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His Blues Contain Some Gospel Truths : Pop music: Composer-singer Joe Louis Walker also doesn't hesitate to use a little soul in his work.

August 23, 1995|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but don't tell that to Joe Louis Walker. Since signing with Verve Records in 1991, Walker, who plays tonight at the Coach House, has grown beyond the standard three-chord blues that characterized his early work and produced three albums in which he has hit his creative stride. His latest effort, "Blues of the Month Club," will hit stores next month.

Walker, 45, blends liberal doses of soul and gospel into his material (he was a member of gospel group the Spiritual Corinthians for a decade before going solo in 1985). He writes unusual chord progressions and sly, witty lyrics that transcend the genre's "woke up this morning" cliches. Yet unlike some other blues cross-pollinators, Walker never loses the gut-bucket essence of the music.

"My whole attitude about writing songs, for me, is that I like to mix it up," Walker said in a recent phone interview from his Marin County home. "First I write the song, and then I look for what kind of arrangement to use--if it needs to be sparse, if it needs background horns, whether or not it needs keyboards. Then, when I get the arrangement, I try to get the right musicians to fit the arrangement."

Whatever his method, Walker has become an in-demand composer, having written material for the likes of B.B. King, Branford Marsalis, James Cotton, and Otis Grand, as well as for himself.

Additionally, Walker has progressed dramatically as a vocalist. His reedy, muscular pipes convey honest emotion while never sounding overly raw or anything less than genuinely soulful.

"I think that comes from touring," he said. "Singing every night, you learn what you can and you can't do. When I first started recording, I was all over the place. I just thought I could do everything. Now, I seem to have narrowed it down. I consciously try to become a better singer."

Rounding out the package is Walker's guitar work. Proficient in both standard and slide-guitar styles, Walker crafts solos that are tough and tasty. And he's fleet to pay homage to the blues-guitar pioneers who taught him his lessons.

"I play a lot of slide guitar, so there's a whole lot of slide players that I learned from, like Mississippi Fred McDowall," he said. "I played with Earl Hooker quite a bit, and I'm really a big, big fan of Son House--whereas everybody is sort of Robert Johnson crazy, Son House hits me harder. Sort of like me, he's got one foot in gospel and the other foot in the blues. Then, of course, there's Muddy Waters and Elmore James.

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"For the pickers, I like Buddy Guy for intensity, I like B.B. King for finesse and I like T-Bone Walker for originality. Of course, Michael [Bloomfield, whom Walker roomed with years ago] taught me a lot of stuff early on. I also like a lot of soul pickers like Bobby Womack and Jimmy Johnson and Steve Cropper."

Cropper, the legendary guitarist with Booker T. & the MG's, co-produced and performs on "Blues of the Month Club."

Working with Cropper "was a pleasure and an honor," Walker said. "It wasn't even like making a record, it was like having fun! I've always loved Steve Cropper--everything he's ever been involved in has been soulful."

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Today Walker remains relatively obscure except to the hard-core blues fan. He typifies the working musician, spending much of the year on the road, happy to play for the faithful even if he must look longingly at the higher-profile careers of many a lesser blues man.

"I really don't mind it, I've been touring for years," he said. "Sometimes I miss my kids, but they understand. They know who their daddy is."

* Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker and Cat Blues perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $32.50. (714) 496-8930.

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