By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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"I hear things like if Joe Louis Walker hadn't played gospel for ten years, they'd be saying Robert Cray is the next Joe Louis Walker instead of the other way around. But it's like B.B. King told me. He said, 'You may not have a fast ride like Robert Cray, but you're going to have a long career.' "On top of that," he says with a sly chuckle, "I feel good that in ten years, they'll still be selling my records in the blues section."
In 1986, Robert Cray released his breakthrough album, Strong Persuader, became a blues crossover phenomenon and helped launch yet another blues revival.
That same year, Cray's label, Hightone Records, also released Walker's knockout debut, Cold Is the Night. Walker's album had many of the same ingredients that put Cray over the top--a supple voice, a fully formed blues guitar style and a knack for soul-music-meets-traditional-blues songwriting. But somehow the equation had changed. The fact that Cray's career exploded and his hasn't doesn't surprise Walker.
"He has a high-powered manager. I don't even have a manager," Walker says from his home in Novato, California, where he's preparing to embark on a rare tour of the U.S. "Robert is also well-connected to Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. You can't buy that kind of clout."
What troubles Walker's growing cadre of fans is that he really is every bit as talented as Cray; in some ways, he's more talented. Where Cray has veered off into soft pop, Walker has shoveled more grit n' guts into his music. While Cray has spent time hobnobbing with rock stars, taping The Tonight Show and building his reputation as a showman and a singer (rather than a guitarist), Walker has worked on his guitar licks and his songwriting. He says the only thing that still grates on him is when critics who've never heard him play draw snap comparisons to Cray.
"The Cray thing is weird," Walker says. "I'll give you an example. We just got back from an Australian tour. There was this critic there who was really laying into everyone before we played. He was calling me 'just a Robert Cray clone' and stuff.
"After the show, this guy turns right around and writes that Joe Louis Walker has the best blues band he's seen in ten years. And now that Robert Cray is bland and B.B. King is too old, Joe Louis Walker is the new king. Weird."
After five excellent albums--the last two of them smokin' live sets--it is an accident of fate that Walker is still at the crossroads. In 1991, it looked like the old "a live album is the only way to capture his gift" logic was going to be the key to Walker's larger success. Blown away by Walker's killer live show, Hightone decided to tape a two-night stand at Slim's, the San Francisco club owned by Boz Scaggs, where Walker is a regular attraction.
Brimming with horn-driven R&B, Walker's tasty slide work and his big, gospel-inflected voice, Live at Slim's Volume 1 is among the best live blues records in recent history. A second scorching installment, Live at Slim's Volume 2, was released in 1992. The first volume features guests Huey Lewis and Texas blues singer Angela Strehli, who joined Walker onstage for a sizzling take of the soul classic "Don't Mess Up a Good Thing." Strehli and Walker have a connection that goes far beyond this album. They're next-door neighbors in Novato.
Like Cray and most other West Coast bluesmen, Walker charges his electric, Chicago-style guitar blues with healthy doses of funky, horn-punched soul and R&B. The result is looser, more danceable blues. The usual criticisms leveled at West Coast blues--too lightweight and poppy--wilt when confronted by Walker's muscular, visceral style.
Because of their success, the two Live at Slim's albums proved to be Walker's swan songs for Hightone. Convinced he'd "done all I could do on a small label," Walker and Hightone parted ways last year. After perusing offers from other American blues indies like Alligator and Blacktop, Walker inked a deal with a new PolyGram custom label in France called Verve Records. Unrelated to the storied American jazz label of the same name, this Verve specializes in blues. The new label's first signings are all heavy hitters: Lucky Peterson, James Cotton, Johnny Copeland and Big Daddy Kinsey. What Walker and the others are counting on are European successes, with PolyGram rereleasing their discs on one of its U.S. labels. Walker's first project for Verve is the aptly named Blues Survivor. Recorded last October in California, the album features Walker's road band of Henry Oden (bass), Paul Revelli (drums), Mike Epply (keyboards), Jeff Lewis (trumpet) and Tim Devine (sax). The album's material includes new Walker originals and covers of Willie Dixon's "Shake for Me" and Austin bassist Sarah Brown's "Bad Thing." It was produced by John Snyder, who has worked mostly with jazz players such as Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard.