November 29, 2017 – Robert Bilbo Walker Jr. was born on February 19, 1937, on the Borden Plantation in Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
Walker was named after his father, Robert “Bilbo” Walker Sr., who was also nicknamed “Bilbo” — that’s how Walker Jr. acquired the nickname, which he hates. As he explains in the liner notes to Promised Land, people in his Clarksdale home would distinguish between his father and him by referring to them as Big Bilbo and Little Junior Bilbo. Later, after he began making a name for himself in Delta juke joints, Walker was called Chuck Berry Jr.
Walker was a completely self-taught musician who played piano, guitar, and drums. He got his musical education thanks to his father, who would have “Little Junior Bilbo” playing piano behind a curtain at country juke joints around his native Clarksdale.
His father paid three dollars and got Walker his first guitar, and he began playing at age eight. He began playing guitar professionally in church as a teenager, but after his sister started dating one of the guys in one of Ike Turner’s early bands, he had the opportunity to learn showmanship firsthand from Turner. He began teaching himself Turner and Muddy Waters tunes on guitar.
When Chuck Berry’s first recordings were released in the 1950s, Walker modeled much of his guitar style after Berry’s, he said in his liner notes to Promised Land, his debut for Rooster Blues. He began making trips to Chicago, formed a band with bassist David Porter, and the two have performed together much of the time since then.
Walker spent 17 years in Chicago, most of the time living with Porter. After a chance booking at the Rodeway Inn in Bakersfield, California, Walker decided he liked that city enough to stay out there, especially since he had by this point also learned to play traditional country music. He bought land near Bakersfield and grew cotton and watermelons for the next few years, moonlighting as a musician in and around Bakersfield and making frequent trips back home to the Delta and Chicago. Walker was quite financially successful as a farmer and entrepreneur and was able to buy himself a limousine, a tour bus, and a motorcycle.
He did not record his first album until he was already 60 in 1997 when Walker released his first album, Promised Land, and followed it with two more records, 1998’s Rompin’ & Stompin’ and 2001’s Rock the Night.
For Rompin’ & Stompin’ Walker first developed his unique one-handed guitar style — which he demonstrates a few minutes of at most of his shows — while he was in Chicago, playing on Maxwell Street. As he explains in his liner notes to Promised Land: “Famous musicians like B.B. King and them, they done did about everything with a guitar could be done, as if you want to try to top them guys like B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy, well, you really got to come up with somethin’ the world maybe never seen did. And I’m the onliest man alive can put that kind of show on with the guitar with one hand like that….I wanted to be somethin’ peoples could says, ‘Well, no one else can do that but Robert Walker.'”
Walker counted Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, and Ike Turner among his early stylistic influences. From 2008 on Walker and crew were working with upcoming musician/producer Alex “AOK” OKonski on some recordings, live gigs and other musical endeavors. “Robert wass one of the last living/functioning Mississippi Delta Blues musicians alive”, said OKonski.
Robert Bilbo Walker died on November 29, 2017 from natural causes. He was 80.