"Shotgun," "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)," and "(I'm A) Road Runner" alone would have guaranteed Autry DeWalt Mixon, Jr., a.k.a. Oscar G. Mixon, a.k.a. Junior Walker, a spot in the Motown Records firmament. But between 1962 and 1978, the saxophonist-singer charted over 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and recorded more than a dozen albums with his group The All-Stars and a further three as a solo artist. Yet, curiously, none of Walker's 1970s albums for Motown's Soul imprint had ever seen the light of day on Cd. Cherry Red's SoulMusic imprint has rectified that with the release of Walk in the Night: The Motown '70s Studio Albums. This 3-CD box set has all six of Walker and the All-Stars' studio platters originally issued between 1970 and 1976 including A Gasssss, Rainbow Funk, Moody Jr., Peace and Understanding Is Hard to Find, the self-titled Jr. Walker and The All-Stars, and Hot Shot.
Inspired by the likes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Gene Ammons, the Arkansas-born Walker immersed himself in music from a young age. He was spotted playing in Battle Creek, Michigan by producer-songwriter Johnny Bristol who put him in touch with Harvey Fuqua, then of the Harvey and Tri-Phi labels. After three 45s on Harvey, Walker found that his label had been absorbed into Motown. Bristol invited him to join Motown where he was assigned to the Soul imprint. He would remain there for the duration of his time at the label. With his recognizable, hard-hitting wail of an attack on the sax, Walker scored a hit with "Shotgun," turning one chord into a top five Pop hit and an R&B chart-topper. His stage band The All-Stars was supplemented on records by members of The Funk Brothers - and later supplanted completely by the studio unit despite retaining their billing. 1969's silky-smooth "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" opened up a whole new world for the gritty musician: that of a balladeer.
Walker, working with producer Bristol (who had helmed "What Does It Take" and the LP Gotta Hold on to This Feeling), ushered in 1970 with A Gasssss. Bristol would remain at the helm for the first three albums on SoulMusic's new set. A Gasssss was a funky, upbeat affair, blending Walker-ized versions of current hits (Laura Nyro's "And When I Die," Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy," Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," The Beatles' "Hey Jude") with originals including Junior's cheeky jab at the woman of his house, "Shut Up, Don't Interrupt Me" and the pop-oriented lead single "Do You See My Love (For You Growing)." Walker also reclaimed Jimmy Webb's early Motown copyright "Honey, Come Back" in a strong version with the flavor of "What Does It Take."
After a live album (not included on this set but a fine candidate for two-fer release with Walker's 1967 live set, also unreleased on CD), Walker and The All-Stars returned with 1971's Rainbow Funk. It again blended vocals and instrumentals, covers and originals, mellow groovers and out-and-out rave-ups. Bristol, Leon Ware, and Pam Sawyer's urgent "Take Me Girl, I'm Ready" had all of the makings of a hit, and made the top 20 both on the U.S. R&B singles survey and the U.K. Singles Chart. Bristol and Sawyer also delivered "Pieces of a Man," one of the socially conscious items on the LP. None other than Gladys Knight (fellow Soul superstar) co-wrote the lightly swinging "Right On Brothers and Sisters" with Bristol, a paean to racial harmony. Walker brought his throaty shout to Traffic's "Feeling Alright" and the obligatory Beatles cover, in this case "Something," and tipped his hat to Norman Whitfield with a funky horn spin on The Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack." Another homegrown cover was The Velvelettes' "These Things Will Keep Me Loving You," in Walker's hands a fine tribute to the classic Motown Sound. The album also included an instrumental rendition of The Jazz Crusaders' "Way Back Home," which Walker would transform with lyrics for his third LP of the decade and final Bristol collaboration of the period.
"Way Back Home," with words by Bristol and Knight, opened Moody Jr. - one of eight tracks (out of ten) bearing a credit for Bristol. The emphasis was on new material, and the gamble paid off with one of Walker's most cohesive and enjoyable LPs. The Bristol/Knight team also supplied the moving "Me and My Family," while Walker offered a torrid instrumental take on Gladys and the Pips' "I Don't Want to Do Wrong."
On "Bristol's Way," the cooing backup voices insist that Walker should "do it!" as his sax glides over the rhythm section with ease; "Don't Blame the Children" inspired a fiery vocal and equally scorching uptempo track. "Groove Thang" emphasized the beat, returning the artist to his hard-hitting, gritty onstage milieu. "Walk in the Night," a top ten R&B single, was one of his most evocative pieces, a sinuous, soundtrack-like performance conjuring up an urban, shimmering cityscape by moonlight. (Title track "Moody Junior" is less immediately accessible but clearly cut from the same cloth.) The only non-Bristol tunes on the LP are two more Motown classics: a relaxed version of the Smokey Robinson-penned Four Tops tune "Still Water (Medley)" and Clifton Davis' ubiquitous "Never Can Say Goodbye," on which Walker's sax "sings" the familiar melody, occasionally supported by the female background singers.
Johnny Bristol departed Motown to successfully produce such artists as Boz Scaggs, Johnny Mathis, Al Wilson, and Tom Jones, not to mention to carve out a recording career himself. An array of producers from the Motown stable took turns on 1973's Peace and Understanding Is Hard to Find, including Junior himself. The rollicking "You Ain't Going Nowhere," previously cut by Thelma Houston at MoWest, was overseen by its songwriters, the team of Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer. Another producer-writer, Willie Hutch, turned in the bright admonishment "It's Alright, Do What You Gotta Do." The honkin' "Soul Clappin'," co-written by Walker, harkened back to the prior decade's floor-filling numbers.
