As the 1950’s headed towards the 1960’s songwriter Berry Gordy was doing nicely from his connection with singer Jackie Wilson (Berry wrote “Reet Petite”, “Lonely Teardrops” & others) while having a shrewd eye on the business of music through an involvement with talent he found in his hometown Detroit. His Tamla label released its first disc in 1959, the Miracles’ “Shop Around” became its first million seller the following year & the Motown Record Corporation would soon stake a claim to be “the sound of young America”, as big an influence on the decade’s popular music as the British Beat explosion.
We all know the great stars signed to the label, Marvin, Stevie, Diana & the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations. There were plenty of other acts who benefited & contributed to the Motown sound. That driving beat of the house band, the Funk Brothers, matched to a melodic & lyrical acuity & urbanity placed African-American music firmly in the Modernist movement of the decade. Pop Art…you betcha! Junior Walker, a saxophonist, a little older than the others, never really adhered to the Hitsville formula but he & his All Stars enjoyed much success because their distinctive, individual style was pretty irresistible.
Junior Walker, born in 1931, was playing in bands in Battle Creek, Michigan, 120 miles east of Detroit, in the mid-1950s. The All Stars played both kinds of music, the Rhythm & the Blues, tenor sax playing Junior being influenced by the Jive of Louis Jordan & the Jazz of Illinois Jacquet (great name). The band signed with Harvey Fuqua, a singer turned label head, whose hits with the Moonglows, the classic “Sincerely” & the extra classic “The 10 Commandments of Love” were as good as Doo Wop got. Harvey was Berry Gordy’s brother in law & when he joined the family company he took his roster with him. The second 45 issued under the growing Motown umbrella found Junior Walker & the All Stars at the top of the R&B charts & in the Pop Top 10, a list that was pretty much all British Invasion & Tamla.
On “Shotgun” (coming up later) the band were augmented by a Funk Brothers backline, including the peerless bassist James Jamerson. It’s a Soul Explosion, the honking sax, call & response vocal shouts & a demand that you dance urgency is the trademark of Junior Walker & the All Stars. Gritty is not the adjective most associated with Detroit at this time, these guys were, they found an audience & Motown let them do their thing. “(I’m A) Roadrunner”, the 4th Top 10 R&B 45, was written by ace team Holland-Dozier-Holland, another injection of Soul adrenaline, a super smash. King Curtis & Cannonball Adderley were masters of Soul/R&B saxophone & Junior Walker was not only just as groovy but his records were a whole lot of fun.
The major influence of the label on the artist was to point him towards the cupboard where they kept their back catalogue. First, in 1966, Marvin’s “How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by You)” & “Money (That’s What I Want)” were Walkerfied. The following year H-D-H’s hit for the Supremes, “Come See About Me” was given a gutbucket revival, guaranteed to pack out any dancefloor anywhere. In the UK Junior Walker was a major Mod favourite. His records may not have made Top of the Pops but were played on the pirate radio stations & were essentials for any DJ in clubs (in my case youth clubs) all over the country. The ones already checked, “Shake & Fingerpop”, “Pucker Up Buttercup”, the killer “Shoot Your Shot”, it’s becoming a list & we knew them all.
In 1969 Walker & his producer Johnny Bristol, an ally since before Motown, changed it up & had a big success. “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”, written by Bristol, Fuqua & staffer Vernon Bullock, was recorded in 1968 for the “Home Cookin'” LP & released with some reluctance by the label. It’s slower paced, the edges are smoothed, the vocal more featured & it sold a million. Followed by a fine cover of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes” this new style kept Junior in the game, away from the golden oldie circuit in the new decade.
Junior Walker came out of the Jumping Jive R&B tradition & found his place in Soul music. He had international success with his records & the evidence is that his live shows were not to be missed. If, in June 1969, you were at the Fillmore West in San Francisco for the All Stars/Grateful Dead double bill then I am jealous. The group were regular, popular visitors to the UK & this clip (in colour!) of their 1967 gig at the Ram Jam Club, you know it, on the Brixton Rd, above Burton’s & the gas showroom, yeah you know, is just wonderful. Junior & his band, Willie Woods, guitar, James Graves, drums & Vic Thomas, organ, (bassist unknown) blow up an absolute storm. If I ever get this time machine finished then look out for me in the audience the next time you watch this lovely thing.