"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.
If Walker seems nonplussed by fame or his lack of it, it's because he's had it before. Born in San Francisco, Walker was a guitar prodigy by the age of 14. A few years later, he was routinely astounding audiences at the neighborhood music hall, the Fillmore. At nearly the same time, the young blues apprentice moved in with Mike Bloomfield, who was then between the Paul Butterfield Band and his own blues-fusion project, Electric Flag. Taking Bloomfield's advice, Walker made the journey to Chicago in 1969 to meet and play with Otis Rush. Although the gig with Rush never materialized, Walker returned home, his playing changed by the brush with the Chicago blues tradition. Back near the Bay, Walker played with a Stax-Volt cover band called Blue Train. He also spent valuable time backing blues guitar legend Earl Hooker. Word of his talent spread until record labels began sniffing around. But just as everything seemed to be falling into place, Walker's life took a detour.
Back in his Fillmore days, Walker had met and partied with everyone from Jefferson Airplane to Jimi Hendrix. Unfortunately, the party never stopped for Walker, and by the early Seventies, drug and alcohol problems had landed him in jail. After his release, Walker decided to forgo the fast lane. He joined the Bay Area gospel ensemble Spiritual Corinthians. He spent ten years with the Corinthians before returning to secular music in 1985 following a performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A year later, he signed with Hightone and released Cold Is the Night.
"After Jazz and Heritage, I went on a tour of Europe with an outfit called the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. People in Europe were so responsive to my playing that I knew I had to go back to the blues. That and I missed it, too."
Now that he's back with the blues, Walker is banking that his new album will do well enough in France to warrant its release here in the States.
"It's been four years since I was last in a studio. And in that time, I've grown a lot as a singer, songwriter and musician. No matter what anyone says or anyone else does," Walker says, perhaps thinking of the Cray comparisons, "I put the blues first and foremost.