this article first appeared in the Chord
Walker, Soul Survivor
By Mike Elias
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.
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 every where, 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 didnt 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.
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.
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
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."
It's not the ethics of the practice that I want to debate, it's the
organic approach to music. It was a quality apparent in Soul music.
With the combination of feeling out a song and building it up from
Gospel roots, you couldn't come away with anything but the honesty
of Soul. It's approached quite differently nowadays.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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. In the recent past he had
been a vocalist for the band Checkers, has worked with Canoise with
whom he has a new CD in the works and can be heard on occasions with
The Butanes. In fact, Walker will be performing with the Butanes on
June 6th and June 20th at Famous Dave's in Uptown, 3001 Hennepin Avenue
South, Minneapolis. For further information, go to:
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.