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Obituary: Junior Walker

The saxophone doesn't feature enough in popular music. Too often, it has become synonymous with the bland doodlings of Kenny G or been buried in a horn section used to punctuate chord changes. Junior Walker, the American tenor sax player, was one of the prime exponents of the instrument in all its rasping glory. His playing on Motown classics like "Shotgun", "(I'm A) Roadrunner" and "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)" as well as Foreigner's "Urgent" straddled genres and decades and can still be heard on Gold stations the world over. At various times, he worked with partners whose musical roots went all the way back to the birth of rock 'n' roll itself.

Born Autry DeWalt II in 1942 in Blythesville, Arkansas, the saxophonist was nicknamed Junior by his stepfather, whose name was Walker. When he turned professional in 1962, he took up the stage name of Junior Walker while still signing his compositions with the DeWalt monicker.

Walker's honking, hard- driving style was heavily influenced by Earl Bostic, a Lionel Hampton sideman and one of the early exponents of the R&B and jazz crossover genre. In the late Fifties, Walker met up with the guitarist Willie Wood in the South Bend area of Indiana and formed the band Jumping Jacks. In 1961, an over-excited fan jumped on stage in Battle Creek, Michigan, and shouted "These guys are all stars." The name stuck and Walker's band (also including Vic Thomas on keyboards and James Graves on drums as well as Woods) became the All Stars.

The arranger, writer and producer Johnny Bristol (later to have a disco hit in 1974 with "Hang On In There Baby") heard the group in a club and brought it to the attention of his then partner Harvey Fuqua. The former Moonglows singer (he wrote the doo-wop classic "Sincerely" with Alan Freed, the DJ who invented the expression "rock 'n' roll") had formed the Harvey and Tri-Phi labels and moved to Detroit to promote the career of Marvin Gaye. Junior Walker and the All Stars followed him there and three singles (including the rousing "Brainwasher" and the catchy "Twistlackawanna") later, when Berry Gordy took over his future brother-in-law's ailing labels, they were transferred to the Soul imprint and became part of the Motown factory.

Detroit was the place to be for black musicians in the mid-Sixties and Junior Walker was keen to join label-mates like the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Supremes in the charts. In 1965, while playing a gig in Benton Harbor, Michigan, he spotted two teenagers doing an unusual dance they called the Shotgun: Walker went back to his motel room, penned an infectious tune he simply called "Shotgun" and recorded it as soon as he was back in Detroit. The track got the thumbs-up at one of Berry Gordy's legendary playback meetings, came out in March and shot up the R&B charts, crossing over to Billboard's Hot 100 where it eventually reached no 4, selling over a million copies.

Never one to give up on a successful trend, Junior came up with an impressive series of follow-up singles including "Do the Boomerang", "Shake and Fingerpop", the jazzier "Cleo's Back" and "Cleo's Mood". After charting in 1966 with an irresistible cover of Bo Diddley's "(I'm A) Roadrunner" (a British hit three years later) Walker changed tack slightly. Under the guidance of Johnny Bristol, he adapted recent Motown hits and brought them back to the charts in his own inimitable and mostly instrumental style: a revival of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" was followed by versions of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" and the Supremes' "Come See About Me". Junior Walker and the All Stars were soon becoming Motown's answer to Stax's Booker T & the MGs.

All that was to change in 1969 with the release of the distinctive "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)", which combined a bravura performance from Walker on vocals and saxophone. Another million-seller and voted Top US Soul Record of 1969, this song featured an extended intro and solo which were to influence the work of the jazzman David Sanborn, Bruce Springsteen's sideman Clarence Clemons and the Rolling Stones guest saxophonist Bobby Keyes throughout the rest of the Seventies.

It was no doubt with this performance in mind that the British producer Robert "Mutt" Lange (Boomtown Rats, the Cars, Def Leppard) called upon the services of Walker when producing Foreigner's 4 in 1981. Walker's compelling playing propelled the band's "Urgent" to no 4 and helped the album become a best-seller. It also introduced the saxophonist to a whole generation of AOR (adult-orientated-rock) fans. The Seventies had seen Walker's style mellow somewhat on British hits like "Walk in the Night", "Take Me Girl I'm Ready" and "Way Back Home". He would even play around with Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" and Wings' "My Love".

Walker, who had become something of a senior figure on the soul and the cabaret circuit, left Motown in 1978 but returned briefly to the fold five years later for Blow the House Down, an album which included his own take on Foreigner's "Urgent". He was still gigging in the Nineties with a line-up of the All Stars which included his son, Autry DeWalt III, on drums. Walker had even taken part in a Motown revival package tour with the Four Tops and the Temptations. Jimmy Vivino, who recently opened for Junior Walker at Bottom Line in New York, summed it all up when he declared, "There isn't a sax player out there who didn't get something from him."

Pierre Perrone

Autry DeWalt (Junior Walker), saxophonist, singer, bandleader: born Blythesville, Arkansas 1942; married (11 children); died Battle Creek, Michigan 23 November 1995.