When people have heard of Joe Walsh, they tend to dismiss or underestimate him. Elitists revile him and the rest of the Eagles for their ubiquity in the late ’70s and intermittently since 1994. Snobs sneer at Walsh’s whiny voice and guitar heroics, or pigeonhole him — perhaps with affection — as a mere novelty act, the “Clown Prince of Rock,” the guy who recorded a few funny songs forty years ago.
In fact, Walsh is a versatile and innovative musician and composer who strongly influenced the evolution of popular music nearly a decade before he joined the Eagles in 1976, and continued to do so even after the supergroup broke up in 1980. He is currently in the midst of a minor career resurgence.
Born Joseph Fidler in Wichita on November 20, 1947, he does not remember his father. “My dad was an Air Force instructor in Okinawa, in a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, and when I was one and a half, he bumped wings with another guy and didn’t come back.”
A few years, later his mom married again. The boy’s new stepfather adopted him and gave him the surname Walsh.
Joe became the class clown to cope with repeated relocations. “After my mother remarried, we lived in a whole bunch of places: Wichita,
Evanston, Columbus, New York, New Jersey. It was really traumatic,
having to start all over again each time and be the new kid in school.
So I had to go out of my way to be funny. If you’re Crazy Joe, you can
An Episcopalian “child of the Silent Majority,” he inherited an interest in sound from his mother, a musicologist and classically trained pianist. “I knew I was musical,” he remembered, “because I heard music in my head a lot.”
When he was nine, his mother transfixed him by putting Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” on the record player. To this day, it remains his “favorite piece of music. It just takes me to a place of complete calm and joy and sadness all at the same time. It puts me in a trance, and I can’t really move until the piece is over. Fuck. It shatters me every time.”
Still, Joe struggled to find his instrument. He did not seem marked for greatness as third-chair clarinet in his junior high concert band, so Walsh tried trombone, then switched to oboe, albeit for dubious reasons: “I got to get out of homeroom because the whole orchestra tunes up to an oboe,” he recalled. “Everybody paid attention to me. I didn’t even know it yet, but that’s part of what I wanted out of music.”
When he hit puberty, Joe realized that girls do not dig oboe players. “So I switched to guitar.” His parents ordered a Silvertone acoustic guitar from Sears. “Let me tell you, when that thing finally arrived in the mail, after waiting for it for three weeks, I was on top of the world. And though I couldn’t yet play anything, it was the coolest thing.”
Walsh now had the right instrument. “I found that it was the best vehicle I had to get what was inside my head out of it and into somebody’s ears…. I couldn’t do that with a trombone.”
He admired the Ventures, so he began by teaching himself “Walk, Don’t Run,” their biggest hit. It “was the first song where I realized that playing guitar was all I wanted to do. And I learned the rhythm part, the lead part, the bass part and everything. I learned every note of that song.” The style and guitar tone of the Ventures remain a major influence on Joe’s technique.
Listening to Les Paul also shaped his playing — and ultimately Walsh’s preferred guitar model. It would be years before he could afford one, but by the late ’60s, the Gibson Les Paul would become Joe’s go-to guitar, prized for its unmistakably rich tone.
Walsh made his show business debut in 8th grade at a school talent show, covering “Exodus” as performed by a British band called the Eagles. He played rhythm guitar while his friend played lead; lacking a proper amplifier, they improvised a PA by running their instruments through a primitive tape recorder. “We sounded like Hank Williams sitting on a vibrator.”
Despite that debacle, Joe tried again at a school assembly in 9th grade. “I had learned to play stuff on the top four strings of the guitar, more like a ukulele, but I learned enough to be able to play a song, and I had a friend who played trumpet, so it was me on guitar and him on trumpet. It probably sounded horrible, and I remember being absolutely petrified.”
Joe and his friends formed a band, called the G-Clefts. “Even though we could hardly play anything, we had plans to be the next Ventures. All those great instrumentals like ‘Wipe Out,’ ‘Wild Weekend’ and ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ were coming out, and we learned them all. We were terrible; but it was cool. I never got any shit ’cause I only played rhythm.”
After seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Joe’s obsession deepened. “I memorized every Beatles song and went to Shea Stadium and screamed right along with all those chicks.” He taught himself to play every Fab Four song on guitar. “And Your Bird Can Sing” from Rubber Soul (1965) presented a particular challenge, but Walsh patiently worked out how to replicate George Harrison’s playing. At the time, Joe did not realize that he had achieved the feat of playing two separate parts simultaneously on a single guitar. (The quiet Beatle recorded the part in two takes, one layered on top of the other.)
