He Kicked The Soul Into Motown

The Ultimate Collection (Motown)
Jr. Walker and the All Stars,

By Jeff Kallman

Berry Gordy created Motown's Soul Records subsidiary in early 1965 as an explicit challenge to the deep Southern soul rising from Memphis' Stax/Volt operation and Alabama's Fame Studios (the Muscle Shoals operation). He hit paydirt almost at once with a quartet from Battle Creek, Michigan led by shriek-and-shout gutbucket saxophonist Autry DeWalt, better known as Jr. Walker. "Shotgun" (which Motown historiographer Nelson George described memorably as "having the kick of a bull and the greasy feel of a pig's feet dinner") was only the first salvo from what remains perhaps the most down-home, down-and-dirty performer ever associated with Motown.

In fact, Walker and company came damn near beating Stax at its own game with his early run of singles; "Shake and Fingerpop" kicks from that unforgettable high-G squeal from Walker's horn and the five-and-a-half-beat he hangs it over into a riff at least as dangerous as Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose," and the rest - "Pucker Up, Buttercup," "Shoot Your Shot," "(I'm A) Road Runner," "Home Cookin'" - were likewise in the kick-'em-low-and-party-hard vein.

With Willie Woods' scraping, bluesy guitar licks, Victor Thomas' gospel-flecked organ, and Tony Washington's splattering backbeat, Walker welded both the honking styles of the mid-50s R&B horn men with the shouting sound King Curtis represented into something almost otherworldly for such an earthy music.

The Ultimate Collection, the no-questions-asked best gathering of Walker's material ever assembled, puts all of that together and near chronological order, too (the delightful blues "Cleo's Mood" is in there, too), and shows that what seemed a radical shift in his approach around 1968 wasn't exactly that illogical. After a year's pestering by Motown staffer Johnny Bristol (who was under pressure to get Walker back to crossover status), Walker took the ballad "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" as high as number four, walking up the middle between the standard Motown sheen and his own earthy instincts, with Woods riding the bass riff and Walker blowing various deep variations on the theme line. It worked so well that Walker ran off a series of similarly styled records (starting with a charming cover of the Guess Who's "These Eyes"), always keeping a foot anchored on the ground and not straying too far from his gutbucket roots.

And it produced a single which must have scared hell out of the Motown brass. It was one thing for people like Norman Whitfield to be churning out one social message song after another (as he was doing especially for the Temptations as the 60s crossed to the 70s); it was something else again for a Motown record to acknowledge explicitly that its music, and the people who made it, did have a history and came from somewhere far deeper than the label liked to admit - which is precisely what "Way Back Home," co-written by Gladys Knight (whose "Midnight Train to Georgia" brushed up against a related theme, though she did it after leaving Motown), did.

With Walker's gravelly voice wavering between the howl of a robbery victim and the longing cry of a displaced soul, "Way Back Home" nailed down the classic dilemma of the displaced Southern black, lost in the urban North and homesick for the land which enslaved him, either directly or implicitly. Over a quarter-century after Walker cut the record, it remains possibly the most haunting side ever released by Motown, even more so coming from the label's ‘life of the party.'

Walker was also something of a clairvoyant - "Take Me, Girl, I'm Ready" and "Do You See My Love For You Growing" seem now to have anticipated disco. There are no live performances, however, preserved on this set; considering Walker's reputation as an in-person powerhouse, that might seem disheartening - but Motown did cut two live albums on him and both suffered from an astounding recording weakness (especially the inaudible bass lines) that made them sound limp. But there are a couple of very pleasant sleepers; namely, "Walk In The Night," his last crack at the R&B top ten and one of the moodiest pieces in his repertoire; and, a striking piece of blues, "Last Call" (from hisRoad Runner album of 1965), which almost rivals "Green Onions" for after-hours aplomb.

So he wasn't half the star Diana or the Four Tops or the Temptations were? It wasn't exactly his fault, becauseThe Ultimate Collection should remind people who were there - and tell those only now discovering what the Motown hoopla was all about - that he was anything but a second-rater. This, mostly, is party music of the first rank.