Bessie Smith Cultural Center
5:30 p.m. Ike Stubblefield
7 p.m. Lionel Young Band
5:30 p.m. Hadden Sayers
6:45 p.m. Joe Louis Walker
2009: "Between a Rock and the Blues"
2008: "Witness to the Blues"
2006: "Playin' Dirty"
2004: "New Direction"
2003: "Ridin' High" / "She's My Money Maker"
2002: "Guitar Brothers" / "Pasa Tiempo" / "In the Morning"
1999: "Silvertone Blues"
1998: "Preacher and the President"
1997: "Great Guitars"
1995: "Blues of the Month Club"
1993: "Blues Survivor"
1992: "Live at Slim's, Volume Two"
1991: "Live at Slim's, Volume One"
1989: "Blue Soul"
1988: "The Gift"
1986: "Cold Is the Night"
After more than 45 years playing with some of the biggest names in the genre, Joe Louis Walker has a Rolodex fit to make any blues fan salivate.
Growing up in San Francisco, Walker established himself as a talented guitarist at age 16, earning him the position as house string slinger at The Matrix, a nightclub on Fillmore Street.
There and -- with the help of legendary rock promoter Bill Graham -- at the nearby Fillmore West, Walker shared the stage with everyone from T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker to Lightnin' Hopkins and Freddie King. He opened so often for Muddy Waters that the bluesman invited Walker to open for him on an extended tour of Canada when Walker was 19.
"I played for everyone who came to town," Walker said, during a recent phone interview. "It was really fertile ground."
By the time he earned his spot at The Matrix, Walker had already been playing guitar for half his life and had been competing in battle of the band competitions at The Fillmore with his cousins for several years.
In 1968, shortly before he embarked on his tour with Waters, Walker met and befriended the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's Mike Bloomfield, who is regarded by many as among the best guitarists in the world.
The two moved in together and Bloomfield introduced Walker to luminaries such as Carlos Santana and Steve Miller, whose influence helped shift him into a more rock-oriented playing style. Their friendship lasted until Bloomfield's death in 1981.
After a decade during which he exclusively played gospel music, Walker returned to the blues with a flourish in 1985, releasing three of his most well-received albums.
"I had a better idea of what I wanted to do, stylistically," he said. "I knew I wanted to do something different; not your grandpa's blues but Joe Walker's way of doing it."
Thanks to skills he gleaned through his friendships and partnerships, Walker, now 62, said he developed a free-ranging approach to the guitar that is all his own.
His style has been praised by critics as, at turns, innovative, passionate, searing and soulful. He has received four Blues Music Awards, including winning the 2010 Album of the Year for "Between a Rock and the Blues."
Tonight, he will headline this year's Bessie Smith Strut.
As celebrated as he is for his blues work, Walker said he feels just as comfortable drawing on gospel and rock. That wide-ranging approach once led Willie Dixon to tell him his style was "all over the place."
He said he took that as a compliment.
"I can tackle all those different genres but still keep the essence of the blues," Walker said. "In the long run, I've sort of persevered to where people know my music and know that it's different from anyone else you could name in my genre.
"I sort of try to push myself and have fun while I'm doing it."