While the Funk Brothers and the other fine musicians that helped create the "Motown Sound" were little known outside of Detroit, saxophonist Junior Walker attained worldwide fame both as a musician and as the leader of one of the bigger Motown acts of the late 60s and early 70s, Junior Walker and the AllStars. His impassioned, raw sax work -- which bore more resemblance to the gritty sound of Memphis than of Motown -- became the foundation for a string of party hits that influenced a generation of funk musicians and which are still revered today as some of the greatest music Motown ever released.
Born Autry DeWalt and raised in South Bend, Indiana, Walker moved to small Battle Creek, Michigan as a young musician. He was discovered by legendary singer and producer Harvey Fuqua and joined Motown with Fuqua's Harvey label in the early 60s. Backed by a tight trio of musicians known as the AllStars (Tony Washington, Willie Woods and Victor Thomas), Walker scored in 1965 with the now classic cut "Shotgun." With his always-rough vocals leading the way through a sing-songy refrain, the infectious, mostly instrumental cut shot to the top of the Soul charts and hit the Pop top five.
Over the next half decade Junior Walker and the AllStars released a number of top ten Soul hits, including "I'm a Roadrunner," "How Sweet It Is," "Shake and Fingerpop," "Gotta Hold On To This Feeling" and a cover of "These Eyes." He moved to the top of the pop and Soul charts again in 1969 with the great ballad "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" (later remade by Kenny G and Lenny Williams). The hits stopped coming for him by 1973, but he continued to record sporadically over the remainder of the decade.
Walker's career received an unexpected boost in 1981 when the rock group Foreigner was recording a jumpy tune called "Urgent" and wanted to have a saxophone solo in the refrain. Being Motown fans, they contacted Walker to fly to the studio to cut the piece. As he told me in a 1982 interview, he had never heard of Foreigner, but the group had promised a pretty good payday for one song, so he agreed to fly to the studio and cut the record. They played the raw track for him and asked him to improvise a solo. After a single listening, he amazed the group by cutting one of the most memorable sax solos in rock history in one take. The song went on to the top of the Pop charts and became a Walker concert staple for the next decade (he and a reconsititued AllStars recorded it on their final album, 1983's Blow Down the House).
Walker continued to tour with the AllStars over the next decade. Sadly, he died of cancer at his Battle Creek home in 1995 and Willie Woods died about a year later. Original All-Stars Victor Thomas and Tony Washington teamed with new members Kenny Walker and Acklee King in the late 90s and have been playing ever since as Jr. Walker's All-Star Band.
By Chris Rizik