Born Autry DeWalt, Jr. on June 14, 1931, in Blytheville, AR; died on November 23, 1995, in Battle Creek, MI; children: nine sons, four daughters, and two stepdaughters.

During the heyday of Motown Records, built largely upon a roster of vocal groups and spin-off soloists like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, none of the label's great instrumentalists received their due credit, let alone the opportunity to shine in the spotlight. However, Junior Walker, one of popular music's premier saxophonists and leader of Motown's Junior Walker and the All Stars, stood as the lone exception. Although his songs often featured vocals, it was Walker's tenor saxophone solo wailings--combining equal parts Illinois Jacquet high-note squeals, Coleman Hawkins throaty growls, and Midwest soul--that characterized the All Stars' work. The group recorded some of Motown's most enduring hits, the best of which included instrumentals, and Walker's brilliant sax solos would influence players for years to come. Jazz saxophonist David Sanborn, among others, credits Walker's style as an influence. "There isn't a sax player out there who didn't get something from him," noted Jimmy Vivino of the group Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times. Walker, continued Vivino, was known for "his command of what the sax players call the upper register--funky."

Junior Walker was born Autry DeWalt, Jr., in Blytheville, Arkansas, on June 14, 1931, though Motown always stated that he was born in 1942. As a teenager living in South Bend, Indiana, Walker received his first saxophone from an uncle. Inspired by the jump blues, jazz, and rhythm and blues bands of the 1950s and the playing style of Earl Bostie, who straddled the line between jazz and R&B, Walker took to the instrument right away, apprenticing with his high school band and various Midwest groups. While in his mid-teens, Walker formed his first instrumental band, the Jumping Jacks, adopting the moniker "Junior Walker" after a childhood nickname. Before long, Walker achieved a prominent reputation by playing gigs at local jazz and R&B clubs. Hoping to broaden his name throughout the Midwest, he subsequently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, then in the late-1950s to Battle Creek, Michigan.

Upon relocating to Battle Creek, Walker assembled the All Stars: James Graves on drums, Willie Woods on guitar, and Vic Thomas on keyboards. According to Woods, the group earned their confident name when an enthusiastic fan jumped to his feet during a show and shouted, "These guys are all stars," as quoted by David Shepardson in the Detroit News. Walker, in particular, always won over a crowd. "Junior Walker played until he dropped--and then some," recalled John Collis in Rock: The Rough Guide, and Kim Weston, a member of several Motown revues in the 1960s, remembered Walker as "an extraordinary saxophonist," and a tireless performer. "We were at the Fox Theatre [in Detroit] and Junior was playing his horn with his eyes closed and fell into the pit," Weston told Shepardson. "Of course, everyone was stunned, but he stuck his horn back in his mouth and he came out of the pit almost without losing a beat."

While playing a show about a year after arriving in Michigan, Junior Walker and the All Stars were spotted by Johnny Bristol, who recommended the band to R&B mover and shaker Harvey Fuqua, a former member of the doo-wop group the Moonglows. He immediately signed the All Stars to his own Harvey label, allowing Walker full rein to record a series of raw, saxophone-led instrumentals. By the time Walker made these early recordings, the group's trademark sound--blustery, honking sax over funky rhythms--was already intact.

In 1963, Fuqua sold his Harvey and Tri-Phi labels to Berry Gordy's Detroit-based Motown Records. As a result, Walker found himself under contract with Motown subsidiary Soul Records, where he would perfect a blend of raunchy R&B and Detroit soul. Although the All Stars didn't quite fit in with the sound of young America and Motown's smooth, studio-bound instrumentation, after Walker told the label he had just written a song to go along with the shotgun, a new dance popular in Michigan, Motown sent him to the studio. But when the assigned vocalist failed to show up for the session, Walker, who had never before sung on record, was forced to sing as well as play saxophone for the single.

