘I guess I’ll just have to play them backward!’ Fred says: ‘No, Joe. you can’t do that. There’s crickets out there!’  I was confused, so I asked his manager what he meant. He laughed and said: “No, Joe, he means there are CRITICS out there in the audience – not CRICKETS!’”

As we all know, life isn’t always fun and games. In the early 1980s, the music industry lost another great, Michael Bloomfield, to whom Joe was particularly close.  They were roommates from the 1960s until near his untimely passing.  Asking if he felt the loss of his friend impacted his music to this day, Joe shared that Michael had a huge impact on his life. “It was more than just music with Michael,” he said. “It was like the university of life. I can never repay everything he did for me and I will always be thankful for everything I learned from him.” At the root of music is emotion, and sometimes the emotion is heartbreak; other times, it is love or anger. 

Most musicians can’t claim as many records as JLW does, so when asked if it a challenge to come up so much quality content, he said: “I look for inspiration all over. I’ve lived in France and played with musicians there. That infused my music. I’ve lived in England and that infused my music. I tend to keep my ears open and nurture a lot of young people, like Michael did with me.  I try to keep myself interested. I figure if I am interested, I can make something interesting that other people will find interesting.  I don’t try and do music by numbers.  Mix it up a bit, take some chances and put some different cultures in your music!” 

He suggested searching online for James Brown and Pavarotti performing It’s a Man’s World or Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach performing God Give Me Strength.  “It’s just amazing,” he said.  “It’s something you would never hear on an Elvis Costello or Burt Bacharach record, but when they did it, you could put it on both of their records because it’s something you wouldn’t expect. You never know what works unless you try it.”

Studies have proven how vital music and the arts are to developing brains. “I know so many musicians – some well-known, others not so well-known and some known all over the world,” he said. “When you are impacted like that, you have an epiphany and you want part of that magic. You want it, but its 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. It is that inspiration that gives you a purpose in life and kids need that beauty and inspiration in their lives.”  When you can reach young people, give them an outlet with music, photography or another form of art. “It gives them hope,” he said.

Joe Louis Walker is a musician who has never sought celebrity status. “When you are a musician, your goal is to be a better musician,” he said. “When you are a celebrity, it’s not so much about the music. It is about being a celebrity. Once you like the blues, you are a blues fan for life.” Having had my first experience with the blues at the legendary Kingston Mines over the summer, I have to agree. After hearing JLW’s most recent album Everybody Wants a Piece, which hits you deep down, his shows are on my can’t miss list. 

All of us at PatchChord News send you our good wishes for a safe, happy and prosperous new year.