In March of 1965, Jr. Walker & The All Stars soared upwards on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Their leader’s gutbucket sax and shout-out vocals (the group’s debut hit was “Shotgun”) were a down-home, blues-and-rhythm counterpoint to the upwardly mobile, commercial polish that was shaping up as Motown’s 1960s trademark. Record buyers evidently liked the contrast, and Jr. and his traveling band lent credence to the name of the Motown subsidiary label under which their music was released: Soul.
- First hit: “Shotgun”
- Biggest hit: “Shotgun”
- Top album: Road Runner
- Career highlight: a lifetime on the road, and the induction of “Shotgun” into the Grammy® Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
- Autry DeWalt-Mixon is born in Blythesville, Arkansas in 1931. His stepfather, whose surname is Walker, gives him the nickname “Junior,” and the youngster is inspired to take up the saxophone by the jumping jive of alto genius Louis Jordan, whose seductive music he hears while growing up.
- A teenage Junior forms his first instrumental group, the Jumping Jacks, in South Bend, Indiana, with guitarist Willie Woods, organist Victor Thomas and drummer Tony Washington, all of whom start playing professionally together in small clubs.
- Renamed Jr. Walker & The All Stars, the band moves to Michigan after lining up an open-ended residency at the El Grotto, a nightclub in Battle Creek. Here, Junior develops into quite the showman, regularly raising the roof with his distinctive, shrieking sax. “When I got off into the R&B,” Junior tells author Bill Dahl, “I started makin’ a little money then!”
- Also performing at the El Grotto are Johnny Bristol, later a key Motown writer/producer, and Jackey Beavers. “Jackey and I sang on weekends,” explains Johnny, “and Junior’s was the band. The place was constantly packed. Junior could play blues, jazz, rock and definitely soul.” Bristol recommends the musician to Harvey Records, the label owned by Harvey Fuqua and Gwen Gordy. When the business is sold to Motown, Junior joins the Hitsville team.
- Junior unpacks “Shotgun” after “watching a couple of kids doing a different kind of dance in a club,” and tells Berry Gordy. The boss gets personally involved, co-producing the record with Lawrence Horn, and instructing Junior – who wasn’t initially going to sing, just blow his horn – to take the lead vocal. Drummer James Graves has joined the All Stars by this time, although the studio team helps out with “Shotgun.” The record’s opening gunfire is the compressed, echo of Funk Brothers Brother Eddie Willis kicking his amplifier.
- “Shotgun” is a massive hit in 1965, setting up Junior and the band to blow through the Billboard best-sellers for four straight years. The band’s Top 10 R&B singles include “Shake And Fingerpop,” “(I’m A) Road Runner” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” And, of course, the All Stars take to the highways and byways. “I guess [Junior] figured being in the studio was a gamble,” says Motown writer/producer kingpin Lamont Dozier, “and he needed to be out there on the road, picking up the money. That was a sure thing, right?”
- Later, the All Stars are handed a new recipe by their Battle Creek buddy Johnny Bristol: “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).” Walker is hesitant at first. “He’s a real ‘Shotgun’ kinda guy, just yell it out,” recalls Bristol. “I said, ‘No, Junior, a little prettier, a little warmer.’ And I sang harmony with him.” The outcome is the band’s biggest pop crossover since “Shotgun,” paving the way for an equally attractive sequence of hits: “These Eyes,” “Gotta Hold Onto This Feeling,” “Do You See My Love (For You Growing)” and “Take Me Girl, I’m Ready”.
- The hits are harder to come by as the ’70s unfold, but not the gigs. Junior continues to make records for Motown, then follows producer Norman Whitfield to his post-Hitsville label for a spell. A hard-blowin’ solo on Foreigner’s “Urgent” in 1981 marks a chart comeback for the Walker signature sax, and a return to Motown yields a new album, Blow The House Down. Junior always did.