By: Michael D. McClellan | David T. Walker’s fingerprints are all over one of the most noteworthy periods in music history, his contributions to the Motown corpus lauded by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Diana Ross, but you would never know it, not with the reticent Walker perfectly comfortable working in the shadows of such brilliance. Ubiquitous yet invisible, a silent partner to some of the greatest recording artists of all time, Walker’s reputation as a consummate pro long ago earned him the trust of music royalty – and with it a lifetime worth of memories. Smokey Robinson. Marvin Gaye. Aretha Franklin. Name a star in Berry Gordy’s Motown universe and chances are Walker has recorded with them, 2,500 albums and counting, his guitar appearing on everything from Wonder’s Innervisions to Gaye’s What’s Going On. Not bad for a self-taught guitar player whose journey began humbly and provided little hint that Walker would, like the fictional character Forest Gump, find himself smack dab in the middle of 1960s zeitgeist.
“I’ve been blessed to play with a lot of very talented and creative people,” Walker says, his satin-smooth voice carrying a singular brand of charisma – an unpretentious swagger that is equal parts chill guitarist and dispenser of sage advice. “It’s very gratifying to have gone on their journey with them. It’s something that unfolded one song at a time, so to speak.”
Walker’s journey from obscurity to Hitsville, USA, is full of twists and turns, the kind that can take a young kid from Watts to the Deep South to New York and back again. It happens in cramped cars, in cramped Harlem hotel rooms with nothing more than a place to wash your hands and lay your head, and in smoky clubs working for pennies on the dollar. It happens in greasy diners, with barely enough change to pay the bill. It happens on the side of the road, the broiling summer sun bearing down and frustrations boiling over, petty arguments pitting brother against brother and occasionally leading to punches thrown. It’s a life filled with dirty clothes and lined with empty stomachs. There’s no entourage. There’s no cook, no physical therapist, no private jet or screaming fans. This is what life is like on the road when you’re barely out of high school, the possibilities endless, the odds of success equally daunting. And while the journey seems to start here, it actually begins years earlier, the seeds of a musical career sown decades before Walker began jamming with pop music’s illuminati.
“I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Walker says, “but my parents migrated to California when I was two years old. We bounced around when I was growing up – I started school in San Pedro, but I didn’t finish the year there. We moved first to Greenfield, and then Bakersfield, which was very much a rural setting back then. The blues was a prominent form of music because the people that lived in that area of central California were largely from the South. I worked the fields before and after school, and I learned a lot about music from the people singing when they came in from the fields after a hard day’s work. There were a lot of influences.”
He wasn’t David T. Walker back then, but rather a kid from the country whose imagination was sparked by what he heard in church and on the radio, be it the lilting riffs of jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley or the fervent gospel being belted from the local choir on Sunday mornings. Which explains why it wasn’t the dark, rolling, Delta-born finger picking style of Muddy Waters that left an imprint on Walker’s own unique guitar playing, but a desire to emulate Adderley’s upbeat, quicksilver-fast sounds that stuck with him most.
“Even today I approach the guitar like I’m breathing into it. Most people assume I started out playing the guitar, but in elementary school I actually played the violin. I wasn’t very good – I only played it for one semester before switching to a C-melody saxophone, which I played all the way into high school. That was going to be my instrument.” – David T. Walker
Walker’s distinctive style has been compared to that of someone playing a harp, a holdover from his days playing the sax. It’s uniquely David T. Walker, and it suits him just fine, the way his laid back demeanor coalesces so simpatico with even the biggest egos.
“I’ve always been something of an introvert,” he says, “and I think that helped me to learn the art of listening at a young age. When you’re working with stars like Quincy Jones, you do a lot more listening than talking, especially at the beginning of the relationship. You have to earn their trust, both as a musician and as someone they feel comfortable getting to know on a personal level.”
Respect is something else that Walker has earned through the years. Three-time Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’ calls Walker one of his biggest influences. Seven-time winner Al Jarreau likens Walker’s guitar playing to ‘a trip to heaven and back’. Frank Sinatra recorded with Walker. Tupac Shakur and Busta Rhymes have sampled his music. So, who cares if most of us aren’t familiar with his work? David T. Walker isn’t losing any sleep over it, not when the list of luminaries offering praise for his work is a mile long.
