For an aspiring musician, guitarist Joe Louis Walker couldn’t have picked a better neighbourhood to come of age in.
The San Francisco native cut his musical teeth during the Haight-Ashbury heyday, where he learned alongside the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, hippy bands who helped forge a psychedelic musical revolution and an identity for the emerging counter culture.
Looking back, Walker said no one really understood what a good thing they had going in the sixties; they were living the musical life but had little perspective on its longevity.
It’s the one thing he’d like to change.
“In the ‘60s everything was new. Where I came from, the San Francisco Bay area, nobody knew this music was going to become this lucrative and this influential. I think if people had known that then, they’d have dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s,” Walker said chuckling Friday, about half an hour before taking the stage as the penultimate act on Day 1 of the Thunder Bay Blues Festival, his first performance in the city.
Born on Christmas Day in 1949 into a musical family, by the time he was 16 Walker was an eight-year guitar veteran, good enough to play alongside legends like John Lee Hooker, Thelonious Monk, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and, as some would say, the greatest of them all, Jimi Hendrix.
Music has always been in his blood, said a bespectacled Walker, a wisp of a salt-and-pepper moustache dotting his upper lip, a white Kangol cap adorning his head, covering the dreadlocks in his hair.
“All of my cousins were musicians. Being the youngest of the litter, I got a chance to see them. Some of them turned professional, some of them were on million-selling records. Seeing what they went through, I had a pretty good training ground,” Walker said.
“That helped me to turn professional. We all joined the musicians’ union when we were kids, which was a big deal, to be in the union when you were 16. That’s basically how I got into it.”
Though he’s been described as an electric bluesman, Walker bristles, but only a bit, when one tries to label him a blues guitarist.
It’s too captive and narrow a description, he said.
“I’m a musician. I’m not just a blues guy. When we grew up, I played everything and I still do play everything. I’ve played with everyone from Jimmy Rodgers to Muddy Waters to Ronnie Wood, who plays with Mick Jagger,” he said.
“Music’s music to me and that’s the easiest category to put me in, because people know me more for (the blues) in the United States and North America. In Europe I’m known for all kinds of music.”
Not that he minds being “pigeonholed” into the blues category on this side of the Atlantic.
“That’s OK. Better to be known for something than for nothing.”
A longtime roommate of the legendary Mike Bloomfield, Walker ultimately went back to school and dabbled in gospel, before releasing his first solo album in 1986 and began touring the world, releasing four more albums by 1992.
A year later he teamed with B.B. King on Everybody’s Had the Blues, a song he wrote, and the albums just kept coming, including his latest, 2012’s Hellfire.
There’s a key to his longevity in a business known to eat up and spit out so many over the decades – including his good friend Bloomfield, who was found dead of a drug overdose in February 1981.
It just takes awhile to find it.
“Discipline,” he said. “Once you sow your wild oats and you do everything that you think you want to do, then you have to make a 360-degree turn and say it’s not for the money or for the adulation or for the this or for the that.
“It’s for the music and if you can still stay a fan of people, stay positive, try to suppress your demons – because they never go away – then the older you live, the more you say hey, when I was 31 or 32 I did some stupid stuff. I don’t do that now that I’m 62.”
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