Veteran soul singer Wee Willie Walker spent decades letting his imploring vocals make the case that he ranks amongst the tradition’s definitive stars, with limited results. But Rick Estrin wasn’t nearly as patient. The award-winning harmonica ace put his ardent belief in Walker’s talent to the test by producing the singer’s 2015 album If Nothing Ever Changes, the inaugural release on blues keyboardist Jim Pugh’s invaluable Little Village Foundation label.
The project ended Walker’s long musical flight under the radar, earning nominations in three major Blues Foundation Awards categories, including album of the year. The recording made a convincing case that the Memphis-born Walker “is the greatest, deepest soul singer in the world today, period! His artistry is on the same level as legends like Johnnie Taylor, Sam Cooke, O.V. Wright and Otis Redding,” says Estrin.
He isn’t the only veteran Northern California blues artist eager to champion Walker. Napa guitarist Anthony Paule ran into the vocalist on the European blues circuit a few years ago and when his Soul Orchestra landed a plum gig as the house band at Italy’s Porretta Soul Festival. Paule requested Walker as the featured singer (they all return to Porretta in July). “We just kind of hit it off,” says Walker, 77, a soft-spoken man not given to blowing his own horn. “They decided I was easy to work with, and asked if I’d be interested in recording some of their material.”
Like Estrin, Paule decided to showcase the undersung singer, featuring Walker on the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra’s 2017 album After A While (Blue Dot Records), which earned five Blues Music Awards nominations. They’ve been performing together regularly ever since, and rejoin forces tonight, June 20, at Freight & Salvage with the powerhouse Oakland blues singer Terrie Odabi.
Like most of soul music’s foundational singers, Walker got his start in a gospel quartet. In the 1940s and 1950s, groups like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers earned large, devoted followings in African-American communities. Walker was on gospel circuit by the age of 15. “It was a great, blessed experience, and I grew up fast,” Walker says. “We played in churches throughout the South and as far north as Minnesota. Every summer we just kind of toured, riding around in a car whenever they would have us.”
On one of those trips north in the early 1960s, he decided to stay in Minneapolis, and he’s been there ever since, cultivating an avid local following. He made the transition to singing R&B with local bands, including the Val-Dons, who found a niche playing Jewish Community Centers around the Twin Cities. Walker maintained connections in Memphis, which was establishing itself as a hotbed of Southern soul. He recorded numerous demo tracks and several singles for Goldwax Records, mostly songs by his friend George Jackson, a prolific pop and R&B composer who wrote Bob Seger’s signature “Old Time Rock & Roll,” Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Makin’ Love,” and the Osmonds’ chart-topping “One Bad Apple,” a tune he intended for the Jackson 5 (no relation).
While music was Walker’s passion, he kept his Minneapolis day gig as a machine operator in a corrugated box factory. “I was happy with my job,” Walker says. “I had a family, and I wasn’t going to take a chance to pursue life on the road.”
Minnesota afforded him some excellent musical outlets. The original vocalist with Willy Murphy’s blues combo Willie & The Bees, he also performed widely with a horn-laden rock band called Salt, Pepper and Spice. In recent years, he’s worked and recorded with The Butanes, a popular Twin Cities R&B combo. After 60 years in the music business, Walker found something new with the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. For the first time, he took a measure of creative control, and the results can be heard on After A While. “Before, I’d just go in and record and go home,” Walker says. “It was very different and nice to be part of the whole process. It’s my adventure in producing, listening to everything. Oh God, yes, I enjoyed that.”
Speaking of soul, veteran jazz and blues singer Denise Perrier and the inimitable Lavay Smith come together on Sunday afternoon at the Back Room to celebrate the legacy of blues matriarch Bessie Smith. They’re backed by pianist Chris Seibert, Smith’s husband and music director of the Red Hot Skillet Lickers, bassist Joe Kyle Jr. and reed expert Rob Barics. Pete Devine, who held down the drum chair in the first iteration of Smith’s Skillet Lickers, put the band together. “I actually introduced Lavay to Chris back in 1989 at the birth of the Skillet Lickers,” says Devine, who also performs at the Back Room on Friday in the element blues combo HowellDevine with guitarist Joshua Howell and bassist Joe Kyle Jr.
Perrier, a highly poised vocalist who got a major career boost in the late 1950s when Louis Armstrong heard her stylish vocal group The Intervals at an NAACP event at the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco. He took them under his wing and arranged a six-week run in Las Vegas, which gave Perrier a chance to mingle with jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald. Over the years she’s performed her one-woman show Bessie, Dinah and Me at nightclubs around the region.
Perrier credits her education in Albany with preparing her for a life in the arts. At Albany High, she took history with a young teacher named Phil Elwood, who went on to cover jazz and pop music for the San Francisco Examiner (and later Chronicle) for four decades. A longtime Berkeley resident and KPFA disc jockey, Elwood was known for animating his lessons with classic American music, particularly early jazz and blues. “Years later some of those records he used to let us hear would be very instrumental in my being able to do a production about the life of Bessie Smith at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater,” Perrier says. “A lot of my earlier formation was right there in Albany, with great drama and dance classes.”
Though her early champion, Louis Armstrong, was jazz’s most important foundational figure, his incalculable influence as a trumpeter and vocalist suffused all of American popular music, including the blues. In the 1920s, he recorded a number of sides with Bessie Smith. “I love that about Bessie and Ma Rainey,” Devine says. “They were very jazzy, not just pure blues artists like a Robert Johnson or Charley Patton. They had jazz bands playing with blues singers in Chicago and New York. Johnny Dodds could record with Blind Blake one session and King Oliver on another. Bessie was recording with Louis and Fletcher Henderson. The lines hadn’t been drawn yet.”