(He's A) Road Runner
FREDDY COUSAERT RECALLS ANOTHER MOTOWN STAR, DRAWN TO EUROPE
As Motown celebrates its birthday, commerce and convention dictate that the biggest stars will snaffle the most attention, like Diana Ross with her first-ever appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May, and the Temptations with the Broadway debut of Ain’t Too Proud in March.
There’s also the Michael Jackson musical, Don’t Stop ’Till You Get Enough, due to open in Chicago in October, as reported in Billboard. And Marvin Gaye’s name is sure to stay in the news via the latest copyright infringement action against Ed Sheeran – the queue forms to the right – which, on this occasion, is from the estate of Ed Townsend over “Let’s Get It On.”
By contrast, the legacy of Jr. Walker & the All Stars will likely be lost amid the fuss.
To be fair, Smokey Robinson is stirring some excitement in Walker’s hometown. On April 6, he will serenade an audience at the Firekeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Michigan. That city is where Walker lived for many of his 64 years, and where he and his band were first noticed by singer Johnny Bristol. “I didn’t discover them, we used to sing in the same club,” Bristol admonished me, once. “Jackey [Beavers] and I sang on weekends, and Junior was the band for the club.” That, of course, was the El Grotto Lounge, otherwise known as the Bloody Corner.
Bristol’s role in Walker’s story is familiar, and Johnny talked about it more than Junior ever did. The Selmer Mark 6 saxman was too busy on the road, playing for customers, collecting his fee, prepping for the next show, tuning up his crooked horn. “I said, ‘Buy yourself a shotgun now’…”
Walker always blew the house down, but he was seldom fashionable – although there’s no better description for one performance, at Brian Epstein’s Saville Theatre in London on October 15, 1967. Those “Sundays at the Saville” were just about the coolest gigs in Christendom, and the Bard of Battle Creek, with his All Stars, rocked the house in between the Jimi Hendrix Experience the previous weekend and the Who seven days later. London’s glitterati turned out in force. Eight nights later, the band played another show in the English capital, this one at the Ram Jam Club, for which some exciting film footage exists.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MOVIE?
The following summer, Walker and the All Stars set off on a three-week U.K. tour, then played dates in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. (Melody Maker reported plans for an American-financed TV documentary about the band, although whatever became of that isn’t known. The Ram Jam footage may have been part of the venture.) Anyway, their excursion to mainland Europe brings into focus the reason for this particular blog, about the late Belgian concert promoter Freddy Cousaert, who worked with Walker in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Junior’s way was simply to get it done,” he told me after the musician’s death in late 1995. “He had no star mentality, he didn’t like to give interviews, he felt he had nothing to say. He couldn’t sit still.”
Cousaert, of course, is best known for helping a drug-addicted, desolate Marvin Gaye back from the brink. An admirer of American blues and R&B, as well as a former club DJ, Cousaert met the singer in London in 1980. They bonded, and the Belgian persuaded Gaye to find tranquility in Ostend, across the English channel. “When Marvin said to me that he loved the sea,” he told Divided Soul author David Ritz, “I knew that he would come home to live with us.”
Ritz noted that Cousaert, who had once served as a publicist for Muhammad Ali in Europe, physically resembled another boxer, Ingemar Johansson. But he was an important figure, too, in the DJ-led “popcorn” dance scene in Belgium, devoted to obscure American soul records of the ’60s, not unlike Britain’s “Northern Soul” realm.
“Junior was the first artist I worked with after Marvin,” said Cousaert. “On one occasion, I was with Marvin in London and we saw posters of Junior playing there. I said, ‘We should have him over to Belgium.’ ” That’s what transpired, successfully. “He was the complete opposite of Marvin, very strong, and he lived up to the name of ‘road runner.’ But he couldn’t refuse money, he didn’t plan his career.”
Walker took life one day at a time. “I was trying to tell him that he could have been as big as James Brown. He was singing just as well, and he could play that horn, but he preferred the quick money. He would do ten gigs at, say, $3,000 apiece. He could have made it one gig and earned $30,000.”
‘YOU’RE JIVING, BUT I’M DRIVING’
The musician’s last tour for Cousaert saw him coupled with Rufus Thomas in 1993. “We put the two of them together, it was called ‘Motown Meets Stax.’ It was fantastic – two old troupers.” Naturally, the promoter’s most vivid memory of that excursion involved the road. “Junior was very much in love with France, and I had a six-cylinder Mercedes. He drove it, with Rufus sitting next to him.