“It’s certainly flattering,” he concedes, “but I’ve never been one to be star struck, or to let things go to my head. I’ve just always shown up ready to play. The rest has been a dream come true.”
Walker was still dreaming of a career as a saxophonist when his family moved again, in 1955, this time to Watts. The transition from rural tranquility to urban ghetto wasn’t easy, but the even-keeled Walker learned to adjust.
“I was 14 when we moved to Los Angeles, because machinery and other kinds of ways of clearing the fields and the crops were beginning to happen. There wasn’t as much work in the country anymore – they even had machines that would pick the cotton by this time.
“It was a cultural shock moving to the big city and living in the ghetto. You had to watch your step. I wasn’t easily accepted by the other kids – I was a quiet person, I still am, and that was a barrier I had to overcome with the neighborhood kids. But we had a lot in common, which helped: It was a largely black community, and we lived near the high school in the government housing projects, so everybody was on an even par, so to speak – at least economically, certainly. So I was eventually accepted, and I made my way through.”
Walker’s parents may not have fully grasped their eldest son’s talent, but they recognized the gravitational pull that music had on him. It didn’t hurt that music ran in the family; Walker’s father played guitar, mostly Delta blues. His mother was American Indian, which meant that he found himself exposed to beautiful chanting growing up. It also didn’t hurt that Walker’s father fancied himself something of a musical virtuoso.
“My father played a little guitar,” the self-taught Walker says, smiling. “He could play two or three chords, and he knew one or two licks which I can still remember, actually. He could play some acoustic blues, that kind of stuff. Of course, whenever he came around, especially in later years, he would tell everyone that he was the one who taught me how to play [laughs]. He could also play a song or two on the piano – gospel, mostly – and although he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, that didn’t stop him from singing whenever he had the chance. And trust me, he didn’t mind who was listening.”
The technical aspects of playing the guitar have never been high on Walker’s priority list, and hasn’t since the very beginning. He has always been about feel, about letting the music take him on its journey, untethered from the constraints of technique.
“My first guitar was a loaner,” he says. “I was standing outside of this little church one day, listening to them play some really soulful stuff. Well, the preacher came out, and he ended up loaning me his guitar. I took it home and immediately started teaching myself some of the gospel stuff that they were doing at the church. Then I tried playing what I heard on records and on the radio. Eventually, with the help of my father, I was able to get a guitar of my own. It came from Sears, it was an electric Silvertone. I still have that guitar, but it doesn’t have any strings in it now. I wore it out.”
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Go ahead, ask David T. Walker about Michael Jackson. He knew Michael before Michael became the King of Pop, before The Gloved One’s seminal, iconic, mind-blowing moonwalk on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever way back in 1983.
“I remember Michael being a polite young man. When the Jackson Five were in the studio recording, he was always very well-behaved. He would stand or sit quietly until it was time for him to perform. He was shy and a little awkward, but when those lights came on he was completely different. Even back then you could tell that he was going to be a star.” – David T. Walker
Go ahead, ask him about any other major recording artist who was making noise in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and the odds are Walker has a fond memory to share. The Temptations? Etta James? Al Jarreau? Each name brings a smile to his face, and then the stories tumble out with the ease of a David T. Walker guitar riff.
“Al Jarreau is such a beautiful person,” he says quickly. “I was with him several years ago – we did three or four concerts overseas together as part of something called Jazz for Japan. Al Jarreau is a bright light in this world, someone who loves entertaining and who cares deeply about his fans. We had a great time together in Japan.
Walker’s network crosses eras and genres. How about current blues heavyweight Kevin Moore – aka, Keb’ Mo’?
“Funny story,” he replies, not missing a beat. “When I first started performing, I actually played a place called Moore’s Swing Club. I found out only recently, from Keb’ Mo’, that Moore’s Swing Club was actually owned by Keb’s uncle. So I had actually played there many years before Keb’ and I were introduced.
“Keb’ is a dear friend. I recently performed with Keb’ on Conan O’Brien’s show, and we were able to spend some time together catching up. He’s a very talented singer and musician, and he’s been very dedicated to his craft. He’s worked very hard and he’s certainly paid his dues to reach the top.”
