b/w Monkey Jump
(Written by Autry DeWalt Jr. and Willie Woods)
From Howard Crockett to Satan’s Blues – how’s that for a gear change?
Autry DeWalt Mixon, better known by his stage name “Junior Walker”, is a legend of the sax. His playing style, all searing upper register wails and fluid notes, is a distinctive and easily recognisable sound, something that would make him not only a name-act bandleader but also – rather unexpectedly – a pop star.
Walker was one of the first saxophonists to see the potential of the instrument for gutbucket R&B rather than free jazz, and he developed a style accordingly. The result is that he’s the focus of every record he appears on, the central figure around which everything else revolves and with whom everything else must stand or fall. The other members of the group were important, but Junior Walker was the All Stars, for good or ill. Mostly good. Like this one.
I mean, there was plenty of ill, too, most certainly; the triumphant altissimo excess that drives Walker’s best records can become a queasy sheen of MOR slickness on his worst. If that’s probably more to do with preconceptions formed by the bombastic later horrors of the Eighties and Kenny G, rather than anything Junior himself does on his Sixties Motown cuts, it nonetheless remains a problem for the modern listener (or, well, for me at any rate), in that some of his records are amazing and some of them are tediously cheesy, and neither Walker nor Motown seems to have had much ability to distinguish between the two. Since we’ve been talking about country music lot over the last few days, it’s worth drawing a similar comparison with that genre and its similar inability to separate the wheat from the chaff, to identify which stylistic trappings were important to making great records and which were just incidental.
But there’ll be plenty of time to get into this again, thankfully. Despite being almost defiantly out of step with the rest of Motown’s output, Walker managed to release no less than 27 singles during his time with the company, and rack up a veritable truckload of hits in the process. And this is a great starting point for that run.
Like his Soul Records labelmate Shorty Long, Walker had arrived at Hitsville as part of the deal that saw Harvey Fuqua’s Harvey/Tri-Phi enterprise absorbed into Motown, having already cut a few singles for Harvey Records. All Junior’s Harvey 45s were eventually reissued by Motown, most of them as singles or B-sides, and so we’ll get to cover them on Motown Junkies; by way of illustration, here’s one that only subsequently appeared on a Motown LP, Good Rockin’. He takes no prisoners – listen to that sax!
Signing up the best of the Harvey/Tri-Phi roster made sense commercially and artistically for Berry Gordy, who astutely saw an opportunity to reconnect with the black audiences his shift to mainstream pop was starting to alienate. Walker, a semi-literate Southerner and chitlin-circuit veteran, was a boon for the PR department, bringing instant credibility and an immediate off-the-shelf response to anyone who dared suggest Motown had somehow “sold out”. Even so, his public image was buffed up a little bit when he joined the Motown stable; in the finest Hollywood fashion, Motown knocked ten years off his age, making him 23 instead of 33.
Wisely, though, when it came to the music, Motown didn’t mess with a winning formula. “I was just different from everybody else… we had our own thing going. Berry Gordy, he kept it that way,” Walker explains in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4. So long as the sales and the reviews stayed healthy, then – after an initial blip (of which more in a moment) – Motown were content to take a hands-off approach and let Walker do what he did best. For the first five or six years of his time at Hitsville, Walker was very much a one-trick pony – but what a trick.
Satan’s Blues, a new cut for Motown rather than a dusted-off Harvey Records respray job, sets out the blueprint pretty well. An instrumental track (as so many of Walker’s early efforts are), twanging guitar and layers upon layers of cymbals, sonorous organ underpinning a sit-up-and-listen sax solo… the formula which would carry most of those All Stars singles into the charts. (Though not this one.)
It’s a fair bit slower, more laid-back, than Walker’s later fare, a slow bar-room blues which starts off smooth and assured before that organ starts riffing. On later All Stars records, this would be the cue to spark Junior into some sort of duel, his invitation to take his horn to places ordinary players just can’t reach. But instead, he takes a back seat, lets the organ go nuts without reply, joins in the 2am vibe. It’s undeniably effective – you can practically taste the stale beer and fag-ash – but you’re left wanting a bit more.
It could be that this unusual reticence (by Junior’s later standards anyway!) was borne of unease at new surroundings; supposedly Motown rejected most of the first batch of new Walker material cut at Hitsville. Junior himself had been nervous, concerned about being ripped off after signing a contract he couldn’t read; the rest of the All Stars – a tight unit with scads of live experience suddenly surrounded (perhaps for the first time) by studio musicians just as capable as they were, if not more so – had fumbled some of their parts, and the verdict was damning, Motown insisting on a series of expensive re-recordings with various Funk Brothers drafted in to “tighten up the sound”. Whether this was one of the tunes so re-recorded or one of the best surviving cuts is unclear, but either way it’s not exactly the Junior Walker we’ll soon come to know so well.
That’s not to say it’s not lots of fun, though. Not only is it good stuff in its own right, but it also makes a fine palette cleanser after the bland burnishments of Howard Crockett, a sort of return to first principles. An excellent start, even if there was better to come.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Jr. Walker & the All Stars? Click for more.)
“Spanish Lace and Memories”
|Jr. Walker & the All Stars
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.