Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September 13: Junior Walker, "Shotgun"

Artist: Junior Walker
Song: "Shotgun"
Album: Shotgun (single)
Year: 1965

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While there is no question that in an overwhelming majority of times, it is the singers that receive the accolades for any musical effort, the reality is that in a large number of such instances, it is the band behind the singer in question that are responsible for the power and mood of the song.  This is not to say that singers are replaceable, but when one considers the exceptional talents of groups like The Funk Brothers, and then correlate that to their fame and fortune, the disproportionate nature becomes quite obvious.  In almost every case, this is simply due to none of the members of the backing band ever moving to front the band, and yet when this occurs, it often results in the most memorable songs in the entire history of music.  Case in point: there are few saxophone players that have shown as distinctive and rough a style as the great Junior Walker, and when he stepped in front of his band, The All Stars, it yielded some of the biggest hits of all time.  Strangely enough, it was actually a combination of his band and The Funk Brothers that enabled Walker to reach his greatest musical height, but it was a freak occurrence that remains the legend of the song in question.  Having never performed vocals before, it was due to some rather odd circumstances that Junior Walker sang on his unforgettable 1965 single, "Shotgun."

From the moment that "Shotgun" begins, there is no question that the classic Motown sound is in top form, as it is led off by the signature "roll in" by drummer Benny Benjamin.  This is complimented by the "meandering" bassline by James Jameson, and this is the style that he would make famous.  As the bassline dips and winds around the rest of the instruments, the groove it creates is impossible to resist, and there is no question that this was one of the finest performances of his entire career.  The way that these two sounds combine shows why the "Motown backbone" was unlike anything else in history, and there are few better additions to such a sound than the bouncing guitar from Willie Woods.  His playing gives the song a fantastic punctuation and spin, and also provides an additional rhythm within the overall musical landscape.  The final element of the band, organist Victor Thomas, pushes the song to unforeseen heights, as his playing gives an all-out party atmosphere to the song, and it is his "stings" that set the song aside from other Motown classics.  However, one cannot deny the importance of the saxophone from Junior Walker himself, and the scream he delivers proves that such an instrument has a perfect place within any genre.  The way in which each of the musicians plays perfectly off of one another is truly as good as music gets, and one cannot help but get wrapped up in the high energy, upbeat nature of "Shotgun."

Yet while it remains one of the more unknown stories of music history, the reality behind "why" Junior Walker ended up on vocals for "Shotgun" is without question one of the most intriguing.  Having never sung before, believing that he did not have a capable voice, "Shotgun" was penned by Walker after watching a crowd do a dance of the same name.  Walker quickly wrote the song feeling it would fit perfectly with the dance in question, and he soon found himself in the legendary Hitsville USA recording studio.  However, on the day of the session, the hired vocalist failed to appear at the studio, and Walker found himself in front of the microphone.  Simply letting the song direct his vocal performance, the fact that this was his first time every performing such a duty makes the results all the more impressive.  There is a raw, almost fearless tone in his vocals, and there is no question that he carried out this duty with fantastic results.  The way in which Walker was able to capture the essence of the music over which he sang is likely due to his long experience as a band leader, giving him a great understanding of the nuances within the musical arrangement.  Working his vocals on a rather distinctive rhythm around the other elements of the song, Walker's singing truly becomes an instrument onto itself, and it is almost impossible to not sing along with this amazing vocal celebration of good times and dancing.

"Shotgun" truly took the U.S. by storm when it was release, shooting up the charts to the top spot on the r&b charts, and into the top five in overall sales.  The fact that such an accomplishment was achieved by a relatively unknown artist reveals the power of the recording, and even more than four decades later, "Shotgun" can still light up a room as easily and quickly as it did when it was first released.  Furthermore, few songs in the Motown catalog capture the power of The Funk Brothers as perfectly as one can find here, as each musician is in top form, displaying their signature sound all across the track.  Again, this may be due to Walker's primary role as a musician that he afforded far more of a focus on the other members of the band, and there is no question that "Shotgun" stands as one of the finest anthems of the entire "Motown era."  Throughout his vocal performance, Walker leads both the audience and the band behind him through one of the most irresistible dance grooves ever captured on tape, and it is within this feeling that one can understand how the song itself was birthed out of a dance party.  A few years after its release, Junior Walker and The All-Stars were joined for a rendition of "Shotgun" that featured none other than Jimi Hendrix on guitar, and this in itself is a testament to what a significant and powerful song resides within the phenomenal 1965 classic.

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