Despite his rapidly developing guitar skills, Walsh had to compromise to break in with the Nomads, one of the local bands aping the music of the British Invasion. “They had just dumped their bass player and asked me if I could play. I said ‘Sure.’ I never played bass in my life, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard with only four strings. I ended up playing bass for the Nomads most of my senior year. My parents still have a picture of me all slicked up, with a collarless Beatles jacket and Beatles boots, playing at the prom.”
His growing interest in music led Joe to capitalize on his proximity to the Big Apple. “I was not old enough to get in, but I would go to the Village and stand out front [of the Bitter End] and listen to the Lovin’ Spoonful…. I’d go stand in front of the Peppermint Lounge and listen to Joey Dee and the Starliters. I would go to Manny’s Music Store and I would look at all the guitars and all the amps and dream. Didn’t have money to buy ’em. And then I would take the last bus back out to Montclair.”
Walsh wanted to pursue music full time after high school. “I fought with my parents, tried to tell them, ‘Look, I’m a rock star here. I’m gonna be a Beatle. This is really important.’ And they said, ‘Baloney, you’re going to college.’ So I went.”
Joe weighed his options and settled on Kent State University in Ohio. “Playboy called it a country club, ’cause you didn’t have to study to pass…so Kent sounded fine to me.”
One family member encouraged Walsh’s musical ambitions: “It was… my grandfather Floyd.” He “took me aside and said, ‘Never mind everybody. You go ahead and go for it. Instead of regretting that you didn’t, go ahead and see where it goes.’ He gave me permission to be me.”
Heeding his grandpa’s advice, Joe brought his Rickenbacker 12-string and a Vox amp to college “just in case.”
After one undistinguished term at Kent State, he abandoned full-time study and split time between jamming and pursuing a quirky array of interests. “I became the phantom of Kent State… taking electronics, music theory, welding — all those weird courses nobody could understand.”
He found cheap shelter in a condemned farmhouse while playing in a series of bar bands. “There was a tremendous scene at Kent. I really got into it. Everybody went down to the local clubs, drank… beer, played Sam the Sham records and got in fights…. We were really close with the audiences…. We’d goof around, sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to people, bring the police onstage to sing ‘Little Black Egg.’ Everybody was a part of a happy family. It was a secure, beautiful time.”
Walsh became the front man for a popular cover band called the Measles. They recorded an original single, “I Find I Think of You,” which demonstrated his embryonic potential as a composer, player and singer.
But the good times did not last. Bad dope hit the scene. Anger mounted over the Vietnam War. A key member of the Measles quit to join the Army. The city made Walsh vacate his crumbling crash pad.
A friend of Joe’s had just left a successful cover band called the James Gang. Walsh knocked on the door of Jim Fox, the drummer, leader and namesake of the group. Fox invited him to the audition, where Joe blew away the competition.
Walsh, however, remembers getting recruited. “They had heard I was hot stuff…, so they asked me to join. I had some big shoes to fill; I began to study the guitar like mad, buying records and reading all I could. I wasn’t even aware of B.B. King until I read an interview with Eric Clapton where he talked about stealing his licks. I had a lot of catching up to do.”
Originally a five-piece band that played British blues and rock covers, the James Gang became a foursome when the high school kid who sang and played keys quit.
The group pressed Walsh into service as a lead vocalist. “I really didn’t want to sing,… but Fox made me, and I went along. I’ve always been self-conscious of my voice. Not that it’s good or bad; it’s just… different.”
As he developed confidence, Joe “started to branch out and write my own music.”
Power Trio Pioneers
In the summer of 1966, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker — three of the most acclaimed musicians in Britain — came together to form Cream, a rock supergroup in a new format: the power trio. Up to that point, rock bands typically needed at least four members and often more to generate the desired sound. Cream dared to posit that you could constitute a complete rock band with just one guitarist, one bassist and one drummer — if all three players were true virtuosos. Borrowing the jazz ethos of a competitive musicianship within and between bands, power trio members take extended solos to show off their skills.
Forming Cream by rounding up three ringers from a thriving UK music scene is one thing. Finding comparable chops in an Ohio bar band would seem most unlikely.
But it happened.
The James Gang became a power trio entirely by accident. In May 1968 — just before a gig at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom opening for Cream — the quartet’s other guitarist quit. Backing out was not an option. Joe: “We had to play, ’cause we didn’t have gas money to get home.”