So, how exactly does someone get from there to here? How does someone go from playing on a borrowed guitar in poverty-stricken Watts to jamming with some of the biggest names in the business? Think about it: There have been legions of aspiring artists who’ve performed in the shadows their whole careers and have never gotten within a country mile of a Stevie Wonder or a Smokey Robinson. What sets someone like David T. Walker apart from the rest?
“It’s something I’ve always loved doing,” he says. “I was sixteen when I started playing guitar, and very soon after that I got together with some of my friends and formed a band called The Kinfolks. Our first gig was at the Watts Community Center – we were hired to play at a dance other teenagers, and at the time I don’t think we knew more than four or five songs. Still, it was very well-received, which gave us the motivation to continue playing.
“We worked up and down the West Coast during high school, mostly on weekends. We played in a Los Angeles blues club called The Hole in the Wall, and we played in places like The Skylark, which was down by the railroad tracks in the heart of Watts. A couple of times we drove up to San Francisco to play at a hospital. We were young and naïve and didn’t make very much money – sometimes we made zero money [laughs]. But we loved it. Before I finished high school we had started traveling as far away as Seattle and Portland and Las Vegas.”
After high school The Kinfolks stayed together, embarking on a 7-year cross country odyssey that included stops on the Chitlin Circuit and just about any backroad bar you could imagine. Walker’s world was expanding, and perhaps more importantly, so was his network: The group’s road gigs included time with The Olympics, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Etta James, and Little Willie John, with each new relationship bringing him closer to his dream of making it as a musician.
“When I graduated high school I knew that music was a good option for me,” Walker says. “But part of me still didn’t think it would be a wise move – I came from a large family and I was the oldest of eight, and I had a sense of responsibility to help my family economically. I just didn’t think music could do that, because I hadn’t experienced making any money at music to that point. So I was studying to be an accountant. In fact, my first job after graduating from high school was with the City of Los Angeles, working as a clerk at the county courthouse.
“I worked that job for a year and a half, and during the evenings and on the weekends I continued to play with The Kinfolks. And then, all of a sudden, I quit my job cold turkey and found myself in a station wagon headed to Greensboro, North Carolina. We’d landed a job backing up The Olympics, which had produced some hits like Hully Gully and Western Movies, so we decided to take the plunge. They were a big act, and we were lucky to join them as their backup band. I’ll never forget that trip – we drove across the country, three days and four nights, and we got to the club about two hours before we were supposed to begin playing. That was my introduction to being on the road.”
The Kinfolks ultimately landed in New York, which had been a dream and a goal all along.
“We called New York our home base for about five years,” he says, “but we were still working largely in the South. We were a known commodity down there, so that’s where we played.”
Harlem’s Cecil Hotel, already shabby by the time they arrived on the scene, is where the band stayed in those lean scuffling days. The Cecil was a dump with pedigree; bebop was born here, on West 118th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue, where in the early 1940s Minton’s Playhouse hired as house pianist an unknown named Thelonious Monk, who played the instrument as if nobody knew how before. The Kinfolks lived in a one-room apartment at the Cecil. Sometimes they’d eat. Sometimes they couldn’t scrounge up enough money for a loaf of bread.
“The whole band – all six of us – were jammed into one room in the Cecil Hotel,” Walker says. “The room had a face bowl and one bed, and that was it. We had some rough times. We ate out of the sardine can, so to speak, but we leaned on each other for support. We were a close-knit, self-contained group, and we were in it together. If one had food, we all had food. We were friends. I think that if I didn’t know them the way that I did, then it would have been so much harder to survive.”
Walker made the most of his time in New York. He would occasionally venture into the East Village, and he would figure out ways to catch shows at the Apollo Theatre. And just when he’d start to get comfortable with his surroundings, the money would dry up and the band would have to hit the road again.
“That station wagon could get cramped, especially during the summer months in the South,” he says. “Sometimes tempers would flare. We had two brothers in the group, the pianist and the saxophonist, and sometimes we would have to stop the car on the highway and let them fight it out. We would say things to the pianist like, ‘Don’t hit him in the mouth’, because we didn’t want to lose our saxophonist. Other than that, they could go at it. But it never lasted very long, and nobody ever got hit in the mouth, so we were okay.”
Eventually life on the road took its toll and the band split up.
