April 25 – What It Took For Junior To Score A Major Hit

A major hit from Junior made its blew onto the scene this day in 1969. That was Junior Walker & the All Stars sax-happy “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)?”. The single represented quite a comeback for Junior, who’d scored a major hit five years prior with “Shotgun”, a song which has lived on to this day in numerous commercials and movies. It solidified Walker’s reputation as one of the best sax-men in the business and helped usher in the widespread use of horns in pop or rock songs.

Junior” was born Autry Mixon, in rural Arkansas in 1931. He seemed to get to music rather late in life, at least in a professional way, forming a band called the Jumping Jerks around the beginning of the ’60s. At some point, a fan jumped on stage with them and declared “these guys are all stars!” Junior agreed and decided that would be a better name for the group. Apparently Berry Gordy agreed as well; soon after the Motown mogul signed them to Soul Records, a subsidiary of Motown. Walker’s prominent tenor sax differentiated them from most of the other Motown acts of the day, and made them (in the words of Britain’s Independent) “Motown’s answer to Stax’s Booker T & the MGs.” They had good success off the bat with “Shotgun” and were a major presence on R&B radio stations and charts in subsequent years but had only minor mainstream success until this.

The song was written by Motown staffers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, who also produced the record. It would have been a mere “hurtin’ unrequited love song” were it not for Junior’s impassioned pleading voice – he was one of the rare sax players who also sang lead – and of course, the sax that could rival the best horns Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears could have thrown at you in the day. It’s 35-second sax solo intro was like nothing else on air at the time. Which perhaps was why Gordy balked at releasing it as a single.

However, radio DJs found it buried on the Home Cookin’ LP and began playing it, and eventually Motown relented and put it out as a single. A smart move, as it would revitalize the All Stars career and become a gold seller. It got to #4 in the States, topping R&B charts, and made the top 20 in the UK and Canada as well. It was nominated for the very first Best R&B Performance Grammy Award, losing out to the less-remembered King Curtis.

Clarence Clemons later said this was one of the most influential records to him and his playing, and it also found fans in the guys in Foreigner. They liked his playing so much, they wrote a sax part specifically for him on their song “Urgent.” Meanwhile, also in the the ’80s, easy-listening sensation Kenny G re-recorded it and made it a minor hit.

Walker never had as big a hit again, and passed away in 1995 from cancer.

February 12 – People Opened Their Heart To Quarterflash

Sax solos were all over pop music in the ’80s. So too, powerful female singers. The two together though were something special, as the success of Quarterflash shows. The Oregon band were fast out of the gates and had their biggest hit with their debut single, “Harden my Heart”, which reached #3 on this day in 1982.

The Portland band was and still is led by the married couple of Marv and Rindy Ross. He plays guitar and writes while she’s the lead singer, and unusually enough, the sax player. They’d been a band named Seafood Mama for a little while and put out “Harden my Heart” as an indie single in 1980. It became very popular in their home town, got radio play which in turn led to a TV performance on a local channel. When all was said and done, it had sold 10 000 copies, which Marv said was the key to them getting signed nationally to Geffen Records. By that time, about a year later, they’d added some members of another local band, Pilot (not the ’70s band which had the hit “Magic”) and become a six-member outfit that changed its name to Quarter Flash, then simply Quarterflash. The name came from an Australian expression referring to immigrants as “one quarter flash, three quarters foolish.”

They recorded their self-titled debut album for Geffen, with a re-recording of their Portland hit. Marv said Rindy came up with the sax bit herself, but he wrote the rest after “a friend of mine gave me the title. I came up with the lyrics very quickly.” Allmusic approved, giving the record 4-stars, with it highlighted by the “fiery saxophone playing of Rindy Ross.” The public agreed, sending it to #8 at home and going platinum in both the U.S. and Canada. “Harden my Heart” made it to #3 nationwide, spent an impressive 19 weeks on the top 40 and went gold. It spent three weeks at #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The Aussies perhaps liked the band name, and their it went to #6, in Canada, #10.

