Junior Walker gave Motown true Arkansas grit.
Autry DeWalt Jr. (some say his name was Oscar G. Mixon) was born on June 14, 1931, in Blytheville. He reportedly got the nickname “Walker” as a child, because he didn’t have a bicycle. Walker grew up in awe of saxophonists like Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet and especially Brinkley native Louis Jordan. Walker played the clubs in South Bend, Ind., when the family relocated, and practiced relentlessly.
He cut his first record on South Bend’s small local Harvey label. “Cleo’s Mood” became a regional hit in 1962 and rose to No. 14 on the R&B charts when it was rereleased in 1965.
When Harvey was purchased by Berry Gordy it joined the Motown Records family — and so did Junior Walker. He and his group landed on Gordy’s Soul label; their second single, written by Walker and named after a new dance, reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 4 in Pop. Reluctantly, Walker sang on “Shotgun” — only because he thought it was a scratch vocal for the “real” singer. But the vocal stayed — and “Shotgun” became a million-selling, Grammy Award-nominated hit with the Mississippi County native’s raspy voice singing “Shotgun! Shoot him ’fore he runs now.”
The famous rigors of the Motown machinery didn’t much apply to Junior Walker and the All-Stars, and the group’s records have a loose feeling unlike much else issued by Gordy. “Mr. Gordy told everyone, ‘You leave Jr. Walker alone,’ ” Walker said. The contrast is especially apparent when Walker recut Motown classics. After “I’m a Road Runner” hit No. 4 on the R&B charts in 1966, his version of “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” hit No. 3. Walker also hit No. 8 in R&B with his version of “Come See About Me.”
In 1969, his version of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes” made that song a hit for the second time that year. But the best thing that happened to Junior Walker in 1969 was the release of a song written specifically for the group. It was a mellower song, and Walker didn’t think it was right for the band. A year passed before Walker was persuaded to record “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” — and it went to No. 1 in R&B and No. 4 in Pop.
Walker continued recording through the 1970s, but last charted in 1973. He rose to prominence again, though, when he met Mick Jones of Foreigner.
Jones, who said English guitar players like himself, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were heavily influenced by Walker’s playing, wanted to record him. Jones was expecting Walker’s old screaming sax, but Walker reportedly said he didn’t play that way much anymore. But, although used to recording live with a group, he did a couple of takes in his old style. For two days, Mick Jones and producer Mutt Lange pieced together the solo they wanted from the different takes, and the result was the solo on “Urgent.” The No. 4 pop hit helped Foreigner’s album, “4,” top the charts in 1981.
Walker’s last Motown recordings came in 1983 — on drums was his son, Autry DeWalt III. In 1988, Walker appeared in the movie “Tapeheads,” but the Arkansan’s name was by then fading from the lips of the current music public, as was that of the classic Motown era. Junior Walker died Nov. 23, 1995, in Battle Creek, Mich.
• "Shotgun," 1965
• "Roadrunner," 1966
• "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)," 1970
• "Urgent," Foreigner, 1981
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