Penury forced the James Gang to take the stage with minimal preparation as a power trio, and to do so as the warm-up act for the intimidating talents who had invented the format barely two years before.
To survive the night, they relied primarily on improvisation. Walsh recalled, “I sang a little bit and then we just opened up the middle and then it was every man for himself.”
“We got a standing ovation and an encore, and we got gas money to go home” the guitarist remembered. “When we got home, we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, do we really need anybody?’ We just decided we’d do it as a three-piece.”
Joe remained insecure about his vocal ability. “I never would have learned how to [be] the singing guitar player unless I had to, but I had to and so I did…. I’m grateful that happened, because being in a three-piece band, there’s nothing better on a good night.” But, he added, “on a bad night, there’s nothing worse.”
The James Gang later opened a few shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience — the other great power trio of the day— and some fans swore that the unknown Walsh outshone the headliner on guitar at times.
ABC Records signed the James Gang to its “underground” Bluesway label. In January 1969, the group went into a New York studio to record their first album with rookie producer Bill Scymczyk. Joe’s mom came up from Jersey to jam with the band on piano in rehearsals.
The resulting LP, Yer’ Album, mostly documented their live set, with few overdubs. Despite the band’s reputation for rocking hard, Walsh kicks off Side One playing organ on “Take a Look Around,” a reflective midtempo ballad. Staying true to the rigor of the power trio concept, Joe steps away from the organ twice to play a mournful guitar interlude and coda.
On “Funk #48”— for the first time on vinyl — Walsh deployed his signature hybrid of lead and rhythm guitar, powered by chicka chicka scratching — a lick used sparingly on Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” (1966). Joe’s elaboration of the technique became a staple of his style, and a much-imitated one, inspiring everything from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” (1971) to the iconic introduction to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991).
“Funk #48”— Yer’ Album’s catchiest track — evolved from a sound check jam. Amid infectious riffing, Joe and bassist Tom Kriss trade solos and scat vocals over Fox’s energetic drumming. On the track, Walsh experiments with guitar overdubs, punctuating the song with strategic restraint until the end, when he frenetically solos over the riff to bring the jam to a satisfying and climactic conclusion.
The spare lyrics to “Funk #48” comically chronicle good love gone bad. Those lines — and Joe’s inspired delivery of them — give the first glimpse of the wit that would later make Walsh famous.
Side One closes with a remarkable cover of “Lost Woman,” a tune the Yardbirds originally recorded as a five-piece; the British band’s version clocks in at three and a half minutes, but feels longer, especially during the interminable and inexpert harmonica solo. By contrast, the James Gang rendition — executed as a pure power trio — is tighter and better and, despite extended bass, drum and guitar solos — feels much shorter than its actual nine-minute duration. On vinyl, at the song’s conclusion, the needle locked into a loop, repeating the phrase “Turn me over.”
After some weaker material, Side Two ends with an audacious cover of “Stop,” a bluesy soul song originally recorded with a full band and horn section by Howard Tate. While Joe’s nasal whine makes one miss Tate’s soaring vocal, the James Gang — here a quartet with Walsh doubling on piano — vastly outperforms the original artist’s large band, sustaining an endlessly inventive jam that never overstays its welcome, despite clocking in at just over twelve minutes. On vinyl, after the song, the needle locked into another loop, this time urging, “Play me again.”
Back then, record labels imposed punishing tour schedules to support new record releases. However, before Yer’ Album had even reached store shelves, the James Gang endured another personnel crisis.
Fox and Walsh realized that Kriss had grown increasingly aloof. Concerned, they called a band meeting, where the bassist declared, “I hate this band. I hate the music we’re making. I don’t think I can play it anymore.”
Blindsided, Fox asked, “Tom, aren’t you somewhat equally responsible for the music we’re making? What do you want to do?”
Kriss replied, “I don’t know, but I can’t take this anymore.”
That night, Fox invited the best available bassist he knew to jam with him and Joe. Dale Peters fit in well enough, allowing Walsh and Fox to tell their disgruntled bandmate he was free to go. “Wow, thanks man, that’s a load off my mind,” Kriss said.
Under extreme time pressure, Fox and Walsh needed to help Peters master challenging new material to keep up with a demanding tour schedule.
To my ears, the new bassist never superseded Kriss in terms of technique, but musical chemistry ultimately matters much more than raw skill in a band. Fox called the addition of Peters “magic… instantaneously an upgrade, which we never expected.”
