Paul Walls got a very early start in music, playing with family and friends at home during his preschool and preteen years and gigging with bands as a young man. Music came naturally to him, and his rhythmic talents were obvious to those who heard him play the drums.
"My mom says I used to run around the house, banging on pots and pans when I was three," Walls says. "From that, I started playing with the gospel group when I was four or so. I traveled with them and recorded in the studio."
Walls learned by ear, picking up licks from other gospel drummers and developing his technique as he went along. He never took any formal training — no school band activities or private lessons.
"It progressed over time to where I dialed it just right," he says. "I was really into gospel. Back then, I really didn't know much about any famous jazz or rock drummers. I just got into the gospel music on the radio and at shows. I stole some licks here and there, but I've always kept my own style."
Originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., Walls regularly filled in with a popular local gospel group there called Little Anthony and the TruTones. After his high school years, he relocated to the Walterboro area to be near family. In 2001, shortly after settling in St. George, Walls took a sudden detour and enlisted in the Army. He was 25. The events of 9/11 had yet to occur.
"I wasn't really doing anything at the time — no bands or serious music or anything," he remembers. "I just wanted to do something new. I took [9/11] for granted and didn't think things afterward would escalate into what it was."
Walls was deployed to Iraq and served in the infantry as a U.S. Army Corporal E4 for six months.
"You're scared, but then you don't show it," he says of his time in the Middle East. "You block it out because you know you've got to do it."
Walls was fine until one particular encounter with the enemy.
"We were storming some building to see if there were insurgents in there — and there was one," he says. "We went in, and he shot at us as I stuck my knee in, and I caught it."
Walls stayed in the Army for six months after the incident. He eventually returned to the Lowcountry and recovered. His knee still isn't quite fully functional.
"I have a plastic knee now," he chuckles. "When it's at 100 percent, I don't walk with a limp and it's fine. Once every so often, it's a little painful. I hear that others who have similar injuries can predict the weather or whatever. If I strain it too much, I feel a little cramp or a pinch or something. It'll be with me forever, but it's cool, though."
He lights up when gabbing about the jazzy drumming of his favorite cats — Vinnie Colaiuta, Tony Royster, Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham, and Tony Williams. He grimaces slightly when you bring up his Army experience in the Middle East.
These days, based in a new house in Moncks Corner, Walls is making a go as a full-time musician. In addition to his weekly gigs with the Louie D. Project — a busy funk/pop combo led by saxophonist and vocalist Louis Dixson (a 13-year veteran of the Navy himself) — Walls performs with local church bands and at school events.
"I met Louie when he was doing a weekly jam session at the Brick downtown," Walls says. "I dropped by, watched the band, checked out the drummer [Quentin Ravenel], and introduced myself after the set. I think I gave Louie one of my cards, but he never called me. The second time I dropped by, I played with the band, and it was really cool. I think that's when they realized I was really a drummer."
Playing drums with a band isn't totally unlike serving in the infantry. They both require discipline, steady hands, a honed technique, a healthy sense of collaboration, and consideration for teammates.
"I played in several bands before the Army, but, when I went in, I played nothing at all," Walls says. "But I always kept the music in my head. It never left."
Walls' drumming style is a bit unusual. On a traditionally small-sized jazz kit (a vintage four-piece Tama set with only two cymbals), he plays ambidextrously. Naturally a lefty, he adapted his left and right hands to a right-handed configuration.
With the Louie D. Project, he tastefully plays straight and keeps a smooth beat on most of the tunes — from original pieces to anthems by Prince and Lenny Kravitz and other funky pop standards. His sense of time is impeccable. His fills are often explosive — sudden blasts of accents and rolls across the toms, high hat, and cymbals. He sometimes conjures enough sound from his kit to resemble two or three percussionists playing at once. He kills it.
Walls and the Louie D. Project have some original pieces ready for an upcoming studio session. They're solidly booked at a variety of local venues this fall. Walls also hopes to do well at the Guitar Center's National Drum-Off competition this month. That bad knee won't hold him back, no matter what the venture may be.
"I want to do this full-time," he adds. "I do okay for a musician right now, you know?"
The Louie D. Project performs at Buddy Roe's every Wednesday evening in September at 9 p.m. They play at Montreux in Summerville on Fri. Sept. 24, too. For more info on Paul Walls' work with the Louie D. Project, visit louied.com.