“It could only last for so long,” Walker says. “Still, it was a good run with a lot of great memories. We were together for almost ten years, counting our time together in high school. But we could see the handwriting on the wall. It had to end, because we could never say, ‘This is what we do to buy groceries and provide shelter for ourselves.’ That part of the dream just didn’t happen.”
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By the mid-sixties, Walker found himself at a crossroads. The Kinfolks were history, he was burnt out from all of the travel, and he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to sustain his fragile career as a musician. There were plenty of stories to tell, but stories don’t buy groceries or sustain a family. Serendipitously, Walker’s career trajectory intersected with that of Gordy’s fledgling empire.
“I had an epiphany,” Walker explains. “Until then I didn’t realize that musicians worked during the daytime. I hadn’t heard about studio work. I formed a trio after The Kinfolks broke up, and we started backing up acts like Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, and a few others. So I was working, just not enough to convince me that I could make a career out of playing the guitar. That’s when Motown just sort of happened for me. It opened up all sorts of doors. Somebody helped me to find a studio in Detroit, and I recorded some tracks to take around to different record companies, to see if I could get a record deal of my own. It worked out better than I could have hoped – when I moved back to Los Angeles in 1967, I had a deal in place. A year later I released my first solo album.”
The Sidewalk was a sparkling solo debut, the first in a 15-album career that spans five decades. It was an inviting blend of studio jazz and soul, recasting the role of the guitarist in the soul instrumental field. Laidback, yet filled with a strong sense of his guitar’s ‘voice’, The Sidewalk brought Walker out of the shadows and introduced him to a whole new audience. It also served as a showcase for his unique playing style, and in many ways triggered the demand for his services; suddenly, everyone from James Brown to Lou Rawls to Barry White was tapping him to perform on their records.
“Up until that time,” Walker says, “most of the requests came mostly from artists that I’d met along the way. They would call me to play on some of their record projects. That changed with the release of The Sidewalk. Having an album of my own playing on the radio was a tremendous advertisement. From that point on, contractors, producers, and other artists became aware of me, and so I started getting these calls. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t know where they were coming from, and I had no idea that they knew my name. I think the fact that I was on the radio was a big part of it – I guess they liked what they heard or something. So I would get calls from all kinds of people. People like Cher, Little Richard, Carole King. So that’s how I started doing studio work on a full-time basis.”
Artists today operate in an ever-morphing digital world, creating music on computers and serving it up in the cloud, their voices manipulated courtesy of software such as Auto-Tune, and with many of their instruments generated on Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live. None of which existed when Walker was doing his thing in the early ‘70s.
“I didn’t have to think about technology, or the learning curve associated with it,” Walker says. “The artists who were calling me – many of whom I didn’t know at the time – were wanting me to do what I normally do. Fortunately, I understood that. All I had to have with me was my guitar and an amplifier, and I would just come into the studio and sit down and play off the top of my head.
“To this day, no artist I’ve ever worked with has ever written out a part for me to play. I have always been called because of what I do, and because of the sound that I have, and so I’ve always functioned from that standpoint – I’ve always just played whatever comes to my mind, making sure that it goes along with what someone is singing, or whatever they’re playing. When I started working in the studio it wasn’t about the technology. It was about creating great music.”
The Sidewalk remains Walker’s favorite album, but a year later his follow-up effort, Going Up, proved equally important.
“Releasing The Sidewalk was special. The first time I ever heard it on the radio I was driving in my car, and it came on the jazz station here in Los Angeles. Of course I pulled over and took a listen like I’d never heard it before. It was very nice little moment.” – David T. Walker
“By the time I released Going Up, I knew that I was going to be able to provide shelter and buy groceries and whatever. I kept doing the studio work, of course, but I was also able to focus on my solo projects. I was also doing concerts with my trio – I would play at some of those same clubs that I had played in my earlier career. I just kept building my career, brick-by-brick. Eventually I played the Forum here in L.A. as part of a big show – getting equal billing with other major artists. And I would travel a little bit, playing some colleges and universities and that kind of thing, usually on the weekends so that I could be back in town for any session work or record dates through the week. I guess you could say that I had arrived as a professional musician.”
