Everything’s happening at once right now for Wee Willie Walker, and it’s all good.
The diminutive soul singer with the huge pipes just scored no less than five Blues Music Award nominations for his 2017 CD After A While with Bay Area guitarist Anthony Paule’s Soul Orchestra on the Blue Dot label, further accelerating his rapid rise to much-overdue stardom. The nominations included Vocalist of the Year and Soul Blues Artist of the Year.
“I don’t have words,” marvels the Minneapolis-based Walker. “I’ve been overwhelmed with that.”
The disc opens with two gorgeous originals, “Second Chance” and the title track, both written by the prolific Christine Vitale. “Thanks For The Dance,” another of her contributions, recalls the seductive sway of early ‘60s-era Drifters. Particularly potent is the heartfelt “Hate Take A Holiday,” co-written by Walker, his brother-in-law Eugene Williams, and Paule. “My brother-in-law and I, over 30 years ago, were contemplating doing a song and calling it ‘Hate Take A Holiday,’” says Willie. “We did a demo over 30 years ago and couldn’t get it out. And when we decided to do this CD, I thought it would be a perfect time to bring it back to the surface.” Willie co-penned the moving “Cannot Be Denied” with Paule and Vitale. “I love that one. That kind of struck a nerve in me. It has a bit of my life story mixed in,” says Walker. “She’s a heck of a writer. Most of what I did was try to help form the material.”
Willie didn’t forget about blues on the set, offering an elegant revival of Lil Green’s “Romance In the Dark.” “I really like the way that one came out,” he says. “That was pretty much my idea. We were playing some covers and I heard it, and I said, ‘Hey, that’s me!’” Walker also pulled out a faithful treatment of Little Willie John’s storming “Look What You’ve Done To Me” and teamed with Terrie Odabi to revisit Otis Redding and Carla Thomas’ sassy duet treatment of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” Walker first crossed paths with Paule three years ago at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy. “It was just something that happened there. We just kind of locked into each other,” says Willie. “We decided to do some work together and try to put together a CD. And we did.”
Willie first resurfaced on a national scale in 2015 with his stunning CD If Nothing Ever Changes, produced by harpist Rick Estrin and guitarist Kid Andersen and released under the Little Village Foundation banner. “A friend of mine brought Rick to a club where I was doing a duo here in town,” says Walker. “He was a fan of mine from years ago. He’s got all my Goldwax material. And when he came, he didn’t like the guitar player that I was working with. He was like, ‘This just ain’t right!’ He decided he was going to do something to get me out of there.”
That commitment intensified when a vacationing Walker ran into Estrin on a blues cruise. “I was just on the cruise enjoying the whole atmosphere,” says Willie. “He asked me on the blues cruise if I would come to San Jose and record with them. And that was that first CD we did together, If Nothing Ever Changes. That was the go-getter. It opened a lot of doors.” The title track was conceived by Walker’s keyboardist friend, Bruce Pedalty. “We were just sitting in his basement, and he was messing with that. He said, ‘You know, this is kind of a Bobby Bland type of song, but I really think it’ll fit you!’ And we put it together,” says Willie. “I remembered that one when we were doing the CD, and I thought, ‘I really should put that one there!” Another standout on the disc was Walker’s radical reworking of the Beatles’ “Help!.” “That was a lot of fun, trying to totally restructure that song to get what we got,” he says.
Widespread acclaim for If Nothing Ever Changes led to tours of Brazil, Spain, and Denmark. With Andersen and keyboardist Jim Pugh producing, Walker made a live recording that was issued by Little Village Foundation as Live! Notodden Blues Festival Norway. “Everybody knew that we were being recorded except me,” explains Walker. “I would have been nervous if I had known we were being recorded. I probably would have screwed up all the material! As it turned out, it worked great.”
A lot of Southern soul singers gravitated to 1960s Memphis in search of a recording contract. Willie took a different route, exiting the Bluff City to settle in Minneapolis—hardly a simmering rhythm and blues hotbed—before returning to Memphis long enough to make his first recordings. Walker was born in Hernando, Mississippi, but that was an accidental occurrence. “Memphis was home. My mom was visiting my grandparents,” he says. “I popped out to visit them as well!” Growing up in the LeMoyne Gardens projects in South Memphis (his schoolmates included future soul stars Spencer and Percy Wiggins and Louis Williams, who would embrace stardom as the Sam Cooke-influenced lead singer of the Ovations), Walker sang the hits of the day in a nearby park in his early teens.
“I got caught up in doowop. I can’t even remember the name of the group we had as kids in the project, but it was a darned good group,” he says. “We even tried running away. We tried to hop a freight train to try to go north to see if we could be heard. But that didn’t work out too well.” Nonetheless, their youthful harmonies caught the ear of someone that could do them some good. “The brother of one of the guys in the doowop group was playing guitar for the Redemption Harmonizers, and he brought them down to the park where we hung out every night and sang for the masses of the project. They loved our harmonies and thought this would really fit what they were trying to do,” says Willie. “They were trying to recruit members for their gospel group.
