Note: Blues great James Cotton passed away a few days ago. The Music Enthusiast is working on a post about this essential singer and harmonica player.
Junior Walker (born Autry deWalt Mixon) was a Midwestern kid who picked up the saxophone in high school. He got the “Junior” part from his stepfather whose name was Walker. His first band, in the mid-50’s was called the Jumping Jacks.
Junior moved from Indiana to Michigan in the late 50’s, changing the name of the band to the “All Stars.” (Supposedly an excited fan jumped on stage and said “These guys are all stars.” I dunno, sounds apocryphal to me.)
Walker’s sound was influenced by jump blues/swing jazz players like Louis Jordan. Jordan deserves a post of his own one day but suffice it to say he was one of the most popular sax players and bandleaders of the swing era. Known as “The King of the Jukebox,” a lot of people think of his music as being early rock n’ roll, pre-Chuck Berry.
While playing his own style of blues and R&B, Junior got recommended to a guy named Harvey Fuqua who had been a singer/songwriter with a band called the Moonglows. Their biggest hit was the 1954 song “Sincerely,” written by Fuqua. (And on my Indispensable 150 oldies list.)
Fuqua was by now a record executive at a small Detroit label, called Harvey. That label had the great good fortune to be taken over by Motown and so, Junior and the guys wound up on its subsidiary label, Soul.
This cool song, “Cleo’s Mood,” was initially released on the Harvey label in 1962, then re-released on Soul. It’s an instrumental blues written by Walker, Fuqua and guitarist Willie Woods. If you can’t get laid to this song, you’re not trying hard enough:
As good as Motown was, there was a relative dearth of funky stars on the roster. One could argue that founder Berry Gordy wanted to make sure that his songs appealed to both a black and white audience with maybe a little of the edge smoothed off. Back in this musical – and societal – stone age, there was still a clear distinction about what white folks and black folks were “supposed” to listen to.
As to Junior’s first hit, the story goes that he saw a couple of teenagers doing a dance called the shotgun. Inspired, he went back and wrote the song of the same name. Berry Gordy loved it and when the original singer didn’t show up for the session, he insisted that Junior sing it.
The result is an infectious get-down funky, smokin’ R&B tune. Love this fucking song. Supposedly the opening shotgun sound is somebody kicking an amplifier with the reverb turned up. Bass by Motown great James Jamerson.
In a book about Jimi Hendrix that I read for that series, someone referred to good R&B as being “greasy.” This is about as greasy as it gets:
Put on your high heel shoes
I said we’re goin’ down here listen to ’em play the blues
We’re gonna dig potatoes
We’re gonna pick tomatoes
Released in 1965, “Shotgun” was a smash. Wikipedia: “It reached number one on the U.S. R&B Singles chart for four non-consecutive weeks and peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 on the week ending 3 April 1965. Guitarist Jimi Hendrix performed the song live with the All Stars.”
Maybe Jimi did play this with the All Stars. But I did a little research and found out that there was a singing duo called Buddy and Stacy. They performed with (probably opened for) Jr. Walker. And so Hendrix got to know them.
Here’s a clip of Jimi from 1965 playing a jacked-up “Shotgun” behind those guys on a Nashville music show called Night Train. I was trying to figure out who this backing band was. I found out it was Little Richard’s band, The Royal Company. And then I looked at the drum. Duh!
In 1969, Walker came out with another great song, one of my all-time soul favorites called “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love.)” Co-written by Fuqua, this record did not pass Motown’s “quality control” committee, got released anyway and well, became a big hit, reaching number one on the R&B charts. (Rejection by the team didn’t necessarily mean it was bad. It just didn’t fit what was already on the charts.)
Berry Gordy got it right more often than wrong. But this one he got wrong:
Walker disbanded the All Stars in the late ’70’s, then reformed them when his career wasn’t quite as successful. He did find work as a side man, venturing into disco during that period.
Later generations of rockers and jazzers owed a debt to Junior, most notably David Sanborn, Clarence Clemons and the Rolling Stones‘ sideman, Bobby Keys. (Check out this cool picture.) In 1981, the band Foreigner was looking for a “Junior Walker type” to play on a song. On finding out that he was performing in NYC, they approached him to accompany them on a session and he agreed. And so that’s how he came to play sax on their 1981 hit, “Urgent.”
Junior Walker died of cancer at the age of 64 in 1995. He had been inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and “Shotgun” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.
Junior Walker and the All Stars are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame and join a long list of artists who, IMHO, deserve to be.