Little Nicky Yarling says Phillip Walker is one of the best acts she has ever seen. Quite an endorsement from the juke-joint-jumpin'est frontwoman on the South Florida music scene. But then, one doesn't become hired axman for everyone from Clifton Chenier to Lowell Fulson by being the aural equivalent of Sominex. Along the way you pick up a few things.
"I learned to pick with my toes. And with my teeth," Walker chuckles in his musical Louisiana lilt. You learn some attention-grabbing gimmicks when you're playing tough joints such as the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico. You pick up some education when your partner Long John Hunter is playing leads while hanging from the rafters or taking his wailing guitar for a stroll down the sidewalk. And you may as well get a diploma when you discover that some guy sitting in the audience is masturbating in time to the music (must have been a critic). All this edification took place back in 1957, before anyone had heard of Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Guy (although cats such as T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim, and Howlin' Wolf created excitement with their antics). But Walker was chasing someone else. "Guitar Shorty was doin' all kinds of things," Walker recollects of his head-cutting competition. So off came the shoes.
Born in the small Louisiana town of Welsh, outside Lake Charles, Walker's feet are deeply planted in bayou swamp water. Although his family moved to Port Arthur, Texas, when Phillip was eight, the rhythmic pulse of zydeco continued to run through his veins. "I was a crazy mixed-up kid," he says. "I started out with my natural culture, playing zydeco." So it's not entirely surprising that bluesman Walker enjoyed a long run with Clifton Chenier, the undisputed king of bon temps rock and roulet.
It was through his four-year stint with Chenier that Walker had the opportunity to hook up with many of the impressive names that appear on his resume: Etta James, Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, T-Bone Walker.... "They would request Clif's band," Walker says of the blues artists that passed through the area. "We had a seven-piece horn band and they would always request us." One such gig was a "Big 10" show, featuring legends-in-the-making such as Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Lavern Baker, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, with whom Walker later toured.
Obviously, it wasn't always about the blues, even in the free-wheeling days at the Lobby. "We was off into the radio hit tunes, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, 'Kansas City,'" he reminisces. "But in a blues style." His zydeco roots, he asserts with a strong "Of course! Of course!" had made him a solid rhythm player in the mode of Jimmy Rogers and Eddie Taylor, "laying the big beat down" as Angela Strehli would later sing in "Two Bit Texas Town." But the blues, like swamp music, remained the bedrock of his sound, ever since he first heard WLAC out of Nashville.
"I was not into the Texas sound so much," says Walker of his early years. That soon changed as the teenage picker became increasingly enamored of his instrument (a cigar box strung with threads of window screening, later traded in for his older brother's guitar), and began frequenting the clubs in nearby Port Nature. "There were four or five places. They were so crowded you couldn't hardly drive them," he recalls. Local women sympathetic to his cause, and his young age, would draw him a mustache with eyebrow pencil, maybe sticking their boyfriends' hats on his head to complete the illusion.
It was in such venues that Walker first heard Hunter and guitarists Lonesome Sundown (Cornelius Green) and Lonnie Brooks, "real local guys at the time," he says. And they were receptive to the eager young pupil, he remembers, "when I could catch their attention." Others whose attention Walker would later catch were Houston Third Ward-ers such as Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland (and his partner Joe Hughes), Teddy Reynolds (Bobby Bland's guitarman), and Lightnin' Hopkins. It certainly didn't hinder Walker that his second cousin is none other than Clarence Gatemouth Brown.
Like his Texas blues brethren, Walker sings in a high, nasal, emotionally charged voice. It ain't pretty but it sure as hell gets the message across. "Brother, go ahead and take her," he sings in the song of the same name. "I'm worn out from holdin' on." His guitarwork ranges from staccato machine-gun bursts of notes to Memphis-style melodicism, all of it clean and deeply affecting.
The two years he spent in Juarez with Hunter -- one of several Texas blues artists interviewed in depth in the August issue of Living Blues (though not in depth enough to mention his old running pard) A at the Lobby helped him hone his stagecraft. "It was real crazy, real fun," Walker says, despite the fact he was working six days per week, from six in the evening to six in the morning. Not long after, a scout from Echo records scoped Walker and Hunter and took them to L.A. to record.
But the the City of Angels wasn't for Long John, who returned to the Lobby, where he remained for the next decade. ("I had to fight hard to keep him in the business," Walker says of his old bordertown bud. "He was just disgusted with it about five years back. Then he recorded for Antone's.") Walker, on the other hand, decided to stay on the Left Coast, and he recorded his first side "Hello, My Darling" with rhythm guitarist Pauline Adams. Later cuts for Echo (which became Elko) featured Walker's wife, Ina Beatrice, or Bea Bop. "Ina wrote most of the songs," Walker says.
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Walker would later see more obscure labels than the discount rack at Mervyn's, including Bruce Bromberg's Joliet and Hugh Hefner's Playboy. But the pajama-clad pipe-puffer wasn't the one who signed Walker. Rather, it was PR man Pete Welding who brought Walker to the bunny imprint. "He was familiar with all the stuff we was doin'," says Walker, who still plays the hollow-body Gibson that Welding gave him. Walker remembers Bromberg as a young pup right out of college: "We made some bad records there," he laughs. "You could tell we was inexperienced. Some we wouldn't let nobody hear!"
Walker has come a long way from those days, squaring the circle on the current tour, which brings him to Tobacco Road Friday and Saturday. He's speaking by phone from a hotel in El Paso. "I'm goin' back to Texas," he sings in the autobiographical "Port Arthur Blues," "'Cause Port Arthur is still my home." Walker's family is strewn throughout Texas and Louisiana: Beaumont, Houston, Lafayette. "It can be confusing when you have a big family," he allows, adding that his homecoming after ten years was somewhat bittersweet.
The guitarman is also returning to New Orleans for the first time since he played there with Chenier in '55. Currently without a label, Walker will be performing in the Crescent City for the earwigs at Blacktop Records, an independent that hosts idiosyncratic blues artists such as Earl King, Clarence Holliman and Carol Fran, and Robert Ward. Walker, it seems, would be the perfect fit. "We'll see if they want to record Phillip Walker before he turns 60, eh?"
Phillip Walker performs Thursday (tonight) at the Backroom, 16 E Atlantic Ave, Delray Beach, 407-243-9110 at 9:30, (admission is $3); and Friday and Saturday after 10:30 p.m. at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave, 374-1198. Admission costs $6.