The two covers were well-chosen. Junior's interpretation of Carole King and Toni Stern's rueful, jazz-flavored "It's Too Late" (produced by Motown stalwart Hal Davis and arranged by Gene Page) seems very much inspired by Thom Bell's chart for The Stylistics; he takes the chorus on his instrument but rasps the verses, with sympathetic support from the background girls. Johnny Nash's breezy "I Can See Clearly Now" was goosed by Walker as producer and artist with a faster tempo in his instrumental treatment. Peace and Understanding understandably failed to yield any hits beyond the No. 50 R&B placement of "Gimme That Beat (Part I);" the LP didn't have the unified style of the Bristol productions and didn't reflect the ever-changing sound of popular music, and soul in particular.
The All-Stars' next LP, a self-titled affair, was produced by Clarence Paul. Jr. Walker & The All-Stars, however, was denied a U.S. release, only appearing in Europe on the Tamla Motown label. Paul, Stevie Wonder's mentor and onetime producer, invited Stevie to lend his trademark harmonica to Junior's languid "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and uncharacteristically subtle, slow "All in Love Is Fair." Stevie's "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" (co-written with Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax), too, conjured a late-night vibe with a smooth chorus joining Walker.
"Slow" wasn't the word for "Boogie Down" (a 1973 hit for labelmate Eddie Kendricks) or "Dancin' Like They Do on Soul Train," both of which emphasized Walker's danceable side. The Clarence Paul/Janie Bradford co-write "Break Down and Sing" provided another righteously funky vehicle for Walker's growled vocals. Walker returned to Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer's songbook for the pleading "I Ain't That Easy to Lose," and filled out the LP with a pair of MOR-esque contemporary covers including a melodic take on "Killing Me Softly (With His Song)" with a bit of funk guitar and big-band jazz detour as unexpected touches, and a smoky rendition of Paul McCartney's beautiful "My Love." Oddly, a number of tracks from the Jr. Walker & The All-Stars sessions were released in the U.S. on Walker's solo LPs Whopper Bopper Show Stopper and Sax Appeal.
Junior's old friend Brian Holland, back at Motown after establishing his own Invictus Records with brother Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, joined Lawrence Horn as co-producer of 1976's Hot Shot, the final album on this collection and one of the best. Holland penned most of the album, reworking some of his Invictus productions, and added subtle electronic flourishes to the new arrangements. The brassy "I'm So Glad" peaked just outside the R&B top 40 despite its clear strengths. The irresistible grooves continued on standout instrumental tracks like H-D-H's "Why Can't We Be Lovers," originally sung by Lamont Dozier, and vocals like the imploring "You Ain't No Ordinary Woman," with its lyrical nods at Motown favorites from the past. "Just Can't Get Enough" embraced disco, while the title track was classic Walker funk. Thelma Houston brought her powerful pipes to the dramatic, orchestral "I Need You Right Now," with Junior happily taking a backseat.
SoulMusic's set is housed in a compact clamshell case with each of the three discs in its own paper sleeve adorned with small images of the album front and back covers and labels. A 24-page booklet has Sharon Davis' solid liner notes. (Davis, most likely inadvertently, asserts that the vocal version of "Way Back Home" was "Junior's biggest U.S. pop and R&B charted single" when it, in fact, only made it to No. 52 Pop/No. 24 R&B/No. 35 U.K. Walker had other, larger hits such as "Shotgun" and "What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)," both of which went top five Pop and No. 1 R&B.) Nick Robbins has done his customarily fine job remastering these albums, all long overdue for CD release.
The Junior Walker Story on CD isn't yet over; there are still albums and individual tracks waiting to be reissued from the late, great sax man. In the meantime, Walk in the Night: The Motown '70s Studio Albums is an essential addition to any Motown or classic soul library.
A Gasssss (Soul SS 726, 1970)
- Do You See My Love (For You Growing)
- And When I Die
- I Was Made to Love Her
- Carry Your Own Load
- Shut Up, Don't Interrupt Me
- Groove and Move
- Holly Holy
- Honey, Come Back
- Riding High on Love
- Hey Jude
- At a Saturday Matinee
Rainbow Funk (Soul SS 732, 1971)
- Way Back Home (Instrumental)
- Take Me Girl, I'm Ready
- Feeling Alright
- Right On Brothers and Sisters
- Teach Them to Pray
- Psychedelic Shack
- Pieces of a Man
- These Things Will Keep Me Loving You
Moody Jr. (Soul SS 733, 1971)
- Way Back Home (Vocal)
- I Don't Want to Do Wrong
- Bristol's Way
- Don't Blame the Children
- Me and My Family
- Groove Thang
- Still Water Medley
- Never Can Say Goodbye
- Walk in the Night
- Moody Junior
Peace and Understanding Is Hard to Find (Soul SS 738, 1973)
- I Ain't Going Nowhere
- I Don't Need No Reason
- It's Alright, Do What You Gotta Do
- It's Too Late
- Soul Clappin'
- I Can See Clearly Now
- Gimme That Beat (Part I)
- Gimme That Beat (Part II)
- Country Boy
- Peace and Understanding (Is Hard to Find)
Jr. Walker & The All-Stars (Tamla Motown (U.K.) STML 11274, 1974)
- You Are the Sunshine of My Life
- All in Love Is Fair
- Killing Me Softly with His Song
- My Love
- Boogie Down
- I Ain't That Easy to Lose
- Dancin' Like They Do on Soul Train
- Break Down and Sing
- Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)
Hot Shot (Soul SS 745, 1976)
- I'm So Glad
- Why Can't We Be Lovers
- You Ain't No Ordinary Woman
- Just Can't Get Enough
- Love (Keep Us Together)
- I Need You Right Now
- Probe Your Mind
- Don't Lose What You Got (Trying to Get Back What You Had)
- Hot Shot