b/w Hot Cha
(Written by Autry DeWalt Jr.)
b/w Hot Cha
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
So far, since the beginning of January, we’ve had a very pretty but somewhat out of character big ballad from the Four Tops (Ask The Lonely), followed by two unreleased singles by long-forgotten acts from the rougher, tougher early days of Motown. And now, look, here’s a big hit single to get us back on track – except it’s Junior Walker, who was never in step with whatever else was happening for his labelmates.
“Junior Walker” was saxophonist Autry DeWalt Mixon Junior, who had arrived at Motown as part of a job lot, acquired with a bunch of other refugees from the Harvey/Tri-Phi empire when Motown bought out the rival company. But that makes him sound like a reject, an afterthought; in fact, a delighted Berry Gordy welcomed Junior into the Hitsville fold with open arms, BG perhaps sensing an opportunity to “ground” his ever-expanding label before it drifted entirely away from its original R&B fanbase and his supporters in black radio. A few down-home R&B chart hits and the tide would be turned.
As he always did whenever anything was asked of him, Junior delivered the goods.
Not only did he provide an anchor for the new Soul Records imprint, a Motown subsidiary positioned to push the grittier sounds that wouldn’t sit next to Tony Martin in the racks or on the airwaves, but he also sold great big truck loads of records, boosting Berry Gordy’s bank balance as well as his ego.
More than any other act in 1965, Junior Walker and his All-Stars were absolutely crucial to Motown finding its true role in the music world, Walker giving Gordy an instant, ringing reposte to critics who claimed he’d lost touch with his roots (not to mention those activists who went a step further, saying Motown wasn’t doing enough for black culture in general). Much easier to deflect such criticism when you’ve got the hottest record in the country, which opens with a gunshot and two minutes of gutbucket sax. Eat that, Memphis.
NINE TWENTY SIX EAST McLEMORE
That’s right – Walker topped the R&B charts with Shotgun (and took an unexpected but very welcome pop Top Five slot to boot), in the process reclaiming vital market share on black radio from an emergent and unmistakeably worrying rival in Stax.
In many Motown histories, the Memphis label is painted as some kind of arch-nemesis, a sort of equal and opposite force which competed with Motown throughout the Sixties and early Seventies for the soul of American pop music, not to mention fans’ dollars. Sixties Stax was, and continues to be, marketed as the cooler, tougher, more soulful and altogether more hip alternative to fluffy, stuffy, pop-fixated old Motown, and those DJs (black and white) that considered themselves hip to new sounds took the best Stax cuts immediately to heart.
Although Stax were themselves ironically a white-owned label, they knew their hardcore fan base was urban African-American teens, and they very deliberately positioned themselves as the Motown alternative for discerning black audiences. You’re deliberately panel-beating your street artists into professional entertainers, going so far as to publicly declare they’ll play the White House or Buckingham Palace? We’ve got the real sound of Young America, and it’s gritty, it’s dirty, it’s raw and it’s black. You’ve got Hitsville? We’ve got Soulsville.
Seems fair on the face of it, right? After all, only one of these labels signed Pat Boone, or released an album of songs from Funny Girl. Stick your hand blindly into the, um, stacks and pull out a random record from each pile to play to your elderly aunt – without looking at what it is you’ve grabbed, are you more comfortable playing the Motown 45, or the Stax one? Plus, as I’m always being reminded, wasn’t Stax just so much more daring, providing listeners with a more interesting, varied bag of musical textures? (Even now, when I’m talking to new people and this blog comes up, one of the most common responses runs along these lines: “Every Motown single, eh? Doesn’t that get a bit samey? Hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I actually always preferred Stax myself.”)
(Or Okeh, but that’s a story for another day.)
Anyway. Wrong on all counts.
I don’t want to turn this into a straightforward “Why Motown > Stax” screed, especially since Stax came up with so many great, great records. Instead, well… it might come across as naive or hippy-dippy to ask why Motown and Stax fans can’t all just get along, and enjoy all the wonderful music, but it’s a fair question to me. The supposed differences between the two catalogues turn out to be nowhere near as exaggerated as has been made out, as any intermingling of the two labels’ Complete Singles box sets will quickly show; the two sets of legendary house musicians have a different sound to each other, there’s no getting away from those incredible Stax horns and the omnipresent thumping bass drum Motown never really copied, but otherwise, you could pretty much slot any Stax side into the running order of The Complete Motown Singles without unduly confusing listeners, if not necessarily vice versa.
(In fact, what that exercise does highlight, surprisingly, is that if anyone adhered to a rigid formula with their 45s, it was actually Stax; the big hit Stax sound and the big hit Motown sound are both readily identifiable, but Motown released something like five times as many records as their Tennessee rivals, and as readers of Motown Junkies will already know, that gave Motown significantly more room to indulge in all kinds of oddities – in these first seven years, we’ve had R&B records, pop records, jazz records, blues records, gospel records, doo-wop records, comedy records, spoken word records, white guitar pop records, records made from clips of other records, ballads, dancers, stompers, weepies, rockers, slowies, and whatever else you care to mention.)
