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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Remembering the Wonderful Walker Brothers

The passing of John Maus (aka John Walker) prompts us to recall the wonder that was the Walker Brothers, a trio who moved from sun-dappled southern California to rain-sodden London... and found huge pop success in the process. Fred Dellar recounted their story for The History of Rock--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

In the mid-Sixties, just as every worthwhile group in Britain seemed to be setting up tours in the States, Scott Noel Engel, John Joseph Maus and Gary Leeds - who together comprised the Walker Brothers - upped stakes in California and headed in the opposite direction.

Scott and John both had the looks of potential stars. Born 9 January 1944 in Hamilton, Ohio, bass-playing Scott was six foot one inch tall and possessed the sort of deep, sensual voice that made one's toenails curl. Guitarist John Maus, born 12 November 1943 in New York, was a onetime child actor (he had appeared alongside Betty Hutton in a television situation comedy series, Hello Mom). No match for Scott vocally, he nevertheless proved more than competent. And he was taller - six foot four inches, in fact.

The trio was completed by Gary Leeds, probably the least charismatic of the three but who was the only genuine Californian, having been born in Glendale on 3 September 1944. All three had entered the music business as teenagers but had failed to establish themselves thus far. The three came together as the Walker Brothers in 1964 and began to play nightspots like Gazzari's in Hollywood. They also appeared regularly on Los Angeles TV in Hollywood A Go-Go and even grabbed a few moments of screen glory in a low-budget movie called Beach Ball.

It was initially Gary Leeds' idea that the group should try their luck on the other side of the Atlantic - he had earlier toured the UK as drummer with P.J. Proby and felt that the Walkers could prosper in such an environment.

"Gary said we could do really well there," Scott recalled later. "I wanted to get out of America anyway and go to Europe because I'd always been a European film freak. I wanted to see if I could meet Ingmar Bergman and a few other people. So the three of us came over and started going slowly broke. Nothing was happening and we were freezing to death. Straight from California to this in February 1965."

The group did not remain broke for long, however; prior to leaving for Britain, they had recorded some tracks in Hollywood with Jack Nitzsche producing and these impressed Phillips Records enough to get the trio a contract. In March 1965 their first single - 'Pretty Girls Everywhere,' drawn from the LA sessions - emerged on the label. The record flopped; but in June, 'Love Her' (a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil number, again recorded in the States) put the Walker Brothers into the Top Twenty for the first time. They appeared on the Thank Your Lucky Stars TV show, were mobbed in best teen idol tradition, and when their next single, Burt Bacharach and Hal David's 'Make It Easy On Yourself,' came out in August, it went straight to Number 1. 'Make It Easy On Yourself' was produced by Johnny Franz, who knew how to make the most of a booming ballad.

For a while, the Walker Brothers were almost as big as the Beatles; the hits continued and Christmas 1965 saw the trio at Number 3 with 'My Ship Is Coming In,' this being followed in March by a second Number 1 in 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore,' a weepy Bob Gaudio-Bob Crewe ballad that was again ideally suitable for Scott's emotional approach.

By the end of the year, however - although two more singles, '(Baby) You Don't Have To Tell Me' and Bacharach and David's 'Another Tear Falls' made the Top Twenty - there were signs that the three Americans might be heading their separate ways. Gary had been recording in solo vein - notching up mini-hits with 'You Don't Love Me' and 'Twinkie Lee' - while relations between Scott and John were becoming strained.

In April 1967, some months after a comparative flop with 'Stay With Me Baby,' the Walkers played what proved to be their last British gig at the Granada, Tooting. After this Scott, who had always dreaded live performances, stated his intention of leaving, claiming that he couldn't take the pressures any more. Later, in the dressing room, a despondent John Maus told the press: "If Scott quits then that's it as far as I'm concerned - he is the Walker Brothers. I just don't know him any more. I've known the guy for four years and now I can't even talk to him."

By the time the next Walkers single - 'Walking In The Rain' - came out, there was no group to promote it. Scott and John had moved into the recording studios for sessions that would produce solo hits in 'Jackie' and 'Annabella' respectively, while Gary, after a seven-month lay-off, eventually began working with a group called Rain.

As John Maus had earlier admitted, however, Scott Walker was the Walker Brothers. Once his two former partners gradually limped out of the limelight, Scott began to grab hits with 'Joanna,' a Number 7 in 1968, and 'Lights Of Cincinnati,' Number 13 the following year, both of which were again produced by John Franz. At the same time he began to establish himself as a serious entertainer by fashioning three remarkable albums filled with songs that reeked of anger, despair and torment - magnificently morbid items from the Jacques Brel songbook and suicidal melodramas that were written by Scott himself.

Towards the end of the decade, however, Scott Walker gradually withdrew from performance and the public eye. But then in 1975, he linked up once more with Maus and Leeds to record some sides for the GTO label. Initially, reaction to the re-formed Walker Brothers was good and their first single, a version of Tom Rush's 'No Regrets,' climbed into the UK Top Ten. They failed to follow up on this success, however.

The sound of the Walker Brothers in their heyday, and that of Scott Walker's first three solo albums, are still greatly revered by many including Julian Cope, singer with new wave band the Teardrop Explodes. Cope compiled an album of Scott's material in 1981 under the extravagant title Fire Escape In The Sky - The God-Like Genius Of Scott Walker, but even this fulsome tribute could not coax the reclusive American, by then resident in Toronto, Canada, back into the limelight. Though by now it appeared that Scott had lost his creative spark, the legend lived on.

 

Read more wonderful Walker Brothers articles at http://www.rocksbackpages.com/artist.html?ArtistID=walkerbros. Over 18,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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