A steady diet of the blues

“I must have been about 17 years old when I really got the hot-pants to play guitar,” reminisces bluesman Phillip Walker.

“Yeah, I got a chance to hear Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and B.B. King together, down in Beaumont, Texas in ’53. They had seven- and eight-piece bands then, horns and all that stuff. … That really blew me apart, man. I said ‘I have to play it! I just have to be a guitarist.'”

But the young Walker was not just another wannabe bluesman. In the very beginning of his career, he toured as lead guitarist for such monumental genre-shakers as Etta James, Jimmy Reed, Little Richard and Fats Domino.

Forty-five years later, he’s still on the road, now with his own band.

A former Grammy and W. C. Handy Award nominee, Walker was recently hailed as “one of the 10 most important blues guitarists living today” by Guitar magazine.

Walker was originally discovered by Clifton Cheneir, a cajun accordion player who helped pioneer zydeco music (a gumbo of Creole dance music spiced by R&B and soul). The jaunty Cajun influence lays a loose, rollicking current beneath Walker’s piquant blues.

“I’ve got one ear in zydeco and one ear in Texas blues,” says Walker — not surprising, considering he was born in Port Charles, La., and his family later moved to Port Arthur, Texas. When Walker squeezes the strings of a Telecaster he pushes the simple blues form to its creative limits. “It can be real complex; it depends on what you’re going to play within that 12 bars. I mean I’ve seen some kids, you know, they get hung right in there, and they can’t venture out. They can’t imagine what can be added to that. … They get kinda boxed in. … Well, I like to throw it around a little, say, ‘Hey!, you know this is 12 bars, but it can be played like this.‘”

Walker’s latest CD, Working Girl Blues (Black Top Records, 1995), showcases his threefold talents as guitar player, songwriter and vocalist. The lyrics to “A Thing Called the Blues” reveal his worldy muses: “I sing the blues for the homeless, sleepin’ in the street/Blues for the children [who] got no food to eat/Blues for the pimped girls in their fancy clothes/blues for the junkie blowin’ it up his nose/there’s a thing they call the blues/don’t you be confused/you can read it in the paper or you can see it on the news.”

When asked how he keeps his crushed-velvet voice in such youthful shape, Walker laughs at the irony of it all. “I treats it horrible,” he states. “I smoke cigarettes. Cigarette smoke takes the voice on outta here, but it does something else to mine, I guess. I dunno.” But he doesn’t completely abuse his golden gift. “Yeah, rest your voice and don’t party it out; don’t burn it up with alcohol,” advises Walker, who refers to himself as “a vitamin man.”

On the road, he employs a special mojo of his own devising. “The main thing is to eat well, sleep well,” he says. “Get all the sleep you can; get all the best food you can find and take vitamins. I take B-12 and real large quantities of C and E, daily. … I’m a caffeine drinker, but I had to modify that. Most times when I’m on stage I just drink water with lemon in it. I’ll just drink lemon water, take plenty of vitamins the next day, and just find the best food I can to eat.”

Walker should know the meaning of “the best food.” His parents raised 12 children on a small farm, growing everything their kitchen required, except flour, coffee and sugar. “We grew … potatoes, greens, beans, corn, rice, name it — every [vegetable] you can imagine: celery, mustard seed, turnips, all kinds of stuff. This is what’s so strange to me today. I eat this stuff knowin’ that I used to grow it. And I say, ‘Whew! It tastes nothing like what I used to grow.'”

He needed that nutrition. After the crops were harvested each year, he’d work a season as a cowboy. “We’d farm awhile, and then we’d have to go cut cattle, brand cattle, cut ’em into different pastures. … Yeah, I was raised up in that stuff. … I kinda miss it sometime, ya know.”

Walker first encountered the blues as a boy working in the rice paddies of the Gulf Coast, where the people are as colorful as their music. “[They were] farming rice, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cotton and watermelons … and people [were] plowin’ the mules and playin’ the harmonica at the same time,” he remembers. Near his hometown was a combined blues nightclub and rodeo: “I went to the club there, with the beer and the BBQ and the cowboys and all the good stuff.”

Walker’s insight into the heart of the blues reveals a journeyman who has learned to express music as an extension of himself and his own experiences. Walker says it takes an instinctive sense to play the blues, just as it does to ride a wild bronco.

“[My father] taught me how to break wild horses,” he remembers. “You got to know how to roll with his body movements. If he go this way, you got to go with him. If he catch you off balance, you’re gone.

“My Dad was a hardcore farmer, a workin’ man,” Walker continues. “He called the guitar a starvation box — ‘Yeah, that boy playin’ that starvation box. He should be a man and get a job.’ But, on the last, he said, ‘Well, he’s really gonna do this’ … and he was really proud of it.”

The “starvation box” has been feeding Phillip Walker for a lifetime, leaving worldwide audiences hungry for extra helpings of his homegrown blues.

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