But marketing is a powerful thing, and if much of the difference is in the mind – like different brands of corn flakes or something – then Stax played a stronger hand in making up people’s minds for them. Motown’s move to the mainstream raked in millions, but Stax’s canny marketing, playing up their supposed comparative “authenticity” (guts over hooks! soul over sales!) was a winner with black hipster audiences, and therefore black radio, and therefore white hipster audiences, and therefore Stax was “cooler” than Motown, and so it remains to this very day.
TWENTY SIX FORTY EIGHT WEST GRAND
The two biggest misconceptions I’ve come across when doing this blog: firstly, that Otis Redding recorded for Motown, not Stax. And secondly, not far behind, that Junior Walker and the All-Stars recorded for Stax, not Motown. Both wrong. But listen to Shotgun and think about that.
Regular readers will know of my love/hate relationship with the saxophone; thanks to countless tasteless MOR cheese merchants, the instrument has had responsibility a lot of musical atrocities laid at its doorstep, and an ill-judged sax part can ruin an otherwise fine record more than any wayward vocal or dropped beat. Junior Walker, surely one of the all-time greats, was as bad a judge as anyone, capable of veering from smouldering cool to mugging ham in the blink of an eye, a naturally talented guy with supreme skill who clearly had no idea what made his records good or bad (or, indeed, which ones were good or bad, or even that there were any bad ones at all).
There are, but this isn’t one of them. This is excellent.
I once read a critique of Junior’s material that called him and the All-Stars the purest musicians ever to score hit records, and called those records little more than glorified jam sessions (and meant it as a compliment). Junior, who wrote this himself – the only solo writing credit he copped for any of his big hits, though he’d have a hand in penning most of them – did indeed often adopt a jam-based approach to songwriting, coming up with a groove and riffing on it rather than sitting down to write a tune. But that’s not to say the results couldn’t be every bit as arresting as a heavenly Holland-Dozier-Holland chorus or a beautiful Smokey Robinson melody; by playing to his strengths (and those of his cadre of buddies, the original All Stars, a crew of fire-breathing jazz rockers who terrified and delighted live audiences), the grizzled Southerner who couldn’t even read became one of Motown’s great craftsmen of hit records. Walker may have been illiterate, but damn, the man could write a song.
This was the first and biggest of Junior’s hits, but even taking sales and stardom out of the picture, it also marks the start of a new era for the All Stars, because this is where they discovered their secret weapon, a killer new ingredient to stir the pot: Walker wasn’t just a fine and instinctive writer, or a great horn player, but he could sing too.
The story goes that while Junior had come up with some lyrics for Shotgun, the original vocalist he’d invited to sing lead on the track didn’t show up, and so Berry Gordy (who liked Walker personally, and who was co-producing this session) demanded Junior himself step up and cut the song. He nailed it; Walker’s gruff, bluesy delivery added a whole extra dimension to the All Stars’ sound, an arresting dimension that makes this twice the record it would be without him. He’s an instant and obvious star, a charismatic and sexy lightning rod for radio listeners to zero in on, a “double threat” singer-musician in the Stevie Wonder class; it’s as if James Brown had suddenly picked up a sax.
Shotgun is the All Stars’ monument even before Walker steps up to the mic – the cartoon sleeve (left) and opening “gunfire” sound effect give some idea of the playful rock-out that’s about to follow, but then a trembling, vibrating drum fill (believed to be the legendary Motown house drummer Benny Benjamin, rather than the All Stars’ regular skins man Tony Washington) and a thudding, finger-shredding James Jamerson bass part (the All Stars had no bassist of their own) heralds the entrance of Walker’s best sax performance to date, almost deafening in its squealing intensity. You can practically feel the hum of energy buzzing off the man.
When Walker himself passed in 1995, he had “JUNIOR (SHOT GUN) WALKER” engraved on his headstone, and with good reason – not only because this sold so many copies, but because it’s the best thing he ever recorded. His sax is peerless, his vocal is superb. He’s never on the track at the same time as his horn, so it’s entirely possible he recorded his vocal and sax in the same take – it certainly feels that way. In combination with keys man Vic Thomas’ blaring organ riffs, Walker turns Shotgun from a band romp into a full-on party. “We gonna dig potatas! We gonna pick tomatas!”, he bellows, and it’s impossible not to smile. Nelson George described this record as having “the kick of a bull and the greasy feel of a pigs’ feet dinner”, a description that’s stuck with me since I first read it – but while that captures it pretty well, it maybe downplays what a fun pop record this is too.
Because it is just a whole lot of fun. It’s also quite stupid, and proud of it (as with Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips, another unashamedly direct Motown stomper), but that plays in its favour; it’s a gas. As with pretty much every Motown record we’ve encountered so far in this strange new year of 1965, I like this better each time I listen to it, and so once again I’d better stop before the marks climb out of control. But good show, Junior Walker. Good show.
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!)
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