“That was an opportunity for us to be heard—not paid, but heard. So a couple of us joined the gospel group,” he says. “That was the beginning of my gospel career. And I loved every second of it.” But in May of 1959, when Willie was 17 years of age and already a veteran of the gospel circuit, he made his northern move. “Every summer we would travel together, the Redemption Harmonizers,” he says. “And they showed up in Minnesota once too often, because I fell in love with it the first time I got there. And when they brought it up again and asked everybody if they wanted to go back there, I told them, ‘Yes, I want to go back, and if you do go back, I’m not coming back to Memphis!’
“They didn’t believe me. But it was pre-planned, because one of the guys I was working with in the group, James Mabon, he was kind of like our leader, his dad lived in Minnesota. And I pre-arranged with his dad—I said, ‘I think I want to stay here!’ And he said, ‘Well, if you want to stay here, you’re already home!’ So I felt comfortable with making that decision because I met him and spent time with him before. They just took me in as part of the family. And they’re still my family!” Clarence Mabon, James’ father, sang bass with a Minnesota gospel group, the Royal Jubileers, so he knew the territory. Willie settled into his new environs with no particular urge to explore the secular side of the street until he met local musician Tim Eason–in a laundromat.
“Oh, my God—acoustics are so good in laundromats!” laughs Walker. “I’m washing my clothes, he’s washing his clothes. It was a weird incident. He just kept staring at me. I couldn’t understand this. And coming from Memphis, I’m ready to defend myself. But he just walked right up and said, ‘You look like you can sing!’ And I said, ‘Well, I do, a little.’ So we started harmonizing and singing some familiar songs that we knew. And he was like, ‘Wow!’ And he just ran out of the laundromat and he had a friend who sang who had a record store on the same corner, and he brought him back and we started doing three-part harmony. And it was like, ‘Wow! We can start the group now!’ They had been trying to start this group called the Valdons. Obviously they had had it before and it didn’t work, and they were trying to put it back together, and they thought, ‘Wow, we found the missing link!’ And it was a lot of fun doing that with them.” The Valdons soon added band members, including keyboardist Willie Murphy.
Eventually it came time for the prodigal son to return to his old Memphis stomping grounds for a long-overdue visit. “That was my first vacation that I chose to go back home,” he remembers. “It was my first opportunity to visit my family, because all my friends had told me that I’d be back in a few months. They said, ‘You’ll come back hungry! You won’t make it. You won’t make it.’ I said, ‘I’m not coming back here!’ So when I came back, I went back and in my idea, in my fashion, that I went back for them to see that I was looking just fine.”
One of Walker’s old running buddies, Roosevelt Jamison, had made it as a successful soul songwriter, penning classics for O.V. Wright and James Carr. Jamison and Walker’s friendship went back to Willie’s early Memphis days. “He was writing songs even then,” says Willie. “I was doing demos for him while we were in the gospel group, and he was trying to write songs for other people to sing.”
Jamison was now aligned with Quinton Claunch and Rudolph “Doc” Russell’s Goldwax Records, which was giving the more celebrated Memphis labels Stax and Hi a run for their money on the soul charts with a talent roster headed by James Carr, Spencer Wiggins, and the Ovations. Another of the company’s prolific songsmiths was George Jackson, who recorded for the firm with duet partner Dan Greer as George and Greer when he wasn’t churning out hit material for his labelmates. Doc’s nickname was no fluke. “He was a pharmacist, and he had the drugstore,” says Willie. “The drugstore was the business area for Goldwax. They had a room in the back of the drugstore with a piano.
“Roosevelt Jamison introduced me to George Jackson, and between the two of them they dragged me over to Goldwax so that Claunch and Russell could hear me,” says Willie. “I had three weeks of vacation time in Memphis, and they signed me to a contract that same day. And for that whole three weeks I was in the studio, trying to come up with some material to release, I never really visited my family. I was busy.”
Willie’s 1967 Goldwax debut single was cut at Sam Phillips’ studio on Madison Avenue. Was he nervous? “No, I was pretty much in awe,” he says. “Just curious as to what I would sound like on records.” Instead of locating fresh material for their discovery to wrap his melismatic pipes around, the label’s braintrust had him work his vocal magic on two familiar songs. “One was a Beatles cover and one was an O.V. Wright cover,” says Walker. “They chose them. I had nothing to do with it. I was recording. Whatever they wanted me to do, that’s what I did.”
A sizzling R&B reprise of the Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” was the plug side of Walker’s debut, which hit the streets that summer. Wright had emerged on Goldwax in ‘64 with the Jamison-penned soul ballad “There Goes My Used To Be,” which Willie did full justice to on the B-side. Goldwax billed the singer as “Wee” Willie Walker. “They hung the name ‘Wee’ Willie Walker on me, and that’s the name that any and everybody remembers me by.”