"Shotgun," with its saxophone riffs and call-and-response vocals, established Walker as Motown's prime exponent of traditional R&B, a reputation that was confirmed by a string of hits from the mid-1960s through the early-1970s. Released in 1965, "Shotgun" became Junior Walker and the All Stars' first hit, reaching number four on the pop chart and number one on the R&B chart. Thereafter, Walker and his group continued to turn out similar songs filled with growling chants (Walker would increasingly add his own vocals to the quartet's overall sound), vibrato-laden saxophone, and funk-inspired dance beats. Throughout the remainder of 1965, the group's popularity accelerated thanks to the hit party singles "Do the Boomerang," peaking at number ten on the R&B chart, and "Shake and Fingerpop," climbing the R&B chart to number seven.

The year 1966 brought further success. The classic "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" reached number 18 on the pop chart and number three on the R&B, while "I'm a Roadrunner" took the number 20 position on the pop chart and number four on the R&B. Meanwhile, the group's revue-like dynamic--an all-singing, all-playing, all-dancing package--made them a star live attraction across the board, from theaters and clubs to television shows and Motown package tours. And from the 1966 album Soul Session onwards, Junior Walker and the All Stars were a top album-selling act for Motown. In 1967, Walker scored two more big singles: "Pucker Up Buttercup," a number three pop chart hit and a number 11 R&B hit, and "Come See About Me," a number 24 pop hit and a number eight R&B hit. Subsequently, 1969 gave rise to the number four pop/number one R&B hit "What Does It Take (to Win Your Love)" and the number 16 pop/number three R&B classic "These Eyes." "Gotta Hold on to This Feeling," which peaked on the R&B chart at number two, and "Do You See My Love (For You Growing)," which reached number three on the R&B chart, followed in 1970, and "Walk the Night" climbed to the number ten position on the R&B list in 1972.

Albums such as 1971's Rainbow Funk and 1973's Peace and Understanding, as well as popularity among the college crowd and R&B fans, carried Junior Walker and the All Stars throughout the decade. By the end of the 1970s, however, the hits and the relationship with Motown had dried up. In 1979, the quartet recorded Back Street Boogie, released that year on former Motown producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield's new label. But the group would never enjoy the level of commercial success as they did during the earlier Motown years. In 1980, Walker provided a saxophone solo for the 1981 Foreigner hit "Urgent" and re-signed with Motown in 1983. Junior Walker and the All Stars continued to tour into the 1990s, with his son, Autry DeWalt III, sometimes backing on drums. In April of 1995, Walker was honored with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

On November 23, 1995, Walker, at the age of 64, passed away after a two-year battle with cancer at his home in Battle Creek. He was survived by his mother, Marie Walker, nine sons, four daughters, and two stepdaughters. Not long before his death, Walter had recently returned from a tour with the Temptations, the Four Tops, and other Motown stars. "When he got back, he had lost the strength in his legs," Woods told the Los Angeles Times. "He never really came back to where he could walk again." Fortunately, Walker's influence is very much alive today through the brash playing of saxophonists like Maceo Parker and Clarence Clemons. "Junior Walker and King Curtis were the two biggest influences on me," Clemons informed Geoffrey Himes of Rolling Stone. "All those jazz cats were just too abstract for me; Junior was more animated, and he got straight to the point. He knew it wasn't how many notes you play but what each note says--quality, not quantity."

by Laura Hightower

Junior Walker's Career

Started playing in jazz-influenced R&B bands as a teen in South Bend, IN, and St. Louis, MO; moved to Battle Creek, MI, and assembled Junior Walker and the All Stars, late-1950s; signed with Harvey Records, early-1960s; signed to Soul/Motown Records, 1963; released first hit, "Shotgun," 1965; released classic song "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and Soul Session album, 1966; released Rainbow Funk, 1971; released Peace and Understanding, 1973; played saxophone on Foreigner's hit "Urgent," 1981; toured with the All Stars into the 1990s until his death.

Junior Walker's Awards

Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 10 years ago

Nothing could take the edge out of a room like Junior`s Saxaphone... It blew mellow and peaceful riffs across the room. We miss you Junior and your soulful sax..keep the peace my brother. :)