Willie Walker, Soul Survivor
Sometime in 1968, Willie Walker, sometimes known as Wee Willie Walker, recorded his final tracks for Goldwax Records. Goldwax was once the home of one of the premier Soul singers of all, James Carr, as well as Spencer Wiggins, Louis Williams and the Ovations and a host of others. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Walker had laid down nine sides for the Memphis based company. That’s an odd number, which makes me want to believe there’s at least one more side out there.
Throughout the time he recorded in Memphis, he lived in Minnesota, and still does. The circumstances surrounding it all are rather unique but not sensational; as many others‚ life stories would be. The most spectacular part of it all was his voice. That was Willie’s vehicle that took him everywhere, from churches to Jewish Community Centers, from Sam Phillips‚ Studio to Rick Hall’s Fame Studio, and from Memphis to Minneapolis and back to Memphis.
Willie spoke of travelling in a Cadillac in the mid-to-late 1950’s with a Gospel group called the Redemption Harmonizers. (One incarnation of the Harmonizers included, Roosevelt Jamison, the author of the Soul standard “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and also a song Willie recorded, “There Goes My Used To Be,” which is now available on The Goldwax Story Volume 1. Kent 203) An early photo of Willie with the group shows him then as a 15 year-old in the matching suit flair of Gospel performers with a pencil-drawn moustache. The fake moustache was the only dishonesty I could find about the man and it’s that honesty that distinguishes Willie’s brand of Soul.
Even when I asked him his age, he clarified the slightest discrepancy. He said he was born in Hernando, Mississippi in 1941, even though he wasn’t really from there. He arrived while his mother was visiting her mother on December 21st. What he later found out when relocating to Minnesota and gathering his birth records, the state had his birth date listed as December 23rd, which was probably the date it was filed. Willie said, “It’s the 21st though. I always believe my mother.”
Willie relocated from Memphis to Minneapolis in 1960. The Redemption Harmonizers‚ tour had brought him this far North a couple of times and he told his band mates that upon their next visit to Minneapolis, he was going to stay there. A fellow Harmonizer who had family in Minneapolis defected with Willie at that time and since then Willie Walker has lived in Minnesota. His Minnesota connection was a member of another Gospel group, the Royal Jubileers and Willie found a home amongst them.
He first ventured into secular music when he met a man named Timothy Eason in a laundry mat. Tim said Willie looked like a guy who could sing and introduced him to his business partner, Jimmy Crittenden. Tim was also a friend of Dick Shapiro who was starting Central Booking. The band, the Val-Dons formed in a merger of Willie and some of his vocalist friends along with a group of musicians headed by local legend Willie Murphy. They were once described as “Little Richard meets the El Dorado’s.” Dick Shapiro had them booked into Jewish Community Centers all around the Twin Cities.
Willie did have some bouts with being homesick. He stated that his decision to live here was based on a summertime impression. He said it was pride that kept him here. He didn‚t want to hear the “I told you so’s” from his old runnin’ buddies back in Memphis. Pride did not stop him from visiting though. It was on a trip back to Memphis in 1965 that Willie recorded his first track for Goldwax.
Willie said, “recording in Memphis was like getting a job. It was all about who you knew on the inside.” And the Goldwax roster was laden with musicians rooted in Gospel, just like Willie. He signed a contract with the label owners; Quinton Claunch and Doc Russell where the fruits of his labor were rewarded with some free airline accommodations between Minneapolis and Memphis. There were no hotel accommodations included in the package. Willie used to stay with his old friends, usually Roosevelt Jamison or George Jackson.
George Jackson was a prolific songwriter, lending his talents to such hits as Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Makin’ Love,” Clarence Carter’s “Too Weak To Fight” and even Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll.” But Willie said George wasn’t getting his proper respect at Goldwax, claiming Claunch was squeezing Jackson. Walker claimed that Jackson sometimes would put up the money for studio time. Willie said, “You see, the people needed money. That’s what it was about. People would sell songs to people like Quinton Claunch for $35.00.”
Hence that’s how Quinton got his songwriting credits. Willie added, “Sometime, I’d go into the studio and Quinton would hand me a poem on a piece of paper. I’d start singin’ it, making it up (the melody) in my head and the band would put in the changes. On the record it said the song was written by him.”
If you haven’t guessed by now, Willie never saw a royalty check from Goldwax. Goldwax did supply him with boxes of 45’s when he returned to Minneapolis. Willie would then distribute them to the local record shop selling Soul music. But instead of sending Willie more singles to sell, when the music stores ran out of them, they ordered them from Goldwax, cutting out the middle-man, in this case, the artist himself.
It was quite the grass roots approach in music distribution considering Goldwax had a deal with Amy / Mala / Bell Records for distribution too. Also, Goldwax leased two singles to Checker Records. Checker, a subsidiary of Chess, a label synonymous with Chicago Blues was making a foray into southern soul, working with the musicians around Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Checker had released albums recorded by Etta James, Irma Thomas and other Soul singers backed by the Rick Hall’s funky conglomerate at Fame Studios.
Willie’s single “A Lucky Loser” b/w “Warm To Cool To Cold” (Checker 1211, 1968) did get some attention from noted Nashville Disc Jockey and hit maker, John Richbourg, a.k.a. John R. As the story goes, Willie got a call at his home from John R. and he asked Willie to introduce his new single on WLAC in Nashville. Willie thought it was a prank so when it came time to introduce the number, Willie said in reference to the moment, “I just started cussin’ and click went the phone.”
