Wee Willie Walker, one of the earliest and greatest soul singers to emerge from the Twin Cities scene, has died at age 77. Walker’s wife Judy confirmed the sad news in an e-mail; a cause of death was not immediately available.
Update 12/22: Judy Walker has announced that a celebration of Willie Walker’s life will be held on Dec. 22 at the Minnesota Music Café in St. Paul; details TBA.
Walker moved to Minneapolis from Memphis as a teen around 1960, an experienced singer who found a welcoming musical community as a peer of artists like Sonny Knight, Maurice McKinnies, and Mojo Buford — making him a pioneer in the Twin Cities funk and soul scene that would ultimately produce artists like Prince, Morris Day, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
He was a member of the Valdons with Willie Murphy, and became the original lead singer of Willie and the Bees. Walker continued touring and performing right up through this year, playing dates around the world and remaining a regular presence on local stages like the Minnesota Music Café.
“Memphis was a beautiful place, but I knew it wasn’t for me,” Walker told The Current’s Andrea Swensson in an interview for her book Got To Be Something Here. He and his bandmates, he remembered, “came to Minnesota three times in ’59, and after the second time I told them it wouldn’t be a good idea to go back to Minnesota because I liked the place, and I said if we go back to Minnesota I’m gonna stay.”
Walker would return to Memphis for recording sessions with Goldwax Records, but remained based in Minnesota. Though he continued performing, he worked other jobs to make ends meet until he saw interest in his music soar after he started cutting new tracks to capitalize on a European market for his classic sound. The Butanes were longtime collaborators, and he also made a record with singer-songwriter Paul Metsa. Most recently, he was performing with a band called Willie Walker and We “R.”
Locally, Walker’s tracks on Secret Stash’s historic Twin Cities Funk & Soul compilation helped return the veteran singer to the limelight. He took the Fitzgerald Theater stage in 2017 for the Got To Be Something Here release show, where he shared the stage with PaviElle.
When Walker, fresh off the plane from one of his international excursions, was told there unfortunately wouldn’t be time for him to warm up or sound check, the seasoned pro told the sound technician he had only one question. “Are you going to turn the microphone on? That’s all I need.”