Instead of pressing Walker’s encore single in March of 1968, Goldwax licensed it to Chicago’s Checker Records. “I didn’t know it, but they were actually doing their very best to get me the exposure that I needed, that they thought I needed. So they leased my songs to Chess/Checker, because Chess/Checker was a lot stronger than they were,” says Willie. The stirring soul ballad “You Name It, I’ve Had It” suited Walker’s strengths. “I actually had a chance to work on that,” says Willie. “It told a story. That’s what I really liked about it. All the hard luck you can have, I’ve been there.” The song was written by Clarence Shields. “He was a good friend of George Jackson’s,” notes Walker.
Authorship on the surging flip “You’re Running Too Fast” was officially credited to Claunch and Russell, but Walker is quick to set the record straight. “That’s a George Jackson song,” he says. “I was with him when he wrote it!” Checker removed the “Wee” from Willie’s billing. “I really thought things would be a little different,” remembers Walker of his Checker tenure. “But it wasn’t any different.”
For his final Checker outing on Checker, Walker headed down to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. Claunch and Russell were still credited as his producers, but again the official credits on the label weren’t accurate. Hall, who passed away January 2, was the actual producer. “They sent me to FAME,” Walker says of Goldwax’s owners. “They didn’t come with me.”
The pounding “A Lucky Loser” was the brainchild of Allen Jones and Homer Banks, well-known for their Stax exploits. “Homer, Spencer, Louis Williams, we all went to school together,” notes Walker, who wasn’t all that impressed with the number. “It was just a song, and, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sing it! I’m just gonna make the best of it.’” However, Willie was knocked out by FAME’s house band. “Those guys had me flabbergasted. I mean, they were really great musicians,” says Willie. “A song they never even heard, you’d just kind of go in and hum it to ‘em and give ‘em five minutes, and they said, ‘Let’s try one!’ And I’m like, ‘Try one what?’ They were creative!” On the flip was a country ditty already tried on for size by Roy Drusky that Willie modified into a full-fledged soul weeper, “Warm To Cool To Cold.”
John Richbourg, the extremely influential R&B deejay on Nashville’s 50,000-watt clear channel WLAC radio, was all set to spin the single upon its late ‘68 release, but things didn’t quite work out as planned. “That was one of the worst mistakes that I ever made in my life,” he says. “John R was in a position to make ‘A Lucky Loser’ a huge hit. It’s like nothing like that had ever happened to me before. And he called and he wanted me to introduce the record. And he talked briefly, for a few seconds, and then he said, ‘I’ll be right back with you, and I want you to introduce the record to these people and tell them who you are.’ I’m like, ‘This is bullshit!’ So when he came back, I started swearing! And he hung up on me, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit! What did I just do?’
“Hey, I’m just here walking around in the house, probably having a couple drinks or whatever, not expecting anything like that. I’d heard other artists introducing their material on the radio, but I just never in my wildest imagination thought that would be happening to me. I just really thought it was a prank. Hey, we make mistakes. That’s one of my biggest.”
The lack of monetary reward from Goldwax rankled Walker, but he eventually mellowed. “After maturing a little more,” he says, “I realized the fact that the exposure was worth more than a few pennies.” When Goldwax folded, Walker was left without a recording contract. “I really didn’t care, because they wanted me to come back to Memphis to pursue my career, and I couldn’t do it because I had a job and a family,” he says. Making things a bit more confusing: another Willie Walker popped up on Hi’s Pawn subsidiary, his 1975 single produced in Memphis by Willie Mitchell.
A possible connection with Chicago soul bard Curtis Mayfield was scuttled. “I’ll never know the real truth of that. Curtis said that Claunch and Russell wanted too much for my contract, but I thought my contract was up. The contract had never been fulfilled, and I’m sure that was for monetary reasons with them. But Curtis said they were asking too much for the contract, and he said he’d just wait,” he says. “I really believe that would have been a great marriage.”
Although Walker’s national profile receded during the ‘70s, he sang in Murphy’s band, Willie and the Bees, a horn band billed as Salt, Pepper and Spice, and other Minneapolis outfits. During the 2000s, he made three CDs and toured Europe with the Butanes. Now he’s operating on elevated levels that he never enjoyed before, making his third appearance at the Porretta Soul Festival this July and sharing the bill with his old Memphis pals Spencer and Percy Wiggins. “We’re going to try to rekindle some Goldwax memories,” Willie promises.
Restoring the “Wee” to his stage moniker seems to have had a positive effect. “While I was just cruising with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats on the cruise, he introduced me as Wee Willie Walker. And I was blown away with how many people on that cruise remembered Wee Willie Walker. But Willie Walker, there were just too damn many of them. So from that day on, I said, ‘Hey, that’s who I am. I’m going back to where I started!’”
Check out Willie’s website at: www.weewilliewalker.com
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.