I am so cheesed off with this snow malarkey, aren’t you? Don’t mind the cold, but when the weather influences travelling or not, then I mind. Having said that, am so dreadfully sorry for those people caught up in snow drifts, flooding and so on; nobody deserves that. The wrong type of snow, or a leaf on the railway line – what’s that all about??!! Anyway, perhaps I can bring a little warmth here as once again we talk Motown - and a little bit more. So for starters, lets TCB with Jr Walker and the All Stars. (Oh I’m playing Teena Marie’s “Beautiful” CD while writing this, the title track of which is awesome)
Looking through Jr Walker’s discography, I’m reminded of the significant, ground-breaking sounds he and his group gave us. One could also say he cherished the true Motown sound – the classic style of the early sixties that won us over to this young, enthusiastic music that changed the world. He played the sax like no other, whipped up a musical storm that demanded attention, and didn’t get the credit he deserved for creating such a distinctive sound. Check out “Shotgun”, “Shake & Fingerpop”, “(I’m A) Road Runner”, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By you)”, then delve into the mellower tunes of the late-sixties/early seventies with “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”, “These Eyes”, “Walk In The Night” and so on. Changing times, changing styles. But still Jr Walker, and still that magic. Then there’s all the un-credited songs that bear his hallmark.
Recording on the Soul label, Jr Walker laid the foundation for many a Motown single with his sax solos – and that’s not taking anything away from the other musicians who worked alongside him. In a book recently published by Jr’s son Derek DeWalt (and Kambon Obayani) titled “The Jr Walker Story: The Man Behind The Sax”, we get an insight into the personal life of this man, but not a great deal about his recording career. In fact, it seems his music was a side issue – except as a means for earning money - which is a shame because insight into the recording sessions is something we fans love to read about. What is apparent, though, is the gruelling touring schedules undertaken, and the fact that Jr seemed to take his career into his own hands, delivering music to Motown when the need arose. Although he was a signed artist, he took care of his own business, unlike other acts.
So, let’s backtrack a bit here. Born Autry DeWalt Mixon in Blythe, Arkansas, on 14 June 1931, although his birth date has often been disputed so I’m not sure if this is correct. Anyway, his mum was 15 years old, and he was later adopted by a childless couple who owned a local store. His mother used to beat him when he visited and this violence Jr carried over into his own marriage to Alberta Lakes. I got the impression while reading this book that Jr wasn’t a nice man, really only interested in his music. In fact, he’d often totally ignore his own eleven children who, quite often, raced for cover when he was beating his wife, who, by the way, regularly went out of her way to encourage and support her husband and his work. Eventually, the family base fractured and Jr was on his own. He married again during the nineties; it lasted a year. In the book Derek DeWalt described his father as “a shell with unknown elements inside and whenever you opened the shell, what came out could be a precious pearl or a creature from an unknown element.”
Jr Walker loved the saxophone which he played in his first group, Jumping Jacks, before hooking up with Bill Nicks and the Rhythm Rockers, which with a few membership changes, later became Jr Walker & The All Stars. In 1962 he was asked by Johnny Bristol to join the Harvey label, and in a past interview Jr took up the story – “Johnny was singing then and I cut a few hits for Harvey Fuqua who owned the label. ‘Cleo’s Mood’ was the biggest. I also played horn on other singers’ records. Then I came back from a tour and found the company wasn’t there anymore. It had joined Motown. And he told me to come over too”. “Satan’s Blues” was the group’s debut for the Soul label in August 1964, followed by “Shotgun”, his first as lead vocalist, which was unintentional, but the singer booked failed to show. It was also his first big seller. The story goes that the band was playing in a local youth club one evening and Jr noticed all these youngsters dancing about like they were shooting someone. He asked the name of the dance and was told ‘shotgun’, so he wrote the track for them. His first meeting with Berry Gordy wasn’t that pleasant but the latter did realise the potential of the single, and purchased it from Jr for $10,000. From here on in, Jr Walker & the All Stars were part of the Motown family, spreading the word.
The bubble started deflating during the mid seventies until 1979 when he joined Norman at Whitfield Records. Following a brief appearance on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Gala, Jr returned to the company to record the poor selling “Blow The House Down” album. Despite not recording, Jr wasn’t out of a job because he continued to tour – “I began on the chitlin circuit and it looks like it’s gon’ keep me going” – and worked with young bands, while in any spare time he continued to fix cars and other vehicles, which he’d done all his life. During the late eighties, he complained of stomach problems and told friends his doctor had found a cancerous growth. Most of it was later removed, but by the mid-nineties, due to the gruelling chemotherapy treatment and other medication, Jr was unable to perform any more. On 23 November 1995, in Battle Creek, Michigan, the cancer claimed his life, the same year he was given a Pioneer Award by The R&B Foundation. I feel there’s so much more that could have been written about Jr Walker and here was the ideal platform for his son to pen the definitive book. There’s no interaction from other artists, for example, which could have balanced out the ups and downs of his career, giving more of a personal insight if you like, and there’s no clear picture of the success he did enjoy, or how he felt about things in general. I kinda feel I’ve been cheated about knowing the whole man, like eating the cake without the custard. Also it’s a short book, with sparse visuals, but better than nothing. Anyway, if you think “The Jr Walker Story” is for you, it’s available from amazon.co.uk for £12.46.
