New Jersey-raised guitarist, singer, and songwriter Billy Walton — from the shore town of Tuckerton — fuses his primary guitar influences at his live shows, yet his sound is all his own.
That he’s developed his own compelling style of blues and blues-rock has not gone unnoticed by savvy fans in Great Britain, where Walton and his band frequently play, and a blues and blues-rock renaissance has been going on since the new millennium.
Area audiences can get a sample of that sound this Friday, August 30, when the guitar-centric trio, the Billy Walton Band, performs at Princeton’s Ivy Inn on Nassau Street.
Walton, who began playing as a seven-year-old and found blues at an early age, cites his major influences, all good: Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Freddie King, and Johnny Winter.
“We kind of stick with the mostly originals we do in the blues-rock vein,” he says. After all, “I’m a white kid from Jersey, why would I think I can do a Freddie King song better than Freddie King could do it? We stick with our own thing, but I have guys like Albert and Freddie King in the back of my mind when I solo.”
Walton, who lives in Egg Harbor Township, is talking after a recent successful gig at the Golden Nugget Casino’s marina stage, situated on the bay in Atlantic City.
“We have a couple of things in the works right now: we’re writing songs for a new album; we recorded 12 live shows this past summer, as a buddy of mine has a recording studio in Hawaii,” he says. He expects the Billy Walton Band will have two albums to release in 2014, one live and one studio effort.
Now in his late 30s, Walton includes in his powerful trio Robbinsville-based bass player William Paris and Trenton-area drummer John DeAngelo, son of the longtime, well-known Trenton-area drummer and drum teacher, Joe DeAngelo, who — by the way — can be seen sitting in with a lot of blues-rock bands, including Matt O’ Ree’s trio.
Walton’s trio may be joined on Friday night by Spotswood-raised, Jackson-based tenor saxophonist Rich “Taz” Taskowitz, who contributes blues and soul-drenched solos to the mix in all the right places.
Walton’s early life fit with the lifestyle of the old port town of Tuckerton. His mother was a housewife, and his father was a marine dredge man. “I’m the first in my family that doesn’t work on the water, my father and grandfathers and uncles were all sea captains, transporting stuff back before steam ships,” Walton says. His father, a Vietnam veteran who died of pancreatic cancer in 2001, was a huge influence on him.
“My dad always played music around the house. He played doo-wop records, classic rock, blues. He turned me on to all kinds of music, because years ago when he was younger; he sang in a doo-wop group, just a street corner group, and they did it for kicks.”
When Walton was 13, his father took him to a concert by Lynryd Skynyrd, the Alabama-based band that specialized in blues-rock and what later became known as southern rock, and says of their guitar playing “I just fell in love with it. I was already playing at that time, and that concert just turned me on to blues-rock, big time.”
He continued developing his guitar chops through high school, with the support of encouraging parents, and his band won the talent show in high school.
“Then I got this gig at Miller’s, in the middle of Tuckerton. My parents drove me to the gig,” he recalls of his first paid show with a band as a 15-year-old.
“I didn’t realize that there were dancing girls in there during the day, so (his parents) were in for a surprise. We arrived at the club and (the dancers) were on their way out while we were loading our equipment in,” he recalls, laughing. “I realized at that point: man, rock ‘n’ roll and beautiful women, this is the life for me! This is what I want to do!”
He got much of his blues education by hanging out and sitting in with older guitar players at Miller’s on Sunday afternoons. There, he learned the simple-yet-complex beauty of playing heartfelt blues and became aware of artists like Freddie King and Otis Rush.
“I’d walk right up there and sneak in the back door, and these older guys there would let me sit in.”
Out of high school, he attended the Berklee College of Music for a two-week seminar designed to interest students considering a career in music performance, but he decided not to pursue his guitar studies at Berklee.
“After high school my buddies were going to college, but, at that time, I was gigging so much, and my father was getting sick, so I decided I didn’t want to go away. I was playing seven shows a week at the Jersey Shore, and it was a nice fit.”
While still in high school, in 1992, Walton entered his band, Moment’s Notice, in a battle-of-the-bands competition at the Fastlane nightclub in Asbury Park. The band won and a gig at the prestigious Stone Pony nightclub followed a few months later. Then there were more gigs at the Fastlane.
“One night at the Fastlane, the ABC came in, and I hid in the bathroom and stood on the toilet until they left. Because, technically, I was underage, and I was just playing, not drinking,” he says.