“We could just play instantly,” Peters affirmed. “We’re completely different people and we never really hung around together,” but “we had the same record collections, we liked the exact same kind of music…. It was great fun. It was easy. It was fabulous. It was just natural right from the beginning.”
The switch from the difficult Kriss to the intuitive Peters helped compensate for Walsh’s reluctance to dictate to his bandmates. Fox remembered, “Joe… was less likely to say, ‘Listen, Tom, I want you to do this, Jimmy, I’d like you to do this.’ … With Dale on the same page, [we] all seemed to be pulling in the same direction and that was very helpful…, because it went together more easily. Because what we were playing was organically more naturally right to us all.”
Influence on Page, Clapton & Townshend
Unfortunately, Yer’ Album received little airplay, generated no hits and peaked at a modest #83 on the Billboard charts. Still, the record and the band’s live shows — especially Joe’s guitar work — quickly caught the attention of other musicians, including two ex-Yardbirds who already ranked as elder statesmen of the UK rock and blues scene.
Jimmy Page, in the midst of launching Led Zeppelin, took notice of Walsh’s guitar work: “He has a tremendous feel for the instrument. I’ve loved his style since the early James Gang.” In April 1969, Jimmy Magic Fingers bought one of Joe’s Gibson Les Paul guitars so he could emulate his sound in concert and in the studio.
Thus, Walsh helped fuel Page’s quantum growth in tone, riffing and solos between the sprawling and sloppy Led Zeppelin— made before he had heard Joe play—and the focused and heavy Led Zeppelin II, recorded months after the British guitarist discovered the James Gang. There are few outright copped riffs from Walsh on Led Zeppelin II; the influence, if I’m right, was more one of attitude and discipline. (Not that Page was above outright theft; his band had already stolen “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times” and would go on to plagiarize “Whole Lotta Love,” “Stairway to Heaven” and other songs.)
Eric Clapton, of course, had been backstage during the James Gang’s first gig as a power trio, and he continued to follow Walsh’s work. Slowhand remarked, “He’s one of the best guitarists to surface in some time. I don’t listen to many records, but I listen to his.”
You can hear Joe’s direct influence on Clapton in Slowhand’s solo and coda licks on “After Midnight (1970).” (I’ve linked to the superior version with the horn section that went unreleased until the Crossroads box set in 1988. You’re welcome. It’s the same basic track on both versions.)
Pete Townshend also got to hear Walsh play in person when the James Gang opened for The Who in 1969. Joe: “Pete just happened to come early to that show and got on the side of the stage…. And I guess ’cause” The Who “were basically a three piece, too… Pete related to our stuff and felt like we were on the same wavelength…. He had taken me under his wing as a kind of mentor.”
Townshend was impressed: “Joe Walsh is a fluid and intelligent player. There’re not many like that around.”
Fast friends, they swapped tips on managing rhythm and lead duties as the sole guitarist in their respective bands. The Who invited the James Gang to join them on their tours of the US and Europe in 1969–70. Pete gave Joe an ARP synthesizer.
Walsh reciprocated by helping Townshend out of a creative rut. While supporting Tommy, Joe remembered, Pete got “locked into a certain amp/guitar setup for touring, and he got stuck there. It was time for him to move on and I sensed that.” Walsh gave Townshend a ’57 Gretsch Chet Akins model guitar and a ’59 Fender Bandmaster amp, a novel pairing that produces “an especially harmonic secret sauce” that spurred Pete’s progress to the sound of Who’s Next (1971) and Quadrophenia (1973). The Gretsch remained Townshend’s primary studio guitar well into the ‘90s.
Of course, there were limits to Joe’s influence. Hendrix probably heard Walsh when the James Gang opened for the Experience, but I can detect no traces of Joe in Jimi’s evolution during or after Electric Ladyland (1969). Of course, I have not fully explored the massive volume of the Seattle axeman’s posthumous releases, but I will be surprised if I ever find evidence of Joe’s influence on Jimi. Hendrix was already operating on a far higher plane than all of his contemporaries (and most successors); his consistent originality continues to confound the casual listener trying to discern direct influences beyond those Jimi himself named: Muddy Waters, Albert & BB King, Elvin James, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly.
In subsequent essays, I’ll complete the story of the James Gang as a power trio pioneers, and show how Walsh’s solo career wielded outsize influence over the development of popular music.
Part Two: Joe Walsh’s Power Trio Apotheosis.
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