W is for Junior Walker and the All-Stars

Among the wealth of artists that performed on the Motown labels in 1960s, I probably know about Junior Walker the least. He was born Autry DeWalt-Mixom, Jr. in Blythesville, Arkansas on 14 June 1931. He grew up in South Bend, Indiana.

He started his band, the Jumping Jacks, and his good friend, drummer Billy Nicks, had a group, the Rhythm Rockers, but the two would play on each other’s gigs. Since Nicks had a local TV show in South Bend, he asked Walker to join his band.

When Nicks got drafted, Walker convinced the group to move to Battle Creek, Michigan. After some personnel and name changes, the All Stars were signed by Harvey Fuqua to his Harvey records. “Fuqua’s labels were taken over by Motown’s Berry Gordy, and Jr. Walker & the All Stars [the usual spelling] became members of the Motown family, recording for their Soul imprint in 1964.”

The group’s first big hit was “Shotgun” in 1965, which “uses only one chord throughout the entire song — A-flat seventh. Other songs featuring this same structure (or non-structure) are Chain of Fools and Land of 1000 Dances.” The song is in the Grammy and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. The All Stars were in a particular groove. The song appeared in several movies, including Malcolm X.

I have this Motown LP box set that explains that there was a songwriter – it doesn’t identify who, but it was either Johnny Bristol, who discovered the group; Fuqua, who took Bristol’s suggestion; or a guy named Vernon Bullock. The songwriter pitched the song to Junior, but he said it wasn’t his thing.

The next year, the songwriter said he still had that song, and Walker reluctantly agreed to record “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” in 1969. “A Motown quality control meeting rejected this song for single release, but radio station DJs made the track popular, resulting in Motown releasing it as a single.”

Junior Walker died of cancer on 23 November 1995 at the age of 64 in Battle Creek.

Listen to:

Shotgun, #4 pop, #1 rhythm & blues for four weeks in 1965 here or here

(I’m A) Road Runner, #20 pop, #4 r&b in 1966 here or here

How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), #18 pop, #3 r&b in 1966 here or here

What Does It Take (To Win Your Love), #4 pop, #1 r&b for two weeks in 1969 here or here

These Eyes, #16 pop, # r&b for two weeks in 1969 here or here

Urgent (Foreigner, with Jr. Walker on sax solo), #3 pop in 1981, here or here

Urgent, 1983, appears in 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan, here or here

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday.

Gladys Knight is 70

GladysKnight.Pips Gladys Knight & the Pips, if I had thought of them, I could have put in my weekly family music groups. One of those pieces of trivia I’ve long known is that “at the age of seven in 1952, she won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour television show contest.” In 1953, Gladys,”her brother Bubba, sister Brenda, and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest started a singing group called ‘The Pips’ (named after another cousin, James ‘Pip’ Woods). The Pips began to perform and tour, eventually replacing Brenda Knight and Eleanor Guest with Langston George in 1959 and Edward Patten in 1963.”

I felt a bit badly for Gladys and the Pips during their tenure at Motown. Continue reading

From Which “Grapevine” Did You Hear It?

I love good cover versions of songs. Came across a rather fine list from Popdose. And I so agree with the opening statement: “It’s generally agreed upon that if you don’t have any new flavor to add to the original, you shouldn’t bother doing a cover.”

Certainly can’t argue with the top two, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin*, originally performed by Otis Redding*; and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix*, originally done by Bob Dylan*. Both of the original artists have acknowledged the transformative nature of these covers. A previous list I saw contained songs that I had never heard of in the Top 10, which I discovered were less than six years old; seems to me these songs need to stand the test of time

But I have one nit to pick over this list, and it’s around the song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” As noted here and elsewhere, the song by Motown staff writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong was first recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles* on August 6, 1966. And Marvin Gaye* recorded his version on April 10, 1967. But Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, hated the song & vetoed the releases by both artists. Continue reading

Martha Reeves Turns 70

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas performed at an Alive at Five concert last month in Albany; I didn’t go, having family obligations. Otherwise, I would have, for sure.

The Times Union newspaper wrote an interesting pre-concert piece about Martha and Vandellas touring in the first Motown Review in 1962, and dealing with segregation.

“We stopped at a few gas stations where they said, ‘No, don’t come in here.’ The first time I ever saw a shotgun face-to-face was at one of those places. The man said, ‘Get back on that bus.’ And he came to the bus with a shotgun and said, ‘Don’t another one of you step on this property.’ I tell you, we learned how to go in the woods.”

She laughs about it now, 49 years later.
Continue reading

Book Review: Where Did Our Love Go?


One of the strategic things I did on my train ride to Charlotte (and back) is that I did not bring any electronic items – no headphones and music, no laptop, except, necessarily, my cellphone. What I did bring were three books.

The first one I read, actually by the time I reached Washington, DC, was Where Did Our Love Go? – The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George, which I purchased at a library sale. I should say that I’m a big fan of George, who has written about American black music (r&b, soul, hip hop, rap) for a number of years. Back when I had a subscription to Billboard magazine, he was a writer there. I even supported his recent Kickstarter project, Brooklyn Boheme:Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Artists Documentary.

The fact that the book was Continue reading

I’m Walkin’, Renee


Walk Away Renee was clearly the biggest hit for a New York City band called The Left Banke. The lead singer is named Steve Martin, but it’s not the noted comedian. The song reached #5 on the Billboard charts in 1966, made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame list, and is #220 on the Rolling Stone top 500 list. Listen to it HERE.

It was covered by the legendary Motown group The Four Tops, with the great lead singer Levi Stubbs. The recording went to #14 on the pop charts and #15 on the rhythm & blues charts. Listen to it HERE.

When I worked at FantaCo Continue reading

My Favorite Years QUESTION


Possibly around the time I was writing about nostalgia, the Wife and I were talking about the favorite years in our lives.

I picked 1969, the year I turned 16, and my parents let me have a huge party. I had a girlfriend, I got elected president of the student government, which made me an irritant to the new principal, and I was figuring out who I was politically, especially compared to the transitional 1968. Music was great that year, too.

Then there was 1978, the year I worked at the Schenectady Arts Council, got a girlfriend, and finally stopped my nomadic existence.

1984 was the year Continue reading

A Solstice Tradition Continues: Ask Roger ANYTHING!


It is once again time for the operator of this blog to hand over the keys, so to speak, when you ask him anything you want. And he HAS to answer. Now he may answer with obfuscation, but he cannot outright lie.

Here are some examples:
What is my favorite song performed by one artist, made more popular by a subsequent artist, but the version I prefer is by the former? (Got that?)

The answer: I Heard It Through the Grapevine, a big, #2 hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips, only to be trumped by Marvin Gaye’s much slower, much more successful, take. In part, I felt badly for the Pips when they would go on the road and people would ask them, “Why are you doing that Marvin Gaye song?”, which had to be irritating to GK&P, enough so that they left Motown at their first opportunity. Moreover, the resurection of Gaye’s version during the Big Chill movie’s popularity made it become actually irritating to me for a time. Continue reading