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The stories keep coming, each a snapshot of popular culture through the lens of someone who was both everywhere and nowhere all at once. When performers like Donny and Marie Osmond were appearing on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine and sending teenaged girls into a frenzy, David T. Walker was content to quietly help shape the hit songs that helped make them world famous. He was never going to be celebrated like the big acts of the day. He was the thought on the tip of the tongue, the obscure answer to a trivia question in a pre-Google world.
Unless, of course, you were one of the stars who kept his number in their Rolodex.
When Michael Jackson recorded Ben in 1972, Walker was right there in the studio with him. When Barbara Streisand recorded The Way We Were for the 1973 movie of the same name, Walker was one of the first to get a call. When Marvin Gaye recorded the incomparable, sexually overt Let’s Get It On, Walker was at his side, guitar in hand, his fingers bringing the funk. Walker’s respect ran so wide and deep that he counted a young jazz aficionado named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among his biggest fans. For those living under a rock, Abdul-Jabbar is only a six-time MVP and the all-time leading scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association.
“I respect him greatly, for many reasons,” Walker says. “I’ll tell you a quick story – I performed at a noon concert at UCLA when he was going to school there – he was still known as Lew Alcindor at the time – and he approached me beforehand and let me know that that he was a fan of mine. I knew it was him, of course – there aren’t that many 7’2” people walking around, and I’d already seen him play on television. He told me that he’d ditched his class so that he could come over to hear me play [laughs]. We had a good time, and we kept in touch through the years. We later had dinner together and got to talk music. He was playing for the Lakers then.”
Walker released five albums in a six year span, solo efforts of which he remains immensely proud. Each is like one of his children, unique in temperament.
“It goes without saying, but each album any artist does is going to be a little different,” he says. “The first one I spent more time on than any of the others, because I had to prepare for that one. I had to do some extra work and a lot of rehearsing, because it was done in a way that involved just a trio. And I didn’t know anything about the studio situation when I recorded The Sidewalk. I was still naïve in those days – I thought you had to be ready when you came into the studio. I thought that, the minute they turned that light on, you had to be ready to record and that everything should be ready to go. So I spent a lot of time preparing, and I think that held the project back a bit. It could have been better, I must admit.”
Walker released the critically-acclaimed album On Love in 1976, and then a self-imposed, eleven-year hiatus ensued. It wasn’t until 1987 that he resurfaced with Y-Ence, which brought a darker, moodier vibe.
“I sort of took a break,” he says, “because I had become unhappy with the music industry itself and the things that were going on. By this time, I could see that things weren’t what I thought they were when I was in high school. There were people around that really weren’t so nice – of course, there were always very decent people, and I’ve been fortunate to run into them and work with them, but I didn’t like the way the business aspect was being conducted, so I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll just step away for a minute.’ And I did. But I kept working for other people. And I was doing some concerts – I had recently come off of a Carole King tour, which was 1973, and I kept working. Doing some live stuff. And that was enough for me. But I just didn’t feel like going through the bureaucracies of the companies at the time.”
~ ~ ~
Jimi Hendrix is a member of something called the 27 Club.
Admittance to the club comes with a heavy price: Those who enter the club do so the hard way – famous musicians dying tragically at the age of 27, at the height of their careers, their lives cut short by drugs, alcohol or suicide. Blues great Robert Johnson, who was thought to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for success, is a member. Janice Joplin, Jim Morrison, Curt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, too, A-List performers erased before their promise could be fully realized.
David T. Walker was born a year ahead of Hendrix, in 1941, so he was well aware of what the world lost when Hendrix aspirated on his own vomit and died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.
“Jimi was certainly was a very sensitive person. He was very quiet, and very much an introvert. I got to know him through Little Richard. Unfortunately, Jimi and I never actually worked together, which I would have enjoyed very much – he left this planet way too soon.” – David T. Walker
“The great Billy Preston was another mutual friend – I’d done a lot of album work with Billy – and the two of us just happened to be at the musician’s union on the same day that Jimi was there. This was three or four months before Hendrix passed away in London. Well, Jimi’s limousine pulled up, and Billy and I went over to chat. Jimi said something odd to me at the time – he said that he was going out, but it wasn’t delivered in the usual context. I didn’t think much of it, because, as you know, Jimi Hendrix did get high on occasion [laughs]. So that’s the last time I saw him alive, sitting with him in his limousine. Three or four months later he was found dead at the Samarkand Hotel in London. What a shame.
