By Gary: I know that I briefly looked at this Motown Artist in a previous post on in the Motown Series, but here I take a closer and more informative look at…
Although, as an infant, he had certainly mastered the crawl and the toddle, “Junior Walker” actually got that moniker, not from frequent roaming but, from his father, Roosevelt Walker.
Still, after his family moved from Blytheville, Arkansas to South Bend, Indiana, people started noticing his special rhythms. In his new home, he could pursue his lifelong specialty: music. With his trusty tenor saxophone, Junior Walker blew through high school and nearby R&B and jazz clubs with the Jumping Jacks.
Yet he wasn’t so focused on a straight-ahead path that he couldn’t stop and appreciate others’ talents, including those of organist Fred Patton and, later, blues guitarist Willie Woods.
After the rotating door of sidemen got its first spin, Junior Walker took the lead and served as the axis of what would become his signature band. Having gigged in upper Indiana and lower Michigan, Walker settled down in the latter state. Late-1950s Battle Creek was the birthplace of what would officially be known as Jr. Walker and the All Stars: guitarist Willie Woods, organist Vic Thomas, and Tony Washington on drums.
Here comes the inevitable Hitsville connection! Singer Johnny Bristol watched Jr. Walker and the All Stars during an El Grotto club performance. After wiping the sizzling grease off his brow, he told pal Harvey Fuqua about the band.
In 1961, Harvey the label hired the squealing saxophonist and his rip-roaring rhythm section. Records like “Cleo’s Mood” established their promise before Motown acquired Harvey’s roster and, in 1964, the band, which still featured Woods, Thomas, and Washington with Walker.
Jack Douglas, then James Graves, later took Washington’s drum seat. It was the 1965 lineup of Walker, Thomas, Graves, and Woods that rode “Shotgun” to the top of the charts.
If Junior Walker had thought he could foresee his professional course, then Motown had found a way to catch him off guard. A vocalist’s no-show for “Shotgun” had forced horn man Walker to lay a “scratch” vocal track. To his bewilderment, Motown kept it.
Whether he wanted it or not, the country would know him as singer-saxophonist Junior Walker.
Nonetheless, soul-selling was a good thing for Jr. Walker and the All Stars. They stuck to their forte—R&B instrumentals—and made some noise with originals like “Shake and Fingerpop” as well as in-house covers like “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You).” In 1966, hits like “(I’m a) Road Runner” kept the group running on high-octane fuel.
After a series of boogie-able party tunes, it was, perhaps, time to dribble syrup into the frying pan. Doesn’t sound appealing? Junior Walker wasn’t enthused about the ballad “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)” himself. Though he’d continued to insert vocals on his records, he didn’t want to really, you know, carry a sweet tune!
Producers Bristol and Fuqua prevailed in the studio, as did Jr. Walker and the All Stars on the charts. As far as Top 5-ers went, that 1969 song and their first Motown hit were poles apart. Pieces like “Gotta Hold on to This Feeling” and “Hip City, Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” maintained their stylistic seesaw.
The band had gotten a late start at Motown compared to other acts. But that didn’t delay its fading Popularity in the 1970’s. Thankfully, the R&B market hadn’t shrugged it off.
In the mid-to-late ’70s, Junior Walker tried his horn at solo works with producer Brian Holland (Hot Shot), and then on Norman Whitfield’s self-named label (Back Street Boogie). Still, by 1981, the world had found other musical idols.
That year heralded another unexpected turn. A band he didn’t know, Foreigner, from a genre he hadn’t tried, convinced him to guest-play on one of their songs in the recording studio. So, after one listen and with one take, he did that improvised solo, during the refrain of Foreigner’s “Urgent”. It was so outstanding that it brought Walker a new concert standard as well as a nice fee.
As if he had really blown the house down at Motown, that 1983 album coincided with the end of Junior Walker’s recording days.
So what did Walker do for the next decade? He walked – or rather, roamed the globe, touring with his All Stars, and with his own junior, Autry DeWalt III, on drums. Those were the ’80s and ’90s.
Unfortunately, Cancer struck Junior Walker in 1993. Reportedly, as time went on, he had trouble with not only performing, but also walking. Then on November 23, 1995, the disease extinguished the All Stars’ leading light.
But Walker’s side men have kept the party going, even though death has also taken some key members like drummer James Graves as early as 1967, and guitarist Willie Woods 30 years later from lung cancer.
But surviving Motown originals – organist Vic Thomas and original drummer Tony Washington, with musicians like saxophonist Kenny Walker and percussionist Acklee King have known not to give it up as part of “Jr Walkers Allstar Band” (note the official, legal name without some punctuation).
The singing—of praises—has continued with the group’s 2002 induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “Shotgun.”