Junior Walker was born Autrey de Walt Jr. in Blytheville, Arkansas, in 1931, and was a teenager in South Bend, Indiana when he began playing sax.
He formed a band called The Allstars and moved them first to St Louis and then to Battle Creek, Michigan. There they were signed to ex-Moonglows Harvey Fuqua’s Harvey Records and released three singles.
The sound – blustery, honking sax riffs over funky rhythm tracks – and the line-up (Walker, organist Vic Thomas, guitarist Willie Woods and drummer James Graves) were already in place on those early singles.
When Motown bought out Harvey Records, it inherited Walker, who didn’t quite fit in with ‘the sound of young America’.
Nevertheless, when Walker said he had written a song to go with ‘the shotgun’ (a popular new dance in Michigan) Motown sent him into the studio. When the assigned vocalist didn’t show up, Walker was forced to sing on record for the first time.
In the wake of the success of Shotgun (1965), he and the Allstars started turning out similar singles, with growling chants, vibrato-laden sax and funky dance beats. Walker had numerous R&B and pop hits with songs like Do The Boomerang, I’m A Road Runner, Pucker Up Buttercup and These Eyes.
Every record sounded like a party in full swing, and Motown actually added background party noises to Walker’s versions of How Sweet It Is and Money (That’s What I Want).
When Holland, Dozier and Holland came to produce Walker at Motown, they discovered that Junior could only play his instrument in two keys so were faced with the dilemma, should he play in a key in which he couldn’t sing or sing in a key he couldn’t play?
The decision was taken to record the sax then change the speed of the tape to the required pitch, giving the whole recording a unique sound.
Walker’s second (and last) R&B chart-topper was 1969’s smooth crooner What Does It Take (To Win Your Love). The hits soon dried up, and the original Allstars broke up.
Walker made his last splash on record by playing the sax solo on Foreigner‘s 1981 hit, Urgent. He lost a two-year battle with cancer on 23 November 1995. He was 64.