“Jimi Hendrix certainly was, I think, a great blues player. And then when he put on those pedals and all of those little psychedelic hookups, it became a whole different thing with him. He was one of the greatest guitar players of all time, and the divining rod of the turbulent ‘60s – you can hear the riots in the streets and napalm bombs dropping in his version of The Star-Spangled Banner.”
~ ~ ~
The true test of whether an album is a classic has more to do with its lasting appeal than its immediate impact. In 1973, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions hit hard immediately. At 23, Wonder was already a musical wunderkind, and this album stamped him as a fearless innovator unafraid to tackle heady social issues. Songs like Living for the City and Higher Ground remain ripe anthems, both tracks resonating in the post Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman world in which we live. The album peaked at Number 4 on the Billboard 200 chart and spent 89 weeks on the chart overall. It spent two weeks at Number 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and 51 weeks on the chart overall.
More than forty years later, Innervisions stands as one of the greatest albums of all time. Fans and critics still marvel at the mastery Wonder exhibits throughout; on several cuts, he’s credited for lead and background vocals, keys, synthesizer, harmonica, congas and drums, right on down to handclaps. Most of the album feels as if it was created weeks ago.
While Wonder’s genius is both palpable and readily evident throughout, he still needed help creating his masterpiece. A phone call later, and David T. Walker found himself working on the project of a lifetime.
“I could immediately tell it was going to be great,” he says. “The energy, clarity, sense of vision that he had for this project was different than anything else I’d ever worked on.”
Much has been made of Wonder’s landmark recording, but only a select few had a hand in bringing it to life. Take a listen, and you can clearly pick out David T. Walker’s brilliant guitar work.
“It was a joy, and a lot of fun and laughs,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I just think of chicken, because we ate a lot of chicken in the studio during the week that we were working on that album. We certainly didn’t go hungry…
“It was just a delightful experience – it always was when you worked with Stevie because he was so creative. We’ve always been close – in 1968 we did a Motown review together in Japan, and we got a chance to hang out a lot. He would call me every night to have me listen to something he’d laid down on this little reel-to-reel, hand-carried tape recorder. He was all about his music, and he never did anything else when I knew him during that period. But he didn’t take himself too seriously – he had a beautiful sense of humor, and still does.”
For David T. Walker, the process of putting this album together remains vivid.
“I remember we spent a lot of time waiting,” Walker says quickly. “He played the drums on most of those tracks, and he would sometimes put down the drum track first. So all of the rest of the musicians, myself included, would just wait around until he did that, and then we would put down whatever he wanted to do next. So it took a week or more, which I guess is not a long time, but it can be tedious, especially when you’re waiting to lay down your piece of the puzzle and you only need a few takes to get it right. But I didn’t mind one bit. Everyone could tell that Innervisions was going to be special, and I truly enjoyed being involved. There was a cosmic-like feeling to it. Stevie said some nice things about me; on the album’s liner notes, I think he said something like, ‘David is as warm as his birth sign – Cancer’. Stevie has always been a little bit into the stars.”
~ ~ ~
In 1959, Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start Tamla Records, the precursor to Motown. He was already producing by then, having signed the Miracles and its talented front man, Smokey Robinson to a contract. Over the next decade, he signed such artists as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin, the Contours, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Velvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five.
In 1972, Gordy relocated Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles. He wasted no time making full use of David T. Walker’s services.
“I did a lot of work for Berry Gordy and Motown when they came out to Los Angeles,” Walker says. “He was always around when we were working. There was this one time, which I won’t forget, when we were recording with Diana Ross and he dropped by the studio to see how things were going. He smiled at me and said, ‘When David T. plays, everybody listens.’ It was in reference to a popular E.F. Hutton commercial that played on the TV back in those days. There was laughter all around the studio, so it was a little embarrassing – I think I dropped my head and closed my eyes [laughs]. But I did appreciate the compliment. It felt good to know that he respected my work.”
