On the anniversary of his passing, we take a look back at one of the most dynamic saxophonists to grace the Earth, none other than Motown’s Junior Walker.
Born down South in Blythesville, Arkansas in 1942, Autry DeWalt II grew up in an era of music dominated by jazz and early R&B, taking a keen interest in acts such as Louis Jordan and Lionel Hampton. Nicknamed Junior by his stepfather – whose last name was Walker – DeWalt took the stage name ‘Junior Walker’, and began performing with drummer Billy ‘Stix’ Nicks and guitarist Willie Wood. The trio played clubs and bars around Indiana and Michigan, with Walker taking over the group from Nicks when he joined the Army towards the end of the fifties. It was around this time the ‘All Stars’ were formed: along with Walker and Wood were drummer Tony Washington, Jack Douglas and later James Graves. They called themselves ‘the All Stars’, and before long were discovered by songwriter and producer Johnny Bristol and his music partner Harvey Fuqua, famous for being the leader of the R&B group The Moonglows, which featured a yet to be discovered Marvin Gaye. Fuqua had moved to Detroit where he had his own label; Junior Walker and the All Stars followed to Detroit in hope of breaking into the music business for good.
Harvey Fuqua, however, struggled to break his record labels into the industry; he ended up marrying a woman by the name of Gwen Gordy, the sister of Berry Gordy, the legendary founder of Motown Records. Fuqua soon jumped ship to Motown, but took with him former Moonglow Marvin Gaye, The Spinners and Junior Walker and the All Stars with him to ‘Hitsville USA’.
It would be 1965 when the group first scored their first major hit with ‘Shotgun’, named after a dance Walker had observed a group of teenagers at a gig doing. Co-produced by Berry Gordy himself, the song went to number one on the US R&B Singles chart. Walker also set himself a precedent with ‘Shotgun’: unlike the rest of Motown’s illustrious roster, Gordy was so impressed with Walker’s ability to compose and perform, he allowed him the unrestricted creative freedom to record what and how he liked, unheard of for a Motown artist until Marvin Gaye produced his seminal album What’s Going On.
The line-up of the All Stars changed over the years, with Nicks returning and others leaving; and on the records The Funk Brothers, Motown’s in-house band, would usually perform on the record with Walker. But the entity produced some decent records throughout the sixties, becoming popular on the Northern Soul scene in the UK with their grittier R&B sound.
Yet by the sixties, the group’s star began to fade. Walker’s brand of soul became ever more distant from the polished pop-soul that Motown was putting out. Undeterred Walker and the All Stars continued to perform and record sporadically. After the group disbanded in the late seventies, they reformed in the eighties. Walker would go on to perform the infamous saxophone solo in Foreigner’s ‘Urgent’. In 1988 he teamed up with Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave fame, in the film Tapeheads as a fictional soul duo ‘The Swanky Modes’ who were brought back into the spotlight by two white soul fans, played by John Cusack and Tim Robbins.
Sadly, the nineties saw Junior Walker’s health decline. He developed cancer, and passed away on November 23rd 1995 at the age of just 64, shortly after being inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Nicks continued to perform with a version of the All Star band after Walker’s passing, but now tours under his own name. Walker’s legacy, however, continues, serving as a reminder of how exciting and dynamic the saxophone can be outside of smooth jazz and Kenny G. While he may not have had the career of his other Motown contemporaries, Walker created music that nonetheless rivals anything that Motown released. Indeed, he was one of the greatest instrumentalists, demonstrable by the fact that one note in, you know its Junior Walker on the saxophone. In his honour and in his memory, we’ve chosen some out our favourites.
His first, and arguably his best, ‘Shotgun’ is three minutes of shear soul delight. It’s the song that launched Walker’s career, and its easy to understand why. Backed by Funk Brothers James Jamerson on blistering bass and Benny Benjamin on drums, along with Eddie Willis on the guitar with the tambourine man Jack Ashford, along with members of the All Stars, ‘Shotgun’ is a perfect piece of Motown groove. Walker’s vocal impress almost as much as his incredible saxophone playing, making him stand out as one of the most creative and talented artists at Motown.
