Junior Walker and the All-Stars

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Junior Walker and the All-Stars

Junior Walker and the All-Stars were a rhythm-and-blues band that produced several smash hits for the Motown label in the 1960s with an untutored, earthy sound that went against type for Motown, but that provided the first of a new kind of hit for the recording industry giant.

The group's leader, Junior Walker, whose real name was Autry DeWalt II (1931-1995), was born in Blythesville, Arkansas. As a young man he lived around South Bend, Indiana, where he met guitarist Willie Woods. During the early 1950s the two performed in a group called the Jumping Jacks. Walker, only a fair singer, was soon regarded as one of the best saxophonists of his generation.

By the mid-1950s, Walker and Woods had moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, and linked up with organist Vic Thomas and drummer James Graves. Those four called themselves the All-Stars, supposedly after a fan yelled out that every player was a star in this band. There was considerable truth in that statement, both because all four men were consummate R&B musicians, and because their relaxed, jam-session approach gave each player a chance to show his stuff. Years later, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia would specifically cite "Cleo's Mood," the 1966 instrumental tune penned by Willie Woods, as an inspiration for the Dead's give-and-take jams.

The All-Stars became very popular in Michigan clubs around 1960. In 1962, while they were performing at El Grotto, they were discovered by Johnny Bristol, at that time a recording artist for Tri-Phi Records in Detroit. Bristol strongly suggested that the group meet Tri-Phi president Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua himself was a former R&B performer; as one of the Moonglows, he had released a number of hits during the 1950s for Chicago's Chess Records. By 1962 he was president of both the Tri-Phi and the Harvey labels in Detroit; his wife owned Anna Records, and his brother-in-law, Berry Gordy, was the head of Motown, among the very few black-owned record labels of any size in the country. Fuqua quickly signed Junior Walker and the All-Stars to his Harvey label. Over the next year the band released three singles (but no hits), including "Twistlackawanna" and "Good Rockin' Tonight," the latter a cover of Elvis Presley's 1954 Sun label single (itself a cover of the Wynonie Harris version from 1948).

Harvey Fuqua's money troubles led him to fold his two companies and become a producer and talent scout for Berry Gordy. Although Junior Walker and the All-Stars did not automatically receive a contract with Motown, they did soon afterwards thanks to Fuqua's recommendation. Gordy used the All-Stars to launch his new, more R&B-oriented label, Soul.

In 1964 the band released "Monkey Jim," a song that sank without a trace, but its March 1965 single, "Shotgun," exceeded everyone's expectations. "Shotgun" started off literally with a bang: a gunshot that got its listeners' full attention right away. The song was a classic R&B tune that quickly went to #1 on the R&B charts; more surprisingly, it also spent several weeks in the pop Top Ten, peaking at #4. This performance was never surpassed by later All-Star releases. Most of their fifteen hit records would do significantly better on the R&B charts, because that is what they were. Two of these fifteen hits went to #1, and nine more singles reached the Top Ten. Junior Walker and the All-Stars had a dozen hits on the Billboard pop charts though only two ever made it to the Top Ten. Unlike the typical middle of the road Motown product, Junior Walker's singles were unabashedly rough and tough.

The All-Stars' strongest pop singles, after "Shotgun," were "(I'm a) Road-Runner," written and produced by Holland, Dozier, and Holland, the trio most responsible for the Supremes' hits; "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," from the same team; and "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)," a ballad produced and co-written by the band's old associates Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua, by that time colleagues in Motown's production department. "What Does It Take" was a different sort of song for the All-Stars, slow and dreamy by comparison with their usual output, but it was their only record to equal "Shotgun" on the charts. "Shotgun" itself was written by Autry DeWalt II; when the All-Stars performed, he was Junior Walker, but when he copyrighted his creations, he kept his original DeWalt name.

The All-Stars had a reasonably successful career by Motown standards, releasing fifteen charted singles (and several albums) over a seven-year period but, also typically, not making much money for that label. The band had no further charted singles after 1971, but continued to tour on Motown-sponsored revues. Junior Walker moved to southern California about the time Motown relocated there in the 1970s, but moved back to the Battle Creek area after a few years. He remained active as a performer, playing with a variety of sidemen; in 1988 Walker appeared in the comedy film, Tape Heads. In the 1990s, his son Autry DeWalt III was a frequent drummer with the band.

Much of the All-Stars' music was underappreciated by the audiences of their day, and some of it was not heard at all. Among professional musicians, though, the band is held in higher esteem than many with greater popular reputations. Junior Walker died of cancer in Battle Creek on November 23, 1995, one of the great musicians of his generation.

—David Lonergan

Further Reading:

George, Nelson. Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Nite, Norm N. Rock On Almanac. 2nd Ed. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.

Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. 6th Ed. New York, Billboard Books, 1996.