By: Stephen Wilt
I first sat down with Walker in conversation, while he was still working on his record on the road on a massive tour spanning coast to coast October of 2017. We met again this year, sitting down with me at his beloved home studio in preparation for his Albany performance. It was an intimate candid interview depicting the story of a road worrier bluesman. Sharply dressed, guitar in hand, Walker was ready not only for Albany but to embark on his upcoming tour.
“Oh, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun, especially with Young Bob,” Walker said in preparation for his split bill with Cray. “We have to call him Young Bob, we joke around being he’s the youngest of the group.”
The two are no stranger to sharing the stage going back to their time spent on a shared record label spanning the 80’s and 90’s.
“I’ve known Robert since about 1985. I came back from Gospel and we played the San Francisco Blues Fest and Robert was on the show,” Walker recalls as the first-time crossing paths with Robert Cray. “We hooked up because a lot of people started saying, you sound a lot like him, and he sounds a lot like you. I always told them, I don’t know how I can sound like Robert because I’ve been listening to Gospel for ten years, I haven’t been listening to any blues.”
Albany proved to be no different as the legends gave their all to the eager fans excited to see both acts. Although Walkers set only lasted 45-minutes, he spared no expense playing his all to the Egg.
“I play the same for one person as I do for one million. I play because I love to play,” said Walker in regard to playing both arenas and small clubs. This proved true for the blues legend cutting deep into his extensive catalog pulling new and old. Although there is no specific Joe Louis Walker Band, long time backing musicians were as tight as his records, sounding better live than recorded.
“There is no Band.” He said in remarks to his tour, “I haven’t had the same band for 30 years, I’m not the Rolling Stones. I’m fortunate to work with a lot of great musicians.”
As Walker ended, Robert Cray picked up his signature Fender Strat, plugged in, and captivated the audience in a way only he is able to do.
“That was the Robert Cray Band, and I’m Joe Louis Walker,” Cray joked to the crowd after the band walked on stage. Cray wasted no time diving into his newest record, Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm, with a Bill Withers cover, Same Love that Made you Laugh Made you Cry.
“Working with Steve Jordan who produced the record, we’ve been looking for a while for a Bill Withers tune to cover that I could do,” Cray told me about covering the song on his latest release. “We Finally came across one. Working with the Hi Rhythm section it turned out to be a good choice. I never thought I’d find a Bill Withers tune, one of the greatest songwriters of the time.”
I caught up with Cray before playing tour opener backstage in Oakland. Cray, a shy yet incredibly intelligent musician remains humble, even after five Grammy Awards, being inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame and selling millions of records worldwide.
There are no gimmicks, no big action shots, and no show-boating when it comes to Robert Cray. Instead, what you hear is a captivating tone mimicked by many but mastered by one.
“We just get together, hang out, and check out the groove,” Cray remarked on preparing for walking on stage. “We do though have a wide variety of R&B, that plays for the audience that we can hear backstage. Then there’s one song we hear and go on, by the legendary O. V. Wright, called, Ace of Spades. Things just become a habit over the years.”
Crays set was comprised of new and old, perfectly mixed that any level blues fan would find captivating and entertaining.
“It used to be that I would call the sets right on stage as we were playing,” Cray said when asked how he comprises his typical nightly set. “Now, Richard Cousins has taken it upon himself right after soundcheck to put together a setlist which he passes on to me for my approval and I’ll make changes if I think it’s necessary.”
The chemistry between the band in near inseparable. It’s as seeing old friends getting together and just doing what they love. Cray’s current band is comprised of original bassist, Richard Cousins, Long time pianist, Dover Weinstein, and Drummer Terence Clark.
Nearing the middle, the iconic bass line to, Right Next Door, a number one hit for the Robert Cray Band on his chart-topping album, Strong Persuader. Cray often jokes that the song was written about Cousins and a mishap in the mid-’80s.
