ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 20, 1997
Any bozo can pick up a guitar and trace out a simple pentatonic blues scale. I should know, I’ve been tracing out blues scales like a bozo for years. But while the most basic techniques of blues guitar are accessible to the beginner, it’s not nearly as easy for upstarts to grasp the feeling of the blues—unless their personal instructor is named B.B. or John Lee or something like that. Joe Louis Walker was one of the lucky few to earn their blues stripes early on in life. As a teenager he learned the music firsthand by playing with Freddie King and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and opening shows for the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter.
“Unfortunately, a lotta young guys nowadays don’t get a chance to play with an Earl Hooker or go open up for a Muddy Waters or Albert King,” says Walker, on the phone from his home in Marin County, California. “It’s great to learn off a record, but a record can’t teach you feel. It’s like experiencing something as opposed to watching it on TV or readin’ about it.”
With his new CD, Great Guitars, Walker—who plays the Yale on Monday (November 24)—pays passionate tribute to many of the blues giants he’s met over the years by showcasing their musical styles on tunes he’s written for that very purpose. The formidable lineup includes Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Taj Mahal, Little Charlie Baty, Ike Turner, Scotty Moore, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Matt “Guitar” Murphy.
“All of ’em are friends of mine,” says Walker, “and the majority of them I’d performed with at one point or another. As I’d run across them at different places, on tours or whatnot, I’d send the feelers to ’em and see if they were receptive to doing something like that. Everybody seemed like they were, so I pursued it a little bit further, and thankfully it turned into a real thing.”
As befits its title, Great Guitars was coproduced by veteran guitarist Steve Cropper, of Booker T and the MGs fame. But Walker didn’t encourage Cropper to shirk his production duties, slip into the sound room, and kick off a rowdy jam on “Green Onions”; the last thing he wanted was for the project to turn into just another collection of standards.
“I coulda went in there and done a whole album of old warhorses,” he points out. “We coulda done ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ with Buddy Guy, or ‘All Your Lovin’ ’ with Otis Rush, but I didn’t want to do that, that’s why I wrote these new songs. I mean, we did one old song, ‘Every Girl I See’, which is a Willie Dixon and Matt Murphy song that Buddy cut about 25 years ago, but I rearranged it.”
Although Cropper did pick up a guitar to trade sassy solos with Moore, Baty, Brown, and Walker on the latter’s “Mile-Hi Club”, it was his motivating qualities in the control room that Walker was most impressed with. “He’s a very supportive person,” notes Walker, “and just a real positive force in my music. Him and the engineer, Stephen Hart, they know guitars, and they know everybody’s sound, and that’s what I was very happy with in this record—that nobody came back and said, ‘Well, that’s not my sound.’ People are very particular about their sound; it’s their calling card, so to speak. And when people don’t feel like they got their sound, they sorta feel like they’ve been cheated a bit.”
While Cropper was working hard to ensure that Buddy Guy sounded like Buddy Guy—and that the rest got their trademark tones re-created as well—the ponytailed Blues Brother was also enjoying himself to the hilt. According to Walker, you could tell when the demonstrative Cropper was satisfied with someone’s sound, because he’d be physically grooving in front of the recording console. “The music just sorta gets him goin’, and you know if he ain’t sorta bopping his head or somethin’ like that, you might want to try and cut that song again.”
Cropper kept the positive vibe steady throughout the recording of Great Guitars, which included sessions in Chicago, New Orleans, L.A., Berkeley, Nashville, and Cleveland. Although the CD roster reads like a veritable who’s who of blues guitar, there were a few other recognizable names that Walker would have liked gracing the disc.
“There was three people, actually,” he explains, “and all of ’em were named Johnny. One was Johnny Winter, who was the second person who had agreed, but he unfortunately had some health problems and couldn’t do the sessions when we had arranged to do them. And another one was Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, who was very interested in doin’ it, but unfortunately Johnny died in Japan during the making of this record. And the other one was John Lee Hooker, who called and asked to be on it, because he’s a good friend of mine, but due to other obligations he couldn’t do it. So I guess if your name was Johnny, you weren’t meant to be on it.”