Blowin’ the house down.
- When this photograph was taken in late 1965, Jr. Walker (born Autry DeWalt) was having the time of his life – and judging from his pose inside Motown’s Studio A, he was determined to enjoy it. After an early career of relative obscurity, the sax man and his band, the All Stars, blew the doors down with a Top 5 crossover success (“Shotgun”) on the Billboard Hot 100 during the spring, followed by a Number One album on the R&B charts in the summer, and a relentless run of appearances on national TV shows, including Where The Action Is, Hullabaloo and Shindig. To close out the year, Walker and the band were booked into Detroit’s Fox Theater as part of the Motown Christmas show, in the company of the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
- All things considered, it’s remarkable that Jr. stood still long enough to have this photo taken – and for whatever reason, Motown decided against putting a shot of the band on the front of their Shotgun album, released in May 1965. There was, however, a portrait of the quartet on the back, displaying Walker with guitarist Willie Woods, keyboards player Vic Thomas and drummer James Graves. Then they were back on the road. “I guess [Jr.] figured being in the studio was a gamble,” recalled Lamont Dozier, who helped create one of the band’s biggest hits, “(I’m A) Road Runner,” the following year, “and he needed to be out there on the road, picking up the money. That was a sure thing, right? He could see it in his hand, not like waiting six months for a royalty check.”
- Walker had journeyed to Motown Records by way of Battle Creek, Michigan, about 120 miles north of Detroit. He and his band were resident there at the El Grotto Club, where Johnny Bristol – later to become an important writer/producer at Hitsville – sang with partner Jackey Beavers. “It was incredible,” said Bristol, years later. “Jr. could play the blues, he could play jazz, rock and definitely soul.” Both Bristol and Walker went on to sign with Harvey Fuqua’s Harvey/Tri-Phi labels. When Fuqua sold his business to Berry Gordy in 1963, the saxophone player joined the larger company. “Shotgun” was the first major hit for Soul, a new label Gordy had formed and introduced in 1964.
- From the same photo shoot as the image above came another, similar shot – with Walker wailing, a black sax-strap wrapped around his neck – and it was used on the cover of the All Stars’ second album, Soul Session. There, the musician was front and center, with Woods, Thomas and Graves featured on the back, with all of them blowin’ up a storm on the record. Design credits for Soul Session were minimal, with only Horace Junior named (it’s not clear whether he also took the photos). The head of Motown’s art department at the time was Bernie Yeszin, who used several freelance photographers. But even after the hits, Jr. Walker’s appearance on the front of his albums was not guaranteed. The band’s next album, Road Runner, featured a front-cover cartoon illustration similar to the Looney Tunes “character” of that name – out there on the road, perhaps, picking up the money.