“This song is about, Richard Cousins.” Cray jokingly announces to the crowd. “That’s R-I-C-H-A-R-D Cousins.”
When asked if this was true Cray laughed stating, “No, but I say that sometimes on stage just for fun. That was a friend that was written by a good friend and producer, Dennis Walker. He put it together with another friend of his. It just kind of became our anthem or something.”
It was inviting a longtime friend and college into the Robert Cray band in 1974, that would launch a musical relationship that has lasted nearly half a decade. Being the longest member of Crays touring band despite a brief stint in the 90s where he was recording, Richard Cousins remains on the road night after night.
“We’re friends and colleagues,” Cray notes talking about his long relationship with Cousins. “We’ve been friends since the late ’60s. Richard was in the band up until about 91’ or 92’, then he left for some years. About 16 years. Then returned once again in 2008 and the time he was gone he worked with a variety of people including Etta James. It’s great to have Richard back. We’ve been friends for a long time.”
The chemistry between the band lies deeper with Dover Weinberg on piano. Weinberg joined the band nearing six or seven years ago prior to briefly joining the band at its startup. “He was with us back in the ’70s,” Cray adds, “in the early days of the band.”
There’s a play between them all, and Cray is certain to add recognition where needed. “I pick the players for what they can contribute,” Cray says on how he was able to work with such astonishing musicians throughout the years. “Some comes from word of mouth, some are recommendations and some I’ve had the opportunity to work within various sit-ins.” Overall Cray goes on to say his sound is chosen by how well people are able to work together, “That’s what it’s all about,” he adds.
Cray ended the set with a fan favorite, Love Takes Two, as he was demanded back on the stage. Unfortunately, there was no collaboration on-stage, but throughout the years Cray and Walker have been in the same circle for most of their fame.
“We’ve been on the same label many years,” Walker said about himself and Cray. “We were on High Tone, then Robert Jumped to Mercury/Polygram. Then I jumped to Mercury/Polygram, and back and forth. I was on there a little bit longer than Bob. Then we were on Mascot together for the past several years.”
The two legends did not disappoint Albany, and Cray plans to come back soon. “I’ve played there many times. It’s beautiful,” Cray said commenting on The Egg. “I’ll play there many more times I’m sure.”
The two next-generation bluesmen still remain humble despite their many accomplishments. “I don’t think of myself on those terms,” Cray replied in the response of being called a legend. “It’s kind of funny because you know, as I look up to a lot of greats as their my heroes. It’s kind of funny as you’re getting up in age, to think that. We do get a lot of fans who do come up and say they listened to our music for the longest time or their parents turned them on to our music, and it puts a smile on your face. But, once again, you never think of yourself like that.”
Walker is not too keen on being called a living legend, and when asked if he had a moment of recognition, he replied, “Well, I never have thought I made it. That’s not the reason I play music. when I picked up a guitar, I just wanted to play some music.”
Despite being commonly referred to as a blues musician, Walker stresses he is so much more. “I don’t think any of us get here as a one trick pony, to be quite honest about it,” Walker said on being nominated into the Blues Hall of Fame. Walker is also been inducted into the Theonomous Monk Institute, Buddy Holly Educational Foundation, and several other community music projects.
At the end of the day, two amazing blues musicians shared the stage for a legendary performance for all those who were lucky enough to be in attendance. Both Walker and Cray are actively working on new music regularly despite heavy touring, and both expect to have a new album by late 2020. It’s a rare occurrence two musicians are able to captivate an entire audience back to back, but Walker and Cray achieved just that.
Both Cray and Walker continue to tour extensively throughout 2019, and if given the chance this is one show you don’t want to miss. Crays album, Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm, is available on his site, http://www.robertcray.com. And Joe Louis Walker’s 2016 release, Everybody Wants A Piece, is available at http://www.JoeLouisWalker.com, as well as both on Amazon, Spotify, or the good old fashion way your local record shop.