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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | MUSIC

Blues Player Finds Growing Interest in the Blues

Although more popular abroad, Phillip Walker is gradually attracting attention in this country. He'll play Sunday at Civic Arts Plaza.

November 07, 1996|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hoping to tap into the blues market, the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza has scheduled a rare concert for Sunday afternoon.

Booked by Foundation of American Roots Music, which stages the annual Ojai Bowlful of Blues, the show will include the Phillip Walker Big Band with guest vocalist Barbara Morrison. Boogie-woogie piano virtuoso Rob Rio will open the 3 p.m. gig. And considering the prices at some shows at this venue, which can start at an arm and a leg, this one is a deal at $20.

Walker was born in Louisiana in 1937, raised in Texas, then moved to California. He soaked up the music wherever he went. In 1954, while he was still a teenager, Walker joined Clifton Chenier's zydeco band.

A few years later, he started the Blue Eagle Band, which not only played around west Texas, but also backed such blues legends as Bobby "Blue" Bland, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Ace and later, Little Richard. Walker has been in California since 1959, but like most blues men, he isn't home much.

In the United States, he is a relative unknown, outside the Texas and California blues circuit. But in Europe he, like many American-roots musicians, is wildly popular.

In spite of his limited exposure in his own land, he continues to evoke endearing adjectives from the American press. Called the "No. 1 modern blues man in America" by West Coast Blues Revue Magazine and "One of the 10 most important blues guitarists living today" by Guitar Player Magazine, Walker's signing with Black Top Records, and his release of "Working Girl Blues" has helped to increase his exposure.

Walker, just back from yet another European tour, talked about what's what during a phone interview.

*

How did "Working Girl Blues" do?

Well, it's been a very good record for me. It's been about a year now since it came out. I'm hoping to maybe start doing another record by the first of the year.

*

You've been doing this for 40 years now. Do you think you'll stick with it?

I have to now. I'm getting to the heart of it now--if I was gonna quit, it should've been a long time ago. Off the top of my head, it's been close to 15 or 16 albums so far, which includes every one I've been on. Besides, I'm finally getting the hang of it.

*

How did you get the blues?

Oh, it was a long time ago. I started listening to it when I was 9 or 10, and I started playing it when I was about 13, and I'm still doing it.

*

Are the blues getting more popular?

I think blues is on a resurge. There's a lot of blues now after a lot of years of being down, and there's a lot of people playing. Over the last 10 or 15 years, festivals have been the greatest thing for blues because club gigs were getting scarce.

*

Is there such a thing as L.A. Blues?

Oh, sure there is. It's a mix of swing--West Coast swing and Texas swing.

*

Why are the blues so big in Europe?

I think it was just a matter of them not being aware of the music. Then, once they heard it, they took a liking to it. They read a lot about the music. Sometimes they surprise me with things I didn't even know about. Usually I go twice a year, but in 1995 I went four times. The two biggest blues countries right now are Italy and Spain, but Germany, France and Norway have been into the blues for a long time.

*

How did you happen to include a zydeco song on your last album?

I wanted to test my roots with "My Baby's Gonna Wash Me Down." I started playing with Clifton Chenier in 1954. We came to California and recorded for Specialty Records, then we went to Chicago and recorded for Chess Records. In 1955, I was in a three-piece zydeco band, which later turned into a seven-piece blues band. I've been playing the blues ever since.

*

Tell me a Little Richard story.

I did a short tour with him. He was a very interesting person, a very high-energy person. I was thinking "How does this guy keep going, I'm younger than he is." He was a wonderful person, a real nice man.

*

Is blues sad music?

Well, some people put it in that category because they feel blue at the time. The blues is happy music, easy to play, easy to understand, and a lot of people like it. It has its blue moments, but I haven't seen many of them. You can enjoy the blues.

*

Why do you think it's so difficult for blues artists?

I think it's just a matter of what kind of music it is, and what the focus of the generational thing is--every generation always has to have something new. Blues is never gone, but it's never all the way there, either. Some guy may have a hit, but in three or four years, he's forgotten. But the blues is always there.

*

What would you say to young blues musicians?

First, play it for the love and the art of it, and never think you're ever gonna get rich doing it.

DETAILS

* WHAT: The Phillip Walker Big Band, Barbara Morrison, Rob Rio.

* WHERE: Civic Arts Plaza Forum Theatre, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd.

* WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $20.

* CALL: 449-2197.

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