Now for something different - My thanks to Carl Feuerbacher for sending me a copy of the “My Supremes – 50th Anniversary Celebration” magazine by Mary Wilson and Mark Bego. I must admit I was a little disconcerted by the title, but it became apparent as I read it through, that this is indeed a true celebration of the trio from start to finish - from 1962 through to 1973 and beyond. Mary is, of course, heavily featured as a soloist, but I have to say, the visuals of her, Diana, Florence, Cindy, Scherrie, Susaye, Jean and Lynda are quite fabulous. A fair number we’ve seen before but snuck in are several exciting exclusives. There’s a rundown of the trio’s albums, with sleeve and annotations included – a valued reference for a first timer - and a selection of newsreel clippings, promo poses, personal shots, and the girls at play (hah! three ladies dolled up to the nines, hair and make up perfect, lobbing snowballs is a hoot). I hazard a guess that the idea here is to show the fun side (although I found The Supremes paper doll series a little childish – but hey, during the eighties it was probably considered ‘something else’), alongside the serious story of the most famous female trio of our age. And it works. Mary admitted it was a challenge to cover so much territory within the 128 pages “but I am happy that so many wonderful images and stories can be brought together in one magazine entirely devoted to the musical group I have spent my life creating and helping to blossom.” That Mary has done this is highly commendable, because, frankly, without it, this 50th anniversary could well have passed by unnoticed by the world at large. I’m not sure where the magazine can be bought but suggest marywilson.com is the first port of call. “If I had to summarise my life up to this point, I would have to say that it has been an incredibly Supreme adventure.” Right, let’s move on…
In last November’s page I mentioned the Hip-O Select release of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”, the 40th anniversary expanded edition, covering two CDs. Well, the same package is now available on amazon.co.uk for around £14 a go. To remind you the release features a re-mastered original soundtrack, plus 29 previously unissued tracks that include the full score of the movie because Marvin’s film score and the soundtrack album were different. Well, I never realised that, but then have never seen the film. Tut tut Davis. And that’s not all, also now available on the said amazon.co.uk is Mary Wells’ “Something New: Motown Lost & Found”, another 2-CD package, priced around £15, another Hip-O Select release which we mentioned in December last. Four unreleased Marvin duets, plus a couple with The Supremes, and tracks with the Four Tops on support vocals, are on offer - as well as other gems of course. Both CDs are available in a host of other places including Sainsburys where you can also collect Nectar points. Can’t believe I wrote that, but at least both are now at realistic prices.
“Little Stevie Wonder, the eleven year old sightless musical prodigy of Tamla Records, is destined for great success, says Berry Gordy Jr, president of Motown/Tamla recording company. ‘He has an original and effective style, despite the handicap he has suffered since birth’.” So wrote Billie Jean Brown in the liner notes for “The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie”, first available in 1962 and now on re-release. Included on the album is the original version of “Fingertips”, the re-worked title that would launch Stevie as a successful recording artist. The bulk of the album was written by Hank Crosby and Clarence Paul, and was an adventurous release, for sure, although often mediocre, particularly “The Square” and “Soul Bongo”, co-written by Marvin Gaye. The Latin-influenced “Manhattan At Six” upped the pace, while “Paulsby” showcased Stevie’s growing musicianship. The remaining tracks crossed from the blues to soul, thanks to Stevie’s co-writing credits with Clarence Paul on “Wondering” and “Session Number 112”, and Berry Gordy’s solitary composition “Barn” which was non-defining yet interesting. Nonetheless, the true spirit of the project displayed Stevie’s instrumental maturity on a big band project which wasn’t realised until years later when it became a Motown collector’s item.
And here’s another Hallmark re-release “More Marv Johnson”. Lacking national distribution, Berry relied on United Artists to distribute his releases. He also agreed the company could take over Marv’s recording contract, although he would still be involved in his music. First was “Marvellous Marv Johnson”, next came “More Marv Johnson”. Once again Berry provided the material, production and musicians - and here the Funk Brothers are easily apparent. To make this release more attractive, it contained his US hit “I Love The Way You Love” . Check out this snippet from the original sleeve notes – “In this offering, Marv displays more of his sparkling, fresh talent. He has brought together three of his most recent hits, ‘All The Love I’ve Got’, ‘Ain’t Gonna Be That Way’ and ‘I Love The Way You Love’ with a group of nine other outstanding songs. Marv has put them together into a soul-stirring, toe-tapping program designed to be played and relayed (replayed?) many times over.” Don’t you just love it!
