Phillip Walker is not the type of blues musician who draws a lot of attention to himself. The veteran singer-guitarist is soft-spoken, plays with taste and economy and has spent much of his four-decade career playing as a supporting hand to other, more famous artists.
"Working Girl Blues," his first stateside album in seven years, came out this summer on the small but respected Black Top label. Although it reaffirms his place as a first-rate bluesman in styles ranging from shuffles and stomps to zydeco and ballads, the album didn't draw much attention; it was overshadowed by the big names like Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton.
But the unflappable Walker, at 58, keeps on keeping on, and will play Friday night at the Hyatt Regency in Irvine. Born in Welch, La., he moved at age 8 to Port Arthur, Texas, and was exposed at an early age to the many touring bluesmen who would blow through the Lone Star State.
"I checked out all the electric players that came forth out there," he said this week by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "Lowell Fulson, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown and all those fellows from the '50s. But I listened to all the blues from way back, really--Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and all that old stuff too. When I got started, I had been a good listener for a long time."
He got his first break in 1955 when he was hired to back up the legendary zydeco master Clifton Chenier. He kept the gig--which brought him into contact with the likes of Etta James, Roscoe Brown, Jimmy Reed and others--for four years, making a name for himself and developing his chops.
"Cliff was a real nice guy and a hard-working guy," Walker recalls. "I really enjoyed my experience with him as a young, coming-up musician. I learned a lot from him. He was the first guy who really fully explored [zydeco], and he deserves all the credit he gets, really. He was called 'The King of the South.' He really stirred up a fuss."
In 1959, Walker was in L.A. building a reputation as one of the finest blues guitarists on the West Coast. He did a lot of recording and toured consistently throughout the '60s, and in 1969, he briefly joined Little Richard at the height of the rock 'n' roll pioneer's campy, gender-bending excesses.
It was an experience Walker says he won't forget.
"He didn't know which way he wanted to go at the time," Walker said, chuckling. "I've known him all my life, even before he had those big hits back in the '50s. He's just a high-energy person, all the time going all kinds of crazy ways. He was real fun. It was just like working with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the guy is a real nice guy, and he takes care of business. He's just Richard is all."
That same year, Walker hooked up with producer Bruce Bromberg for what became a fairly consistent association throughout the '70s and '80s, resulting in several blues albums for American and European labels.
Never a top draw at home, Walker has maintained a stronger fan base in Europe, like many other neglected American bluesmen.
But unlike some, he shows no sign of bitterness over his relative lack of recognition. He says he is happy to be touring and recording, playing the music he loves.
"Blues will always be around. It will be here forever. It's not like some rap song that's going to just be out there a little while and stir up a lot of noise. Blues is a small world, but it's forever. And I put all I can into it."
* Who: Phillip Walker.
* When: Friday at 9 p.m.
* Where: Hyatt Regency, 17900 Jamboree Road, Irvine.
* Whereabouts: Take the Jamboree exit from the San Diego (405) Freeway and head north. The Hyatt Regency is at Jamboree and Main.
* Wherewithal: $7.
* Where to call: (714) 975-1234.
BLUES LISTINGS, Page 16