JUNIOR WALKER & THE ALL STARS
An Ode by Pete Crigler
When one thinks of Motown, they tend to think of Smokey, The Temptations, Diana Ross and lil' Michael. But if you go back further in their illustrious catalogue, you will find one of the more truly unsung artists ever, Junior Walker & the All-Stars.
Almost everyone and their mama should be familiar with "Shotgun" and the immortal "What Does It Take?" but what most people don't know as much about were the All-Stars' phenomenal instrumental abilities, particularly Walker's expertise on the saxophone. I wasn't much into Motown in my youth, but the All-Stars were the main exception; I just couldn't get enough of what I was hearing and this is where I discovered my love of '60's soul that has now completely blossomed.
The group first came together in the early '60's playing clubs in and around Detroit. By being able to hone their instrumental skills, the group became tight as a pig's ass and no one could fuck with them if they tried. Pretty soon, word started spreading all around Michigan about this hot instrumental group. Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, had heard through the grapevine about something exciting and sent some people to check it out for themselves. Impressed with what they heard, the group was given a contract with Motown and after a slight lineup change, began recording singles for the nascent label, including one of the best R&B instrumentals of the '60s, "Cleo's Mood." Silky guitar courtesy of Willie Woods and hot fiery sax from Walker gave the song more of an oomph than other instrumentals of the time. Their first couple of regional R&B hits were all instrumental but it wasn't before long that the idea of tossing some lyrics onto the music was brought about.
As the band began recording new material, a song entitled "Shotgun\" that was proving to be a big hit in their live show was added to the sessions. At first, as the story goes, Walker, born Autry DeWalt showed "Shotgun" to Berry Gordy but he was skeptical at first because he didn't think Walker had much of a strong voice, so he brought in another singer to sing co-lead with Walker. The sessions were finished and "Shotgun" was released a couple of weeks later and became a smash, hitting number one on the R&B chart and crashing into the pop top 10. "Shotgun" is one of those classic songs that brings back memories. One of my mother's earliest memories is of her father putting her feet on top of his and dancing her around the house to the sounds of that magical single. Once "Shotgun" became a massive hit, it would take a while before Walker sang solo on their numerous singles.
As the band wound through the '60's, the hits kept coming: "Shake and Fingerpop" and "(I'm a) Road Runner" were two of the most richly flavorful Motown hits of the era, with the latter being one of its most covered. As was custom with other Motown artists, Gordy had the band cover songs from the Motown catalogue. Unfortunately most of these tracks were subpar at best, although in my opinion, they did release the greatest version of "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" just by having more energy. Almost every single from the band around this era ended up feeling like a gigantic party. But after drummer James Graves left the band in the late '60s and died not long afterwards in a car accident, the songs all sounded alike and there weren't many great ones coming out; the worst of the bunch undoubtedly was "Hip City," which was made to sound like a party, but actually consisted of a bunch of people randomly yelling out various cities.
Walker sought to remedy this slump by recording what many people, including my mother, believe is his greatest song- "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)." A powerful and emotional Motown ballad if there ever was one, the song shot the group back into the top ten on the pop charts and they continued doing their thang for a couple more years. The ballads kept coming including one of my personal favorites, "Take Me Girl (I'm Ready)." Walker's pleading vocals weren't enough to make the song a monster hit but it became a favorite among hardcore fans.
By the mid-'70s however, Berry Gordy was shifting focus away from esteemed acts like The All-Stars, Temptations and the Four Tops and focusing everything, hook line and sinker on expanding the ego of Diana Ross and making sure The Jacksons were as wholesome as white bread. Faced with diminishing returns and a general lack of enthusiasm at the label and its subsidiaries, Walker still pressed on, making records after 1972 that failed to make the pop charts, including 1976's Hot Shot. But he realized that something needed to happen in order to revive his failing fortunes.
Disbanding the All-Stars, Walker decided to try something new and broke away from Motown. This was about the time when it seemed all of the greats were jumping ship and heading elsewhere. Legendary producer Norman Whitfield was in the process of starting his own subsidiary label over at Warner Brothers (appropriately named Whitfield Records) and invited Walker to join him. In 1979, Walker released his first album away from the All-Stars and Motown, Back Street Boogie. Unfortunately, by this time disco had effectively wiped old school R&B/soul off the charts completely and the record failed to make a dent anywhere, except in the bargain bins of America.
Not long afterward, the label shut down and Walker found himself without a contract and running low on options. Lo and behold, '70's AOR rock mavens Foreigner were recording a new record and needed a sax on the song "Urgent," so they invited Walker to lay down a great, joyous solo and just like that, Walker was reborn again. He hit the road hard, even appearing on a 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live. In an amazing coincidence, whoever was running Motown at the time, invited Walker to re-sign with the label and he took them up on the offer, releasing Blow the House Down in 1983.
Over the next couple of years, he kept touring with whatever band was available and playing many prestigious gigs overseas. In 1988, he was recruited for what might be the coolest damn film of the eighties, Tapeheads, starring John Cusack and Tim Robbins. Walker was part of an old '60s duo called The Swanky Modes with Sam Moore. The Modes are a group that Cusack and Robbins' characters are obsessed with and their pursuit to relaunch the Modes basically sets up the whole film. It was for the film that Walker recorded his last great song, "Ordinary Man," which is very hard to find in its full form, but I have it and it's fantastic. The dynamic vocals between Walker and Moore made the song a late career triumph and provided a grand finale to the film.
As the '80s made way into the '90s, Walker was without a contract once more but he focused more on touring and making sure to keep Detroit boogie alive and well. By the mid-'90's, he began slowing down after a cancer diagnosis but still kept on going right until the very end; on November 23, 1995, he passed away in Michigan of cancer. He was only 64. Two years later, one Motown's most underrated guitar players, the All Stars' Willie Woods died, also of cancer, at the age of 60. In 2010, the remaining member of the classic All Stars, organist Vic Thomas passed away.
There is currently a version of Junior Walker's All Stars playing around, led by Tony Washington, the group's original drummer who bailed out just after the group originally signed with Motown. But, if isn't Junior Walker out there, blowing the hell out of that damn sax, well then it just doesn't deserve to be seen on stage. Going along with that, there is a very scant lack of usable information available online- even on Wikipedia, the Junior Walker page is woefully too damn short. That seems to be the case with a lot of early Motown greats, as soon as the major acts took off, the acts that helped build the label were completely swept under the rug and all correct information was tossed out with the trash. Despite the lack of a definitive biography, the one place to find all the useful info is the liner notes to Nothing But Soul: The Singles 1963-1985, the definitive two-disc collection of all of Walker's best songs.
With all that said, if one wants to hear what Motown sounded like before they let the fame go to their heads, crank up songs like "Shake and Fingerpop," "Cleo's Mood" and the legendary "Shotgun." It's rather easy to find these tracks on iTunes, Spotify and elsewhere, but it you want the true Junior Walker experience, track down Nothing But Soul and prepare to break your wallet for it. For those with a smaller budget, check out Walker's entry in Universal's The Definitive Collection series. All you'll need to do is kickback with the speakers up and you'll be transported to '60s Detroit soul heaven! You'll be much prouder of yourself once this has been accomplished.
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