Tuesday, January 16, 2018


The Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico attracted not only many bands from the US Midwest and Rocky Mountain region, but also from Canada. Petty’s affordable by-the-song, not by-the-hour rates, his proven history of hits, his many contacts in the industry, his ingenuity in the studio, his approach which emphasized bringing out the band’s own sound rather than imposing his own heavy production hand, and his affable but business-like manner were no doubt all good reasons for his appeal among bands who both wanted a professional sound AND perhaps a touch of the magic that could potentially come from working in the studio and with the man responsible for so many classics from the likes of Buddy Holly, The Crickets, and The Fireballs.

The UK Ace label did a number of releases from Petty’s archive in past years, including a series of fairly comprehensive releases of the complete catalogue of the much-underrated Fireballs, featuring the distinctive guitar of George Tomsco and the distinctive vocals of Jimmy Gilmer. They also did a few various artists releases, including one called GET READY TO FLY, which featured mid-to-late 60’s bands. One of those bands was WILLIE & THE WALKERS, from Edmonton, Alberta.

In recent years, in close cooperation with the Norman Petty estate and tape archives, Shawn Nagy’s SUPER OLDIES label has been digging much deeper, putting out a regular run of albums, with new ones every month or two, of Petty archive material, including much which was unreleased, and all directly from the Petty master tapes. These have been fascinating and a goldmine for the Petty fan--because most of Petty’s productions were licensed to other labels, because the man never encouraged a cult of personality, because of his somewhat “square” persona, and because Clovis, New Mexico, is not New York or Chicago or Memphis, Norman Petty has not been given the attention that he deserves. His productions have a unique “sound,” and his massive body of work is quite impressive. With all the obscure Petty music coming out on Super Oldies, and with a DVD documentary on Petty and his studio in the pipeline, let’s hope things will change. Until then, there is a lot of great music to discover and enjoy, and this collection from WILLIE & THE WALKERS is a perfect example.

A quintet of musicians came down from Edmonton to Clovis to record on three different occasions in 1966 and 1967, resulting in a total of 15 tracks, from which came three singles on Capitol of Canada, the last of which Petty was also able to place with United Artists in the US. The first session, from July 1966, has a lean, moody, organ-based sound which will remind many of the great New England 60’s garage bands. This sound is developed more in a four-song May 1967 session, and it’s interesting to note that ALL the material from the first two sessions is original. It’s not until the third and final Petty session in October 1967 that any covers are recorded. This is the reverse of the method of most 60’s bands, who usually started off doing mostly covers until they developed their song-writing skills. Perhaps the expense of traveling to New Mexico encouraged the band to bring their A-Game to this session, instead of doing covers of, say, “Midnight Hour” or “Just Like Me” or whatever else they might have been doing in their live sets. The three covers are all first-rate. By this time the band had developed its own sound, and the songs taken from The Rascals, Verdelle Smith, and The Kinks truly sparkle--in fact, the cover of “Tired Of Waiting For You” could have been released as a single...it’s that confident and distinctive.

Willie & The Walkers were a simple quintet, two guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums, and they are not augmented by unnecessary studio musicians, but Petty could always get a full, rich sound out of a basic rock-and-roll band, and that’s the case here. So while no one would label most of this material “garage punk,” it IS all punchy and live-sounding. I think I hear a second keyboard on one track (maybe I’m dreaming), so perhaps Violet Petty or Norman himself added that, and two songs with unique guitar work evoke the sound of Fireballs guitarist George Tomsco, a man who was a constant presence in the Clovis studios during this period. If he’s not actually playing on those two tracks, one wonders if he at least advised the band how to get the distinctive tones heard. Or maybe I’m shortchanging the band’s own abilities. In any case, it’s a solid set of 15 songs, and had these three sessions come out as an album, it would be considered a classic by fans of 60’s regional rock and roll bands.

What do they sound like? Hmmm....how about the Cryan Shames without the Byrds fixation? Or The Lovin’ Spoonful without the jug band influence? Or maybe The Knickerbockers without the nightclub showband trappings? How about Gary Lewis and the Playboys as a self-contained quintet with no need for studio musicians and with their own strong songwriters?

It’s to their credit that while they do not have some off-the-wall, radical sound, they do not really sound like anyone else. Nowhere here can you point your finger and say “they are REALLY into The Beatles” or The Byrds or whoever. If you played me this album with no explanation of who or what it was, I’d guess they were from Connecticut or Ohio or something. Elements remind me of Boston bands, but there would probably be Boston accents and more emphasis on electric piano, and neither of those can be found here.

Overall, Willie & The Walkers were an impressive band with a solid body of work, and this late in the game it’s surprising to find 15 strong, well-produced tracks without the padding of demos or cover versions from the band’s live set. Another feather in the cap of the late great producer Norman Petty, who brought his Midas Touch to a group of young men from Western Canada and took what was strongest and most distinctive about the band and focused it and sharpened it and presented it in its best light, with a strong punchy sound. You can order the album here. However, be aware that these Norman Petty archive albums have been selling out in a few months, so order now....and also check out the rest of the Super Oldies website for further Petty collections. This is a surprisingly strong collection and should be a must-own for the fan of 60's regional rock and roll bands.

1 comment:

Gary Field said...

I just got a copy - only 4 left people!