“I was sitting in the back, with these two warriors driving between Holland and France. I said, ‘Hey, Junior, you’re going over 125 miles an hour.’ He said, ‘You’re jiving but I’m driving. I’m the road runner, you have to adapt to me.’ Months later, I received a speeding ticket.”
Whenever Walker performed in Europe, he brought assorted All Stars from home – no pick-up players for him, according to Cousaert. “He always had good musicians behind him, and he was always on time. A four-piece band. In 1993, for the last time, I hired two girls to sing with him. It was magic.”
During that tour, Walker reported that he was building his own recording studio in Battle Creek. “But he was 20 years late with that, with what he wanted to do. We exchanged material, and I was going to make an album with him. We had recorded some stuff, and I was sending him new things. I wanted him to go in the direction of acid jazz.” That music stayed in the can, although Cousaert did produce an album with Rufus Thomas, released by Castle Communications’ Sequel label in 1996, entitled Blues Thang!
Towards the end, Walker sent a fax to his man in Europe. That was unusual: more often than not, Cousaert had to track the musician down in Battle Creek through his stepfather, Roosevelt, or his wife. “Junior told me that he had been in hospital for an operation on his kidneys, and they discovered a tumour.” The last time the two men talked was shortly before his death. “He called me in London, in the middle of the night. I knew the lights were going out.”
HERE COMES THE JUDGE
Cousaert concluded, “I’ve worked with many people: Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Isaac Hayes. I had ten years with Rufus Thomas. I have a perspective and I can judge. Working with Junior was unique.” And he said those words with love.
The promoter himself passed away in 1998, but time has validated his view about Walker’s talent and individuality. In the digital era, “Shotgun” and “(I’m A) Road Runner” remain highly popular; they are also steel-tipped proof that not everything from Motown was prim and proper, pretty and polished. Much more from the saxman’s catalogue ought to be available, but Derek DeWalt, for one, has been trying to sustain his father’s legacy.
In 2011, DeWalt published a biography, The Jr. Walker Story: The Man Behind the Sax, co-authored with Kambon Obayani. “We were doing a show in California, and Kambon, who’s a ghost writer, told me I should write a book,” DeWalt recounted to a Michigan newspaper in 2013. “So we got together, finding some band members, and my mom told her story. Some of these people were 80 years old, and we had to track them down to get all these details about my father.” The book is currently out-of-print, but Derek has been involved with another project: Return of Jr. Walker, an album made available last summer on streaming services. This contains previously-unissued recordings – perhaps the material which Cousaert said they were working on together.
Compared to his peak, Walker’s voice sounds thinner, the sax breaks softer, but there’s something appealing about the “return.” If anything, most of the seven tracks – all written by Derek DeWalt – have an ’80s flavour, typified by “When Can I See You Again” and the infectious “I Go Where The Music Takes Me.” The album is also reminiscent of Walker on 1969’s “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).” For that session, Johnny Bristol had to convince him to dial down the voltage. “Yeah, Junior was a little hesitant,” he remembered. “He’s a real ‘Shotgun’ kinda guy, just yell it out. I said, ‘No, Junior, a little prettier, a little warmer.’ ”
Bristol was right. The result was a Top 5 triumph on the pop charts, and one more signature tune for Autry DeWalt, a/k/a Junior Walker. With luck, he’ll have his moment during Motown’s 2019 hoopla. Hey, maybe Smokey can try “What Does It Take” during his Battle Creek date, or Diana can sing it at the New Orleans festival. Junior sure had jazz in his veins – and his music is one hell of a heritage.
Music notes: there are four original Motown albums by Jr. Walker & the All Stars available on digital services, by my count, and a couple of compilations. It’s a shame the latter group doesn’t include Nothin’ But Soul, which came out on CD in 1994, with excellent liner notes by the late Ben Edmonds, who interviewed Walker. It’s also arguable that Junior deserves better than four original albums on call: at the very least, there should 1971’s Moody Jr., which includes “Way Back Home” and “Walk In The Night.” Equally, his lone set for Whitfield Records, Back Street Boogie, doesn’t appear to be digitally available, whereas other albums on the label (by the Undisputed Truth, for example) are. The saxman’s pre-Motown tracks, meanwhile, have shown up on public domain albums in recent years. As for Return of Jr. Walker, this certainly has its moments, although as a digital release, there’s little information about the music and the players, or when and where the tracks were made (and embellished). For instance, there’s an additional voice joining Jr. on “New York City.” Nonetheless, the return of Junior, in whatever form, is welcome.