About Lil Joe Washington
For almost sixty years now Little Joe Washington has been a defiantly creative music maker. It seems to be the fundamental fact of his existence, the force that drives him to survive and enjoy a life often on the edge. Listen for yourself: for he is one of the most soulfully raw and uninhibitedly fluent blues artists you will hear these days‹anywhere.
Lil Joe Washington was born in Houston on March 1, 1939, to a mother, young and single, who named him Marion. He grew up in the Third Ward, home of blues giants such as Lightnin’ Hopkins. Informally adopted, he lived with relatives in a two-story structure facing the railroad tracks. The bottom floor functioned as a barbershop and tiny café, a place where his uncle (who played violin and saxophone) often hosted jam sessions. By the age of five, Marion was bamming on the upright piano in the corner. By nine he was also blowing on a trumpet, and by fifteen he was pounding on drums in a band led by Albert Collins. It wasn’t until he started bending the strings of a guitar and imitating local phenomenon Joe Hughes that he became known generally by the moniker Little Joe.
Following a brief apprenticeship in Houston clubs, the wiry guitarist toured with Roscoe Gordon’s road band. Later, with Cecil Harvey’s group, he worked the territory from Texas to Nevada. Around the age of twenty he settled (if that’s the word for the wild lifestyle he recalls there) in El Paso, where he played the rowdy border town circuit, including a stint at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico. There he met the group The Champs, who took him to California in 1961 to record on the Donna label (the original versions of “Hard Way Four” and “The Last Tear.” In 1963 Little Joe returned to Los Angeles, where he recorded for the Federal label, ultimately releasing tracks such as “Someone Loves Me,” “I Feel All Right” and “Bossa Nova and Grits.”
In the years that immediately followed, Little Joe bounced around his old turf, from Houston to Juarez and back, performing with all manner of groups. But the bad habits he'd developed in the wide-open party atmosphere of the border bars eventually made him an all-too-willing victim of substance abuse. During the hazy couple of decades that followed, he would often find himself on the streets, owning nothing but the pawn ticket for his guitar.
By the mid-1990s he was essentially homeless: first camping out in the dilapidated structure that had once been his uncle’s barbershop, then (after it burned down in 1997) sleeping in an abandoned car that he had pushed onto the vacant lot. But he never stopped making music. In fact he claims to have found inspiration by being forced by circumstance to hear certain sounds: the constantly improvised riffs of the mockingbird, the staccato bark-and-response of dogs, the eerie howl of a chilly wind.
In the past few years, Little Joe Washington has experienced a personal renaissance of sorts (and now has a stable roof overhead). With regular gigging and a few tours abroad, his sound has evolved into something truly unique‹a potent synthesis of the classic R&B of his youth and the hard blues realities of his later years. His piercing fretwork on gutbucket guitar and his weathered, wailing voice have grown ever more distinctive. In bursts of stream-of-consciousness expressionism they reflect the way this man has truly lived: hard as bone, directly connected to the urban landscape, impoverished of almost everything but the capacity for deep feeling and the will to make music.