Another brush with the big time came when Willie was performing with a group called the Exciters (not the Exciters of “Tell Him” notoriety.) Through a connection Willie and his music were introduced to Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield wanted Walker to join the “Mayfield Family” but Willie was still under contract with Goldwax. When hearing that Mayfield was interested in Walker, Claunch set the buyout price of Walker’s contract at a mighty steep price, a price too high for Mayfield.
But Willie still persevered. Back in Minnesota, Willie found an old contact in Willie Murphy and became the original singer of Willie & The Bees. Walker and Murphy shared a past in the Val-Dons. After Willie and the Bees, there was Salt, Pepper and Spice, a Blood Sweat & Tears / Chicago-type horn band in the seventies.
Most recently, Willie has collaborated with the legendary Twin Cities-based soul/blues/R & B powerhouse The Butanes. Together, they recorded three highly acclaimed modern soul records and toured the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan. He also fronts his own R & B unit, Willie Walker and We “R” with whom he has a monthly residency at the Minnesota Music Café in St. Paul. Willie has also partnered up with Minnesota’s own Paul Metsa, renowned singer, songwriter, author and teller of tales. It’s just Paul’s guitar work and Willie’s voice interpreting everything from “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “My Girl” to “What A Wonderful World” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.”
Walker’s music comes from a different time, a different place and a different point of view. He’s one of the few vocalists from the era that is still standing and that can still sing. And the fact that we’re north of Chicago, there aren’t many people in this town that has a past like Walker. Willie, it’s good to have you in town.
In one of the most amazing and powerful music stories of the past year, under-recognized classic soul blues singer Wee Willie Walker, who was previously best-remembered for a few 1960s obscure singles for Goldwax and Chess Records, released a new album, If Nothing Ever Changes, which has captured the hearts and minds of blues and soul music fans around the world. That led to his being nominated in three major categories by the Blues Foundation for the upcoming Blues Music Awards, to be held in Memphis on May 5: Album of the Year, Soul Blues Album and Soul Blues Male Artist. Members of the Blues Foundation can vote at www.blues.org, with voting open until the end of February.
When Blues Music Magazine recently announced their Top 10 Picks for 2015 from six of its editors, four of the six – including Editor-in-Chief Art Tipaldi – featured Wee Willie Walker’s CD on their lists. Additionally, the nationally-syndicated radio show, “Elwood’s Bluesmobile,” has chosen Wee Willie Walker’s track, “Hands of Time” as Elwood’s Blues Breaker to air the weekend of February 20-21.
The catalyst for the recording of If Nothing Ever Changes came when multi-Blues Music Award-winning singer/harmonica player Rick Estrin was introduced to Walker by Willie’s manager, Julia Schroeder, and instantly realized that this was the voice he’d remembered from hearing on some Goldwax and Chess 45s in his collection. And when Estrin heard how strong and vibrant Walker’s vocals still were, the idea was hatched, along with all-star guitarist Kid Andersen, to record a new album on Walker. During the sessions recorded with a host of A-list West Coast musicians, keyboard player Jim Pugh, himself a veteran of scores of major blues and roots recordings (Robert Cray, B.B. King, Etta James) and live dates (Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton), mentioned his idea of creating the Little Village Foundation to record artists such as Walker. As Estrin then states in the album liner notes, “We found our platform for launching this record into the world. All we wanted to do was to make music with Willie, and do what WE could to get him heard in the setting he deserves. Nobody was thinking about getting paid, it was all for the common love of this beautiful and near extinct music.”
Willie Walker was a member of the gospel group the Redemption Harmonizers when he left Memphis and headed to Minneapolis in 1960. With the Twin Cities having been his base of operations since then, Walker proceeded to work with a number of area gospel groups, before subsequent visits back to Memphis in the ‘60s landed him recording dates with Goldwax Records. He cut nine sides for Goldwax, which released some on their imprint and also leased four of them to Chess Records subsidiary, Check Records. Some of his singles included “You Name It, I’ve Had It” and “From Warm, to Cool, to Cold,” which were recognized as gems of soul music, but not widely released and known only to true music aficionados.
Before recording his latest album, Walker had recorded three albums over the past 10 years backed by hot local Twin Cities soul/R&B band The Butanes, which though with limited distribution and publicity, still garnered critical acclaim and kept Walker and the band busy playing local and regional dates.
If Nothing Ever Changes, his Little Village label debut, brings Willie Walker to the forefront with the support of some marquee names of West Coast blues and soul serving as his backing band. Walker described the resulting recording sessions as a “houseful of love. I didn’t know them, but they all knew me and immediately we were like family,” he recalls. With Estrin producing and Kid at the helm, the artists assembled for the sessions represent some of the strongest talent of today’s West Coast Blues scene: Jim Pugh – keyboard player and founder of the Little Village Foundation; Rusty Zinn – a guitarist whose resume includes recordings with Kim Wilson and Sly Dunbar; Robert Welsh, guitarist with Elvin Bishop; bassist Randy Bermudes of The Fabulous Thunderbirds and, vocalist Curtis Salgado, whose group The Nighthawks inspired John Belushi to create the Blues Brothers – just to name a few.
Since the release of If Nothing Ever Changes, Walker has performed on shows in the Twin Cities area and Midwest, as well as festival dates such as the prestigious Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon and an overseas tour in Spain.
About the Little Village Foundation
What We Do: We bring music from next door to the world
How We Do It: By searching out, discovering, recording and producing music that wouldn’t otherwise be heard
Why We Do It: Diverse music builds empathy