Jr. Walker Reloads His Sax-Shooter for Another Tour de Force

Junior Walker downplayed his role as one of the most successful and influential members of the 1960s Motown Records stable.

"I just blowed my horn," he said, "and I guess people liked what came out."

They certainly did. Between 1965 and 1970, Walker and his band, the All Stars, scored no less than a dozen national Top 40 hits, including the Grammy-winning "Shotgun" and the soulful ballad, "What Does it Take (to Win Your Love)?"

All the while, Junior Walker and the All Stars remained the most idiosyncratic Motowners. Instead of following in the harmonic vocal footsteps of the Four Tops, the Supremes and the Temptations, they cut their own path with spicy rhythm-and-blues instrumentals, guided by Walker's bluesy tenor saxophone.

In retrospect, Walker's musical signature to the celebrated "Motown sound" was the most distinctive.

Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, countless saxophone stars, from jazz player Tom Scott to rock 'n' roller David Sanborn, pointed to Walker as their single biggest influence.

In 1981, a few years before the Motown sound was once again in vogue, Walker was called out of retirement to blow his horn on rock group Foreigner's million-selling hit single "Urgent."

His rhythmic style of writing and playing, characterized by tricky sixteenth-note patterns and clear, well-defined lines, is still mimicked by new wave, rock 'n' roll and rhythm-and-blues bands.

Still, Walker maintains that his musical contributions were no greater than those of the other, vocally oriented Motown groups of the 1960s.

"We were all part of the overall Motown sound, and each of us, in our own way, helped make that sound popular," said Walker, who will bring the latest incarnation of the All Stars to the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Thursday.

"It's just that I was never really much of a singer, so when I came around, they (Motown executives) told me to concentrate on blowing my horn," he said. "Turns out, they liked what I was doing, so they didn't want to change me.

"I was different, that's all. Instead of singing with my voice, I sang with my horn."

Born in South Bend, Ind., in 1942, Autry DeWalt Walker Jr., learned to play a saxophone given to him by his mother in 1959.

After honing his talents in rhythm-and-blues roadhouses in the South and the Midwest, he moved to Detroit in the early 1960s, where he soon established himself as a session player.

In 1962, Walker's first solo recording, "Twist Lackawanna," on the tiny Tri-Phi Records label, became a regional hit. A year later, when Tri-Phi owner Gwen Gordy sold her record company to her brother, Berry Gordy Jr., Walker became a founding member of the legendary Motown stable, along with the Four Tops, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.

As Motown's only instrumental artists, Junior Walker and the original All Stars began a five-year ride on the national pop and rhythm-and-blues charts, starting with 1965's "Shotgun" and ending with "Do You See My Love (For You Growing)" in 1970.

When the hits stopped coming, Walker continued to tour extensively, mostly overseas, before disbanding the All Stars in 1979 to take a brief hiatus from music.

"After so many years of nonstop touring, you just get tired," he said. "You need to take a rest, you need to get away from it all."

Two years later, however, came Walker's recording date with Foreigner and a subsequent appearance on television's "Saturday Night Live."

It wasn't long before Walker was back on the road with a new version of the All Stars, encouraged by the rekindling of interest in the Motown sound they and other recently reunited groups had helped create.

"All of a sudden, it was like history repeating itself," he said. "Everybody started liking the old music, and even new bands began copying our sound and playing the songs we used to play."

These days, Walker said, he's more optimistic than ever for a successful comeback.

Junior Walker and the All Stars are prominently featured in the movie "The Tape Heads," which takes a nostalgic look at the Motown era. Produced by Alex Cox of "Sid and Nancy" fame, the film is scheduled for worldwide release next March.

Negotiations for a new label deal, Walker added, are also under way. And his band's touring schedule is as heavy as it was in the 1960s.

"There ain't too many of us originals around anymore," Walker said. "So it's up to survivors like us to show the kids where this stuff they're hearing now came from in the first place."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World