Tune Up, 1965
It was not often that Motown did instrumentals, but this tasty little number appeared on the group’s first album Shotgun in 1965, and well, it’s stunning. Walker’s saxophone playing is fast and funky, laid down over an infectious sixties dance groove. If anyone ever doubted Walker’s ability as a musician, then this song ought to dispel those worries. Take a listen, prepare to be astonished.
I’m A Roadrunner, 1966
For UK fans, this is probably the most played Junior Walker tune for its Northern Soul quality: a driving beat, heavy bass, and that fantastic sax. It’s classic Motown as well, making it one of Junior Walkers best.
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), 1966 & Come See About Me, 1967
When releasing an album at Motown during the sixties, and into the seventies for some acts, Motown loved to fill the album with one or two hit singles, a few B-Sides and then filler. And they loved nothing more than that filler to be songs by other Motown acts because then they would not have to pay any royalties to other writers or publishers, but would keep more money in-house. It’s a pretty genius idea, to be fair. That means however that there are several versions of hit Motown songs, such as these two recorded by Walker and his All Stars. Fortunately, Walker did not merely cover them so much as reinterpret them, making them stand out from the originals by Marvin Gaye and The Supremes respectively. In fact, these versions are rather good.
What Does It Take (To Win Your Love), 1969
If you thought sax-man Kenny G was the first to record this, then hang your head in shame. Apologies Kenny, but you’re version lacks all the passion and soul that Junior Walker and the All Stars put into their original version in 1969. That said, the story goes that Motown originally vetoed the release of this as a single, with the song failing to pass their quality control committee. Somehow DJs got the song out, and Motown released it as a single and became one of the groups biggest. And listening, it’s hard to understand why Motown’s quality control committee – including both Gordy and Smokey Robinson – did not see its value. But, thankfully, it got out, and what a magnificent record it is
Walk In The Night, 1972
Released in the same year that Gordy bid farewell to Detroit for the sunshine and glamour of California, ‘Walk In The Night’ is a stunning, more sophisticated release from Walker than the early R&B grooves of ‘Shotgun’ and ‘Tune Up’. It’s another pure instrumental, and is again pretty interesting that Motown released it as a single. But what a single it is: romantically haunting yet ever so soulful. It features Walker’s blistering saxophone, layered over a bed of heavenly female backing vocals, and another classic Motown groove. This was one of Walker’s last big hits, but what a hit it was.
I’m So Glad, 1976
Through the seventies Junior Walker and the All Stars continued to record, albeit sporadically. In 1976 they teamed up with the legendary writing trio Holland-Dozier-Holland who were back working with Motown artists after their infamous court battle with Motown founder Berry Gordy. By this time, LA-based Motown was in decline: Gordy was still handling Diana Ross’ every move, acts that failed to leave Detroit like the Four Tops and Martha Reeves had left the label; Marvin Gaye was recording whenever he felt like, and Stevie Wonder demanded complete artistic freedom. That said, the album Hot Shot from Walker and a new incarnation of the All Stars is pretty enjoyable, none more so than the first song ‘I’m So Glad’. Walker remains as exciting as ever on record, his saxophone leading a strong horn section, complete with his gritty R&B vocals. It’s actually pretty decent.
Ordinary Man (as the Swankey Modes), 1988
If you haven’t seen the film Tapeheads, don’t bother. It’s not very good. That said, pairing the talents of Junior Walker and Sam Moore is a stroke of genius. On the finale song the duo perform ‘Ordinary Man’, and for a late eighties soul track, its pretty decent. Both men are in fine voice, and Walker is ace on his sax. The duo even performed it on David Letterman. Sadly, the pairing didn’t last long and nothing came of the single from the soundtrack. We can only imagine what musical beauty the two would have made had they been given the chance after the flop of Tapeheads.