The single really got them noticed. They had another concert broadcast on their local TV and by year’s end were opening some shows for Elton John, while the follow-up single, “Find Another Fool” rose into the top 20. They were brought on board to do the theme music for the Night Shift movie shortly after that. However, they couldn’t carry the momentum on for long. Their following five albums, according to allmusic, “lacked the contagious riffs or congenial radio formula” found on the debut and they’ve only managed one hit song since, “Take Me To Heart”, a top 20 from ’83.

Perhaps Oregon and the rest of the States have hardened their heart a little towards Quarterflash but since it remains one of the most-played songs from the ’80s on oldies radio, Marv and Rindy have some nice memories – and royalty cheques – from their early days in married life and in music!

June 18 – Remembering The Big Man

Car accidents have put an end to many a promising music career (Harry Chapin, anybody?) but it would be extraordinary for one to create one. And that might be the case with the extraordinary man we remember today, Clarence Clemons. The sax player for Bruce Springsteen passed away 10 years ago today in Florida, a few days after having a massive stroke. The “Big Man” was 69 years old.

Clemons grew up in a musical, but also religious Virginia household. His granddad was a Baptist minister, so Gospel music was the dominant one in his childhood home. There was a love of music however, and at age nine, his dad gave him his first saxophone for a gift, and sent Clarence to lessons. He exceled at the alto sax he was given, and later a baritone one when he joined a high school band. However, he also loved sport, and being a “Big” lad – 6’4” and 240 pounds even as a youth – he was a great football player too. This is where the car wreck comes in. He had a tryout arranged with the Dallas Cowboys, and presumably expected to become an NFL player, but he was in an accident the day before. This caused injuries which scuttled the tryout and effectively ended his football days. Plan B, music.

He’d already played a little in a James Brown tribute band by the end of his college days, and in the mid-’60s he started his own band which was popular enough in the bar scene between the Chesapeake Bay and New York. The turning point was a rainy night in 1971. He was playing in one club in Asbury Park, New Jersey while a very young Bruce Springsteen was playing nearby. They had common acquaintances and Clarence knew of Springsteen, so “on a break between sets, I walked over there…I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth!” He told an interviewer he went to the other club, accidentally pulled the screen door off opening it in a storm and “the band was on stage, but were staring at me, framed in the doorway. Maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous, because I just said ‘I want to play in your band!’ and he said “sure, do anything you want.’” The pair soon began jamming together and when Bruce began to tour in 1972, Clarence was an integral part of his backing E Street Band.

The pair became not only musical collaborators, but close friends. “We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives,” Clemons would say. And of course, they were missing links in each other’s music. Clemons’ sax solos and flourishes added the extra touch to so many Springsteen songs from “Jungleland” to “Thunder Road” to even “The Boss’” Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” It was indeed one of the touches that elevated Springsteen above so many other classic rock troubadours. “He gave everything he had, every night,” Springsteen said of him.

Outside of the Boss and the E Street Band, Clarence kept busy. He took a few roles acting in movies (one of the “three most important people in the world” in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, for example) and he had his own nightclub in Red bank, New Jersey. Along the way he put out three solo records as well, the most successful being the 1985 release Hero, which included the single “You’re A Friend of Mine”, with Jackson Browne (not to mention Browne’s then girlfriend Daryl Hannah) on it.

Upon his death, Bruce said “Clarence led a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people, that made them love him. He loved our fans.” Eddie Vedder, hearing of his death played “Better Man” with the chorus changed to “Bigger man” as a tribute to him in a Pearl Jam show that night, and the next day Bon Jovi played a version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” as a tribute while pictures of Clarence flashed on the screen behind them. Soon artists as varied as Lady Gaga, the Gaslight Anthem and Jimmy Buffett all performed their own tributes… proving that Clemons was a Big Man in more ways than one.