Jun 29, 2018
by Robert Feuer
The KRSH Backyard Concert series is located in a grassy nook hidden in a corner of Santa Rosa, where the radio station operates from a caboose. Soul singer Wee Willie Walker will perform there Aug. 9, backed by the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra.
During the 1960s, with the group the Val-Dons, Walker got his nickname from fellow bandmember, Timothy Eason. “He hung that on me and it stuck. I tried to get rid of it, but it didn’t work,” Walker says during our meeting in Napa. His record label from 1965-68, Goldwax, put it on his records without asking him. Upset at first, Walker came to realize later that people recognized his name more frequently with the word ”Wee.” “I guess that’s who I am,” he thought.
The Val-Dons formed when Walker met Eason in a laundromat, where they began harmonizing on the spot, to the tune of Jerry Butler’s He Don’t Love You. Walker speaks of the laundromat’s “great acoustics.” The band had a run of three years, marking Walker’s move from gospel to secular music.
Born in 1941 near Memphis, Walker started his career there as a teenager, singing gospel with the Redemption Harmonizers, “mostly kids.” They traveled in a Cadillac for summertime shows in the mid-to-late ‘50’s. Arriving in Minneapolis in 1959, he fell in love with the cities’ beauty and tranquility, he says. He still lives there.
Some gospel friends were recording secular music for Goldwax in Memphis. The label, with no studio, operated from the back of a drug store. They had a piano, and Walker sang them a couple of songs. They signed him, making him the first black artist in Minnesota to record for a national label.
Contrary to the label’s promises, Walker was only given three songs to record, accomplished at two legendary locales—Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis and Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Walker never saw a royalty check from Goldwax. Instead, they gave him 50 copies of one of his songs to sell himself to record stores. “I made $50,” he says.
After the Val-Dons, Walker formed the band Willie and the Bees with Willie Murphy. Murphy thought Walker’s voice sounded like a bumble bee. His current R&B group is Willie Walker and the We “R”, extant since 2004. Between 2004-2007, Walker also performed in Japan and Switzerland with a Stax-type band, the Butanes.
Late in life, Walker has gained national notoriety. His album, If Nothing Ever Changes, recorded with top San Francisco Bay Area artists, gained him four Blues Music Award (BMA) nominations in 2015.
After connecting with prominent guitarist Anthony Paule at a Porretta Soul Festival in Italy, he’s been touring extensively with Paule’s Soul Orchestra,
Their 2017 release, After a While, represents classic soul at its best. Walker received five BMA nominations this year for that album.
When asked about the best part of his notoriety, Walker says, “The presence of the people I’m playing for. You can feel their energy—it’s like wow.”
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