Staying with Hallmark for a bit longer: the second album released on the Motown was “dedicated to the teenagers of America who have the old folks twistin’ from Washington to Mexico and the world around”. Not my words I hasten to add, but lifted from “Twistin’ The World Around” by The Twistin’ Kings. Yup, a blatant attempt to capitalise on the dance craze sweeping the country, this unique, Berry Gordy-produced release was treated with indifference. Now, it’s a valued addition to collections. Hah, note a couple of tracks – “Twist Ala BG” and “Twisting Ales Style” which are presumably referring to Berry and Barney Ales, who are both credited as composers. Other tracks designed to attract dancers, include “Old Folks Twist”, “White House Twist” and “Christmas Twist”. Another re-issue is “Tamla Special No 1” from a handful of artists designed to promote the label. There’s Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Oh I Apologize”; The Miracles’ “Way Over There”, “Shop Around”, “You Can Depend On Me” and “Who’s Loving You”; Mary Wells’ “Bye Bye Baby” and “Please Forgive Me” and the surprise addition of Singin’ Sammy Ward’s “Oh Lover” and (with Sherri Taylor) “That’s Why I Love You So Much”. A mixture of A and B sides housed in incongruous artwork that was more of an introduction to the label, than a profitable compilation. And finally, available this month – The Reverend Columbus Mann’s “They Shall Be Mine” from December 1961. Apparently, he was well known for his sermons at Detroit’s True Love Church which attracted full-house congregations. One time, Motown employee George Fowler was present, and he persuaded Berry Gordy to join him. This led to a single being released, and later the album. Also due, The Contours’ “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)”; The Miracles’ “I’ll Try Something New”; “Eddie Holland”, and The Marvelettes’ “Playboy”. From the sounds of it, 2013 will be a bumper year for Motown – whooppeee!
BEHIND THE GROOVE: I’m so thrilled to be writing this – “Caston & Majors” an expanded edition is due for March release. I’ve practically worn white my vinyl copy, and two songs now jump. So all I can say is - at long bloody last!!! …..“Motown Anthems” now being advertised as a Valentine’s Day aid. Clever eh?..... Also, hold on, because another sensational release is in the pipeline – Jerry Butler’s “Love’s On The Menu”/”Suite For The Single Girl”, geared for March. I remember doing a phoner with Mr B – my goodness how nervous was I talking to the Ice Man!...And, there’s a 2-hander from Ozone due – “Walk On”/”Send It” – not a great fan I’ll admit but, hey, thanks to Billy Preston, the group became a Motown act…. Due in May, Fantastic Voyage’s “Soul City Detroit”, compiled by Clive Richardson….Please don’t forget that you can contact me personally on firstname.lastname@example.org..... the iconic TV music programme Ready Steady Go celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I kid you not. Methinks plans could be in the pipeline to commemorate this ground breaking, and often mayhem making, programme…..Many congratulations to The Temptations for their Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Otis Williams and Dennis Edwards were joined by Paul Williams Jr, David Ruffin Jr and other family members in the award ceremony. Bet they’re still celebrating this much deserved – and long over due – recognition of their work…..Yup, am going to New York in September to see Motown:The Musical…oh lor, have run out of space again. So, til next time.
Keep the faith my lovely friends
Dateline: 18 February 2013
I’ve just heard the news that Temptation Damon Harris has died at the age of 61 years. I don’t have too many details but I think it was general knowledge that he had been battling prostrate cancer for some years. His fight against this dreadful disease began in 1999 and he underwent months of gruelling chemotheraphy treatment but sadly he lost the fight. As you know, Damon replaced Eddie Kendricks in The Temptations way back in 1970 and such was his similar falsetto voice that few people realised a switch had been made. He stayed for five years to sing his way through songs like “Cloud Nine” and “Psychedelic Shack”. Upon leaving The Temptations, Damon formed Impact, whereupon he pursued a solo career. He once said – “I’m realistic. You can say you hope to see me here in five years, but I’m telling you I don’t expect that. I’m preparing as best as I can.” I can’t do justice to this man’s talent here, so a fuller article next month. Meantime, on behalf of all at SoulMusic.com I’m sending love and condolences to his family and friends. God love him.
About the Writer
Sharon Davis ran the Four Tops fan club before spearheading Motown Ad Astra, catering for all the Motown acts, where she edited the in-house magazine TCB. Was publicist for Fantasy, Stax and Salsoul before joining Motown Records in London. Formed her own press/promotion company Eyes & Ears, worked for Blues & Soul magazine and website, and became a full time author and researcher. To date Sharon has written eleven books (her last A Girl Called Dusty published by Carlton Books) and she’s working on her next - Divas Of Motown. As a researcher, Sharon assisted Diana Ross with her autobiography Secrets Of A Sparrow, and is now in constant demand for her knowledge about Motown and its artists.