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Posts Tagged ‘Junior Walker’

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

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Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” was Jr. Walker’s second chart-topper and first since 1965’s “Shotgun,” but the two songs couldn’t have been more different. While “Shotgun” was a raw roadhouse rumble with the horn dominating the vocals, “What Does It Take” was a smooth love song designed to drive traffic to the bedroom.

Although Walker penned many of the All Stars’ best numbers, like “Shake and Fingerpop,” “Hip City” and “Last Call,” he handed the reigns over to the songwriting and production duo of Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol in a bid for greater pop success in the late ‘60s.

On paper it looked like a solid decision. Fuqua and Bristol were trusted entities. The latter discovered Walker, and the former gave Walker his first record deal. When Fuqua’s Harvey Records were purchased by Motown, Fuqua, Bristol and Walker became part of the Hitsville family.

While Fuqua and Bristol were successful in taking Walker back to the top of the charts, they did it by depriving Walker of his signature sound. The great saxophone that propelled so many All Stars singles was relegated to anonymous responses that could have been handled by any session player. Walker has overcome his initial microphone shyness to deliver a credible vocal, but his delivery his hardly distinct. All the right elements may be in place, but the product is competently forgettable.

Any thoughts that Walker strayed too far from the sound that made him great are reinforced by Kenny G’s 1986 cover featuring Bristol on lead vocals.

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Jr. Walker and the All Stars – “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” Pop #18, R&B #3

By Joel Francis

Because he owned both the label and its publishing, it’s no surprise that Berry Gordy frequently had other label artists cut versions of earlier Motown hits. While there are several notable exceptions, for the most part these covers are either curiosities or album filler.

Jr. Walker, however, broke out of the mold with his reading of Marvin Gaye’s 1964, Top 5 hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” After an extended saxophone intro, Walker puts down his horn. He has clearly overcome the microphone shyness that plagued him during the recording of his breakthrough hit “Shotgun.” Walking in Gaye’s shoes is no small feat, but Walker’s voice credibly handles the soulful, demanding melody.

While Gaye’s version was slick, joyous anthem, Walker’s is a little seedier – and all the better for it. Producer Harvey Fuqua, who signed Walker and changed his band name from the “Rhythm Rockers” to the “All Stars” in 1961, gave the song a faux-live feel that makes it sound like it was captured in a Southern roadhouse. The purposefully ragged backing vocals are more like enthusiastic audience intrusions. Close your eyes and you can smell alcohol and cigarette smoke while listening.

Others have covered this number since Gaye and Walker, of course, but a moratorium should have been placed after this interpretation. Finally, it should be noted that the year after he recorded “How Sweet It Is,” Walker memorably stole “Come See About Me” from the Supremes – no small feat – with his 1967 cover.

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Jr. Walker and the All-Stars – “(I’m A) Roadrunner,” Pop #20, R&B# 4

Not to be confused with similarly titled hit by Bo Diddley, or the great pre-punk anthem by the Modern Lovers, this “Roadrunner” is a pure Holland-Dozier-Holland confection. Jr. Walker has clearly overcome his earlier trepidation with the microphone to confidently deliver this paean to the open road. Answering his vocals with stinging sax lines, Walker proves to be his own best all-star. The elastic guitar lines show Shorty Long’s blues influence on the label, while the organ buried in the mix is the subtle glue that keeps the performance together.

The song isn’t even in the Top 5 of Walker’s biggest hits, but it’s held up better than better-charting songs like “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”

Walker’s ’60s sax rival King Curtis was the first to cover the song, but the enduring number was also covered by a post-Peter Green, pre-Lindsey Buckingham Fleetwood Mac, Jerry Garcia, Humble Pie, Peter Frampton and, most recently, James Taylor in 2008. – by Joel Francis

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Junior Walker and the All-Stars – “Shotgun,” Pop #4, R&B #1

Motown raided the juke joints for Junior Walker’s biggest hit. The song is propelled by Victor Thomas’s Hammond organ as much as Walker’s sax, and is closer to the Southern styling of Booker T. and the MGs and King Curtis than the Motown sound.

At the time, Walker was better-known for his playing than his singing. Initially, a studio singer was booked to sing Walker’s response to the fad dances of the time, like “The Jerk” and “The Watusi.” When the singer failed to arrive, Walker reluctantly stepped behind the mic to cut what he thought would be a guide vocal. Producer Berry Gordy prevailed on Walker to leave the track as-is. Gordy’s judgement was accurate, as the song shot to the top of the chart and inspired several similar singles, including Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew.”

Walker’s quartet is rounded out by the sharp guitar punctuation of Willie Woods and the solid backbeat from drummer Benny Benjamin. – by Joel Francis

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