By the time he was in his late 20s Walton’s guitar playing prowess attracted the attention of Asbury Park-area Hammond B-3 organist and bandleader Tony Amato, who recruited Walton for his band, Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys.
A few years later, he also caught the attention of longtime Asbury Park bandleader-vocalist Southside Johnny, who still maintains an international touring schedule — granted, not in stadiums and arenas like Bruce Springsteen — but in mid-sized clubs and theaters. He joined Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on the road, full-time, for five years between 2009 and just earlier this year. He still maintains a part-time relationship with Southside’s well-oiled Jukes organization.
“I got a call from them years ago and we kept in touch the first time Bobby Bandiera left [to join Bon Jovi on the road after that band’s guitarist, Richie Sambora, took a sabbatical,] but then in 2009 they called me again and I did five years with the Jukes.” Walton’s guitar playing can be heard on Southside Johnny’s live album, “Men Without Women,” recorded at the Stone Pony in 2011. He said his time on the road with Southside was priceless.
“You think about how Johnny has run his career, stayed in it, and built his fan base everywhere he goes; it’s amazing,” says Walton. “He just plays what he wants to every night, and I have great respect for that. I want to have fun every night when I play, to play my own music the way I want to, that night.”
“He knows how to read a crowd. There have been nights playing with him when I said, ‘What do we do now?’ and he’d pull something else out of the hat,” he says of Johnny’s typically sweat-soaked shows, which often turn into three-hour marathons.
“He’s a great guy, and he’s very knowledgeable about rock ‘n’ roll and blues history. If I had any questions about old rock ‘n’ roll, I would go to him, and he would know the answer,” he says, adding Southside Johnny is as much a student of the music as he is a player, and a pretty serious record collector, too.
Walton and his band are providing records to collect too with four self-produced, self-released albums: “The Billy Walton Band,” “Live from the Stone Pony,” “Neon City,” and their latest, “Crank It Up.” All are available at most of the band’s live shows or via the band’s website, billywaltonband.com. Walton knows he has progressed as a songwriter in the blues-rock vein, and it shows on the “Neon City” and “Crank It Up” discs.
“I feel my songwriting has gotten better through the years and that’s the fun of it: creating a story or taking somebody somewhere. ‘Summertime Girl,’ or ‘Saturday Night Party,’ a lot of the Jersey Shore stuff. To me, it takes you somewhere. That’s important in songwriting. To transport you to the Jersey Shore on a Saturday night when the crowd is pumping and it’s hot out; that’s the stuff that matters to people in England on a night in April when it’s raining.”
Walton and his band began making their tours of Great Britain in 2007 after his guitar playing caught the attention of a British booking agent when he was across the pond accompanying Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys in 2004.
Since 2007, the band has made more than a dozen tours of England, most of which last three to four weeks, and more recently, the band has gained a toehold in Germany, where fans are passionate about American guitar slingers who play blues.
“The Rhino Agency uses us over there and we’ve kind of worked our way up to them, and they’ve put us in some great rooms. The British audience has adopted us: they buy the albums, they know the songs, and they sing the songs. It’s a great thing.”
The band will depart again for England in mid-October and play dance halls and theaters there until just before Thanksgiving. Walton’s all-time guitar playing hero, Jimi Hendrix, died in London at age 27 in September, 1970.
“Jimi Hendrix is not only my all-time favorite guitar player, but his songwriting is often overlooked,” Walton says. “A lot of his songs are so beautiful, ‘Angel,’ and ‘Little Wing,’ man, those lyrics are terrific, and they take you on a journey.
“Even his out-takes and the things they’ve never issued until now are still better than a lot of the stuff that’s coming out today. His albums were so ahead of their time, I still think they’re advanced today. I know I sound like a hippie, but it’s the truth: his songs have colors to them; they have colors in the land of the bland.”
On Friday night, the band will play to a much smaller room than they’re accustomed to playing in New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, or England. But Walton appreciates the intimacy of smaller, good-sounding, wood paneled rooms like the Ivy Inn.
“Sometimes the smaller rooms are more fun, too, because you’re right in there with the audience. Every night is different,” he says. “When you get a good reaction from a smaller crowd, it makes the night special.”
Billy Walton Band, Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, August 30, 9:30 p.m. $3 cover. 609-921-8555 or www.ivyinnprinceton.com.