John Walker: Singer with the Walker Brothers, whose fame briefly rivalled the Beatles’

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In 1964 three unrelated Americans, Scott Engel, John Maus and Gary Leeds became the Walker Brothers, and once settled in London had No 1 hits with "Make It Easy On Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". Their slow, cavernous, heavily orchestrated recordings were highly distinctive and Scott and John's voices merged together well. In 1965-66, Walkermania was not far behind Beatlemania.

John Maus was born into a Catholic household in New York City on 12 November 1943. His parents, both born in America, came from immigrant families – German on his father's side and Czech on his mother's. Shortly after the family moved to California in 1947, the young boy climbed on to a roof and fell off, cutting his chin open and leading to a permanent scar, but it didn't detract from his good looks.

As a teenager, Maus was acting and singing in TV plays. Indeed, he met Scott Engel when they had both small parts in Playhouse 90. Maus was featured in an Ovaltine commercial and acted in The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) and Missouri Traveller (1958).

When Maus was incapacitated with a sporting injury, his parents bought him a guitar and he practised every day. He formed a duo with his sister, Judy, and they recorded a single, "Who's To Say", in 1958. Following this, Maus recorded his own songs for a number of different labels, and his friend Ritchie Valens encouraged him to form his own band. Maus also gave guitar lessons to Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys and he joined the Stringalongs for a while, although he was disillusioned that a hit group should be backing strippers.

As Maus was under 21, he thought it would be useful to have a fake ID for when he was working in clubs. He went to Mexico for one and called himself John Paul Walker. Maus formed a band with Scott Engel, then playing bass for the Routers. When some session musicians had a hit with "Wipe Out" as the Surfaris, Maus and Walker knew there was no such band and toured under their name.

In 1964, Maus and Engel and a drummer Tiny Schneider backed Donnie Brooks who had had a hit with "Mission Bell" and they called themselves the Walker Brothers Trio. In 1964, Maus and Engel recorded "Pretty Girls Everywhere" for Nick Venet as the Walker Brothers and they appeared on Jack Good's US TV show, Shindig. Good was taken by the fact that they had long hair like the British groups: indeed, Maus was once arrested because the police thought he was Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones.

Good had arranged for an American singer, PJ Proby, to be launched in Britain and Gary Leeds accompanied him as his drummer. When Leeds returned to the States, he told Maus and Engel that everything was happening in London and he was confident they could make it there.

Just before they went to London, Maus and Engel made a second single for Nick Venet, which was a romantic ballad from the Brill Building, "Love Her". Venet wanted Engel, who had the deeper voice, to take the lead. This became the template for the Walker Brothers' sound and hiring Jack Nitzsche as the arranger indicated the debt owed to Phil Spector.

"Love Her" was released in the UK by Philips in April 1965 and it became a Top 20 hit. The Philips producer, Johnny Franz, set about developing this sound and he liked Maus's suggestion that they should sing a Burt Bacharach and Hal David song, "Make It Easy On Yourself", which had been recorded by Jerry Butler. This was followed by "My Ship Is Coming In" (on which Maus is scarcely featured) and a best-selling album, Take It Easy With The Walker Brothers, which included solo tracks from both Engel and Maus (notably "Dancing In The Street").

Gary Leeds was scarcely featured on the recordings but he was an important component in the look of the band. "It never bothered Gary," Maus told me in 2002, "He was always happy and he had a great fan following."

In 1963, Maus had met Kathy Young, who had a US hit with "A Thousand Stars", and they married two years later. They settled in London and the marriage was soon public knowledge. Their relationship was often strained as Maus found that many fans were competing for his attention.

In 1966, the Walker Brothers took "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" to No 1. It was originally recorded by Frankie Valli and Maus commented, "Frankie Valli made a good record, but he didn't see what it could have been. It was a wonderful song but because of its range, it really needed two vocalists. Scott sang lead on the verses and then swapped to harmony for the chorus." The record became infamous as it was playing on the jukebox when Ronnie Kray burst into The Blind Beggar to shoot George Cornell.

When their work permits expired, the Walker Brothers had to leave the UK. They had had two moderate hits in America and the obvious move would have been to head home for TV and tour dates. However, Engel felt that he might be drafted to Vietnam and so they toured Europe instead.

They made two further albums,Portrait (1966) and Images (1967), but Maus felt that Johnny Franz was trying to split the group. He had encouraged Dusty Springfield to leave the Springfields and he wanted to make solo records with Scott Walker. Indeed, one of the best-selling EPs in 1966 was Solo John, Solo Scott on which John sings an excellent "Come Rain Or Come Shine".

In 1967, the Walker Brothers toured the UK in an unlikely but highly successful package that featured Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck. However, the Walker Brothers were winding down, and apart from tour dates in Japan in 1968 it was all but over. Maus had a solo hit with "Annabella", written by Graham Nash, and although they weren't successful, he recorded a couple of singles, produced by Engel. He released the solo albums If You Go Away (1967) and This Is John Walker (1969).

In 1975 the Walker Brothers reformed for Dick Leahy at GTO Records and Leahy suggested that that they gave their big treatment to Tom Rush's song, "No Regrets". It worked perfectly and they made three albums, No Regrets, Lines and Nite Flights. However, it was clear that they were moving from the commercial mainstream.

Maus was divorced in 1968 but he had a son with his second marriage and a daughter from his third. In 1986, at the request of Dave Dee, he began singing the Walker Brothers' hits on oldies shows. In time, he became an important component of the Solid Silver Sixties tours and although he was effectively singing Engel's parts, he was doing it extremely well. Assisted by his fourth wife, Cynthia, he sold his solo albums, You (2000) and Just For You (2007) at shows, but of course record stores preferred to stock the latest hits compilation from the Walker Brothers.

In 2009, he and Gary Leeds wrote The Walker Brothers – No Regrets:Our Story and despite the clumsy title it was a well-written book about life in the '60s. Maus comes over as a good-natured, humorous man, and this was confirmed whenever I met him back stage.

John Joseph Maus (John Walker), singer and guitarist: born New York City 12 November 1943; married four times (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 7 May 2011.