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Living in Los Angeles opened up another creative outlet – and revenue stream – for David T. Walker during the 1970s, as he smartly leveraged his name recognition to make the leap into movies and television, his work appearing in films ranging from cult classics like Blacula to megahits like The Goodbye Girl, and on popular TV series such as Kojak. It even led to a dream come true: Performing live with his childhood idol, Cannonball Adderley, who hosted the self-titled tribute show 90 Minutes With Cannonball Adderley, on which Walker proudly shared the stage as a member of his sextet.
“It was a dream realized and a life highlight, yes,” Walker says. “He was one of my favorite people growing up. As I’ve said, saxophone was going to be my instrument when I began to play – at least that’s what I thought. Cannonball Adderley had a TV show in the early ‘70s, which was a forerunner for Saturday Night Live. It even held the same timeslot. He called me and asked me personally to be a part of his band. We played the themes when the show came on or went to break. The fact that he would call me, that he thought of using me…the fact that he even knew my name was very invigorating, and I shall always remember that.”
The combination of Walker’s talent and easygoing demeanor went a long way in Hollywood, and opened doors to a wide range of motion picture projects, at times with unexpectedly pleasant results.
“It’s funny who you can bump into when working on a film,” he says. “Marvin [Gaye] was one of my closest friends, and when he first moved to the West Coast he signed to do this soundtrack to Trouble Man, a detective movie that had actors like Robert Hooks and Paul Winfield in it. Well, I got an offer to work on a movie – they just gave me the working title, Trouble Man, and the time and place they needed me to show up. They didn’t say that Marvin Gaye was involved. Well, I walked in and saw him across the room on this big soundstage, and we just smiled and hugged and had a good time. He was so happy to see me because he didn’t know anyone there. He had just moved to the West Coast, and I don’t think he had done any movie work. It was a joy working with him on that film.”
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David T. Walker released nine albums following his prolific run during the’70s, including ‘87s moody Y-Ence, navigating a changing musical landscape and the loss of some of the world’s biggest stars. Gaye’s life ended tragically on April 1, 1984, when Gaye’s father, Marvin Gaye Sr., fatally shot him at their house in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. And we all know what happened to Michael. Losses felt by the world for sure, but especially so for the man who played on some of their biggest hits.
“Big blows,” he says. “There will always be a sadness in my heart. It reminds me of how fast time flies, and of the fragility of life. Losing Marvin was like losing a member of my family. I didn’t know Michael as well, but I do have very fond memories of him. When I first met the Jackson Five, they were all so young and innocent. Michael would just sort of stand over in the corner. He was so quiet, although that changed as time went on – I don’t think Michael was a quiet teenager when they started putting out all of those hit records.
“I liked the Jackson family very much. It was a refreshing change of pace for me, because a lot of the work that I did to that point was with adults. I also played on most of the Osmond’s music, which was another talented group of young people. It seems like yesterday but that was more than forty years ago. Where does the time go?” – David T. Walker
“The one project that got away – and one that I wish I had been involved with – was working with Michael Jackson on Off the Wall. I was originally selected to be involved in that project – Quincy called me and asked for me – but for some reason I didn’t play on that album. By then, Michael had left Motown and was making most of the major decisions, and I think he had his vision of what the album should sound like. I think it turned out well without me [laughs].”
~ ~ ~
Walker’s passion for music hasn’t waned.
During the ‘80s he worked with such acts as The Brothers Johnson, the Crusaders, Jeffrey Osborne, Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, and the Godfather of Soul himself – James Brown.
“I’ve never had a problem in fitting in, certainly not musically,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve always appreciated people like that, people who were dedicated to their craft. I certainly think of myself as a dedicated person. I can also sense their nobility, and that has always made it easy to develop relationships with them. I pay attention to whatever they’re doing, or what they’re talking about, and certainly whatever they’re playing musically at the time. And when you get to perform with someone like a James Brown, or a Marvin Gaye, or a Smokey Robinson – or any of the amazing people I’ve collaborated with through the years – how can you not be excited to get up in the morning and go to work? And working with these people has not been a J.O.B. It’s been easy to do.”
~ ~ ~
“I never worked on my sound,” he says, when asked about his collaboration with other artists. “I just try to conjure up a sound. It has worked for me over the years, so I’ve learned to trust it. It’s also taken me from low-paying gigs on the Chitlin Circuit to studio work where I could provide for my family.”
