For a change, there was no guitar introduction. Wee Willie Walker just tore into the lyrics: “I was borrrrn by the river ... ”
A woman in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt at Shaw’s bar in northeast Minneapolis swooned. Walker’s voice, a Southern soul combination of sweetness and sadness, grabs listeners, especially on that soaring opening line to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
“That’s the best version of that tune that you’re gonna hear in any bar in any universe at happy hour tonight,” opined guitarist Paul Metsa, who has been sharing the stage with Walker at Shaw’s neighborhood bar on Thursdays for seven years.
“Willie’s up for five awards from the Blues Foundation in Memphis,” Metsa said, then he turned to Walker. “If you do win something — and I know you will — it might be time to ask Shaw’s for a raise.”
Walker smiled, and Metsa began plucking his acoustic guitar for the next tune.
Offstage, Walker is talkative, especially when he’s sipping his second brandy.
“It’s overwhelming,” the Memphis-born singer said of the Blues Music Awards nominations. “It’s such a huge honor. This is big for me. They say you can never go home. But I guess I can.”
He’ll be in Memphis for the 39th annual awards on Thursday. It’s the second time he’s received nominations but his first receiving five nods, including album and song of the year plus best male vocalist. That’s the second most nominations this year — more than famous stars like Taj Mahal, Keb Mo and Mavis Staples.
Bay Area recording
Walker’s voice, part velvet, part sandpaper, is the perfect Memphisian mélange of Sam Cooke, Al Green and Otis Redding.
“I’m still amazed by his phrasing,” said Metsa. “The way he pauses, the runs ahead or behind the beat. He never sings it the same way twice.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s only five people in a dive bar paying attention, as was the case recently at Shaw’s, or a large appreciative festival crowd in Europe. Walker sings every performance like it might be his last.
“That comes from church. And your belief and what God said: ‘Wherever two or three are assembled, there’s a God in the midst.’
“Whether there’s two or three,” the singer continued, “I’m going to give the same that I do for a whole room.”
At 76, Walker is enjoying a bit of a resurgence. The album earning nominations is “After a While” by Walker and the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, an ensemble out of the San Francisco Bay Area. They met in 2015 when the players backed him at a festival in Italy.
Released last fall, the album features three songs co-written by Walker, several originals by co-producer Christine Vitale and covers of “Lovey Dovey” and the classic “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” co-written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Walker’s schoolmate for a dozen years in Memphis.
The buoyant, organ-drenched “Second Chance” kicks off the album with a classic Memphis groove and a fitting message for Walker. The title track is a slow-dance ballad about meeting up long after the relationship is over. “Lovey Dovey” is a fiery duet with Terrie Odabi. And “Hate Take a Holiday,” which is nominated for song of the year, is a medium-tempo gospelly stomp with vocals as forceful as a Martin Luther King speech.
The horn-dominated band features players who have done stints with the Whispers, Etta James, Ray Charles and “The Tonight Show” band.
It’s a stylish group to match the always dapper Walker, whether he’s wearing a natty suit and fedora at his full band gigs or a fashionable sweater and Kangol cap at Shaw’s.
Walker’s resurgence actually began about four years ago when harmonica star Rick Estrin, nominated for a leading seven Blues Music Awards this week, was playing at Famous Dave’s in Uptown and a friend invited him to go see Walker.
“He couldn’t believe that I could be in what he called a little dump like this,” Walker said at Shaw’s. “A few months after that I was a passenger on the Blues Cruise and I did a whole show with Rick and the Nightcats and from that day on, I got some recognition.”
That connection led to Walker’s Estrin-produced album, “If Nothing Ever Changes,” in 2015 — and three nominations for Blues Music Awards.
Moved here after high school
Walker’s career has been a series of fateful and fruitful meetings. Having moved to Minneapolis in 1959 as a high school grad singing in gospel groups, he was at a laundromat one day when a guy said to him “You look like a singer.” They hit it off and formed an R&B group called the Valdons, the first of many Twin Cities soul bands for Walker.
While gigging in the Upper Midwest, Walker got an opportunity to go home to Memphis to record several songs, three of which were issued as singles in 1968.
“The biggest — and worst — thing that happened in my life in music is when I recorded ‘Lucky Loser,’ and I get a call from Shreveport and it was John R,” said Walker of the influential 1950s and ’60s radio DJ. “He said, ‘I want you to introduce your new song.’ I didn’t believe him. So when he got back on, I said, ‘This is a [bleeping] joke.’ ”
Click went the phone and Walker instantly realized his mistake.
“That would have been my break. John R was a starmaker.”
That single was also how Walker became known as “Wee Willie.”
It was Tim Eason, the guy at the laundromat, who coined it.
“I made the mistake of mentioning it while I was in Memphis recording and that’s what they put on the first record,” Walker recalled. “I was so adamant about ‘don’t do that again’ but everybody remembered Wee Willie Walker and they didn’t know who Willie Walker was. I guess that’s who I am.”
How tall is he?
“I used to be 5-5 but I think I’m 5-2½ now,” he joked. “Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Jamming with Prince
At age 8, Walker discovered he had a voice by singing along with the radio and then harmonizing with his older sister. As a teenager, he sang in touring gospel groups and then graduated to R&B groups in Minneapolis. He knows he had missed opportunities.
“It could have happened years ago had I pursued it,” he reflected. “I was afraid to pursue music at that time. I was a young man with a family. I had all those questions about what’s gonna happen that no one could answer.”
A married father of four with a full-time day job as a machinist, Walker performed in the black community on weekends at places like the Nacirema in Minneapolis and Road Buddies BBQ in St. Paul.
“Prince used to come to the Nacirema on Sundays and bring his guitar and sit in,” Walker reminisced. “That kid was something special. Every time he got onstage, the whole damn band sounded better. He was still in his teens. And he had those kind of chops. He’d stay as long as he chose to.”
About 12 years ago, Walker retired from his two-decades job as a health care worker and hooked up with the Butanes, a Twin Cities blues band. They gigged together for several years and released three albums.
Walker just recorded a new tune with Metsa and Sounds of Blackness called “Ain’t Gonna Whistle Dixie Anymore,” a Metsa original with cutting social commentary. It is scheduled to be released Aug. 12, the first anniversary of the confrontation in Charlottesville, Va.
This summer, Walker will be playing festivals in California, Maine and Italy with Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. He’ll appear with Estrin and the Nightcats at a festival in Switzerland. He has regular gigs in the Twin Cities with Metsa at Shaw’s and with his own We “R” Band at the Dakota, Crooners, Vieux Carre and Minnesota Music Cafe.
One place where, surprisingly, he’s never played a proper gig is in the home of the blues, his hometown.
“I’ve never performed in Memphis other than in church or the blues awards,” Walker said. “I wasn’t promoting myself. They didn’t know who the heck I was.”
With all these nominations, they should know who Wee Willie Walker is now. Finally.