It’s also allowed him to continue his solo projects into the New Millennium, work that continues to turn the heads of critics and contemporaries alike. It has been a fulfilling career for sure, and it begs the question: Have there been any surprises along the way?
“I never thought my music would be used as much as it has been,” he says quickly. “There are these terms that the musician’s union calls ‘new use’ and ‘re-use’ which addresses the use of an existing artist’s work in new projects such as films, commercials, and the like. I’ve especially seen this in things that I worked on with the Jackson Five – I Want You Back, or ABC, for example. Those songs have been given new lives over and over again.”
And how does he feel when he hears his guitar sampled in other artist’s music?
“I’m fine with it,” he says. “Tupac was one of the first. He sampled my guitar, but not the song as a whole, which is a song by Joe Sample titled In All My Wildest Dreams. For some reason Tupac only used my guitar, and with technology today they can take songs apart and only use what they want – the drum sound, the base, whatever the case might be. So in this case, Tupac decided to only use my guitar. I didn’t recognize it at first, because it was squeezed and manipulated in various ways, but then I could hear it.
“I’ve been sampled by Tupac, Busta Ryhmes, and quite a few people, I suppose. A Tribe Called Quest was a hip hop group that sampled On Love, and they gave me credit for that, which I appreciated. I get a list from the musician’s union of who sampled what, which helps, because these artists today don’t always send out a request and ask, ‘Can we use your song?’ It does happen on occasion, but it’s a rarity when they reach out to ask for permission.”
~ ~ ~
David T. Walker is international.
These days he spends a lot of time performing in Japan, where he has developed a rabid fan base who love him like one of their own. It goes all the way back to those Motown tours with Stevie Wonder, and Walker has cultivated many friendships over there, too.
“Japan is one of my favorite places to go on this planet,” he says with a smile. “I laughingly refer to it as the homeland. It’s a place where I’ve been accepted way back when, and even in the ‘80s when I didn’t have a lot out on the airwaves, people there enjoyed my work and what I did, and they gave me all of the respect – and more – that I can use. Still do. So it’s a place that I go two or three times a year now. I perform with my quartet, as well as some of the other people that I’ve worked with through the years, including many Japanese artists. It’s also one of the few places where I perform live these days. They accept me for who I am, and I’m grateful for that. The Japanese are a beautiful people. A lot of jazz artists like Al Jarreau feel the same way, too.”
~ ~ ~
Every day seems to bring a new surprise, a reminder of a life well-lived, of opportunities seized, and of a reputation that extends well beyond the Motown universe. Walker explains that his friend recently found the Frank Sinatra track that he’d played on all those years ago, back when Ol’ Blue Eyes was the biggest name in the business. He talks about the joy that comes with being a part, no matter how small, of some of the most important recordings ever made. And above all else, he treasures the friendships that he’s cultivated along the way.
“Playing in the studio has opened a lot of doors and allowed me to develop friendships with these people,” Walker says. “Everything is connected – without one link, there wouldn’t be a way to reach the other. That’s how I met Quincy Jones, actually. I was doing a date for Ray Charles, and Quincy was supposed to be doing the arrangements – I say ‘supposed’ to be doing the arrangements, because, well, let’s just say that he was a little late [laughs]. But when he got there, it not only led to some great music, but also to a lot of laughter and good times, and a friendship that’s lasted a lifetime.”
~ ~ ~
It’s a word David T. Walker coined a long time ago, and one of the mantras by which he’s led his life.
“Overstanding means to be on top of understanding,” he says. “And when you’re on top of understanding, you can sort of step back and have a whole different perspective. It has helped me see clearly what my talents were as an artist, and how best to use those talents to achieve my goal of making music my career. Some people don’t fully grasp where they fit in the big scheme of things – they try to be something they’re not, and try to put the square peg in the round hole. But if you’ve reached the point of overstanding, you can better align your talents to your goals.
“For me, I knew early on that there were geniuses in this world like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye who were destined for greatness. They were blessed with certain gifts, and they had the drive and dedication to realize their dreams. They became megastars. I knew that my gifts were different, but no less valuable in the big scheme of things. It’s the same thing in the movie business. Everyone can’t be Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other actors to shine in different ways. Every movie needs supporting actors. The same is true in music. I’ve been blessed to play alongside some of the most talented people in the music business. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”