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An Interview with Jimmy Walker of the Knickerbockers
By Katy Levy
So, if you don’t mind, let’s go back right at the beginning… You are originally from the East Coast, is it true that you were born in the Bronx?
This is true! I’m from New York.
How was it like when you grew up?
When I lived in the Bronx, well… growing up there was kind of interesting. It is New York and it is one of the most interesting places on the planet. There’s so much to do and see and I was an avid sports fan so I could go to see the New York Yankees play. I played a lot of sports myself. There were a lot of outlets for that and also for music. I used to go downtown to Manhattan with friends and we’d go to Birdland and other jazz places and watch the really great musicians play. I think that people who come from New York, if they take advantage of it, are around some of the greatest situations in the world, best musicians and artists. Because people from other places, other states, other countries go to New York to act and play, to study music and study writing. So you have the advantage of people coming to your city, bringing their talent with them and you don’t have to travel very much. It’s a melting pot. So, I think that was really cool. I mean, you’ve got great stuff like museums, the Natural History, the New York Public Library on 2nd Avenue. You’ve got the zoo; the best zoo in the world is in the Bronx… the Bronx Zoo. You’ve got all kind of places that you can go and take advantage of for educational purposes and just to broaden your views of the world.
I feel that was the greatest part about growing up in New York… It had its disadvantages. In my neighborhood it started to get tough! There were a lot of gangs started to come up in the late ‘50s. That’s when it was starting to get downright dangerous. That was the disadvantage of being a teenager in a dangerous neighborhood, you really had to watch yourself. But you know, it makes you street smart!
Do you come from a musical background or are you the only artist in the family?
The only person in the family who had any musical ability was my dad, he could sing really well. And he could play the drums, same as me.
Well, actually my next question was about your discovery of the drums, where it came from, what attracted you to that particular instrument. So it came from your dad?
Yeah! I think if you have a talent, at least me at a very early age – I was maybe seven or eight years old – you just naturally gravitate towards it. I watched drummers on television. My uncle was a musicologist and a copyist for the army band at West Point. He bought me my first snare drum and sticks and brushes when I was nine. He was also a kind of saxophone player and even in our first little jam session in my house, my uncle pulled out his saxophone and we started playing old swing stuff. He noticed and said that I had an unusual gift for it. So even at an early age, it was just totally natural for me to be able to play the drums. I couldn’t understand why everybody couldn’t do it!
So, before you joined the Knickerbockers, you were in a New York band called the Castle Kings. What sort of music did you play?
Yeah! Well you know, the street doo-wop, rock ’n’ roll, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Isley Brothers, Little Richard – the early rock ’n’ roll stuff. One late afternoon, we were standing outside in front of Atlantic Records. We just had a meeting with Dot Records, they were in the same building as Atlantic. So we’re standing outside, harmonizing, waiting for one of the guys’ dad to pick us up – this is a true story – harmonizing to some goofy song that one of the guys in the band wrote and Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, heard us and told us to meet him the next day. So we did! He actually signed us to a contract and we recorded three or four records. I was recording with some of the legends of the business. People like Phil Spector, Ahmet Ertegun and his brother Nesuhi. These guys were legends and we were in the studio with them and I didn’t know who they were! So I mean, at a very early age, we were doing things with the heavyweights of the business and we didn’t even know it.
Apart from being an amazing drummer, you also sing… Is it true you that you joined the Knickerbockers because of that extra talent and why were they looking for a drummer who could sing?
They were looking for a drummer and the first time I saw the Knickerbockers was in a neighborhood venue. It was a supermarket that had been emptied, sold-out and it was reopened to do a little party on Memorial Day. I was walking down the street and I heard this music so I went back and they were set up playing as a trio. Buddy, the saxophone player was playing the drums, really well, and I thought, boy this is a band I’d love to play with! A couple of weeks or months later, they called me up because they’d heard I was a drummer and that I was looking for work. So I went and set up in John and Beau’s house and we played, but my drumming skills were a little bit on the amateur side because I was still young. Then they asked me to sing, I sang some rock ’n’ roll stuff and John and Beau’s mum heard me sing and she said “Hire that guy, he does sound good”! So my skills with drumming didn’t get me the work, it was the singing. Then I improved as a drummer because you get to play a lot. Also, Buddy taught me a lot of stuff on the drums that he got from other good drummers. But it was actually my voice that got me the job.
Actually my next question was about your first experience of the studio with the Knickerbockers. But it wasn’t in fact your first because you just said you recorded with your previous band. According to Beau, it was pretty intimidating to experience the studio for the first time. How did you feel about that?
Actually, I was really thrilled. I thought recording was really exciting, that was the next step to being a real musician. The next step after that was, I don’t know – money and fame, and the journey through the studio was the way to get there. I thought it was a great opportunity and I love listening to stuff that you played and then you listen to it back. I love doing that, I still love it, it’s just no different. Absolutely no different, I still love to record! Music as an art form is like a painter who paints a picture and can step back and look at it. But if you’re playing live in a nightclub, you can’t step back and listen to what you did. So I always thought that the neatest part of the music process was somebody recording what you did. I love to be recorded live too… I feel that it’s a real way to learn from your mistakes and learn from what you did well.
At the time, you met the producer Jerry Fuller…
We met Jerry Fuller on the East Coast, up in Albany, New York. We were playing in a place called, believe it or not, the University Twist Palace! He came through as an artist trying to…he was in Buffalo, NY, which is in the western side of the state. So he did a little tour, trying to sell himself as an artist and he was working his way down to Manhattan. He was going to open an East Coast publishing company for 4 Stars Music. So on the way there, he was playing with all these bands, singing and he was already a writer of four hit records himself. He did “Traveling Man”… When he ran into us, he really liked us a lot. I remember at one point, we were doing some rock ’n’ roll stuff and then he said, “You guys wouldn’t happen to know ‘Misty,’ the old Johnny Mathis tune?” And we just laughed. Buddy started playing the intro and, boom, we were into it! He was just flabbergasted that a rock ’n’ roll band could play “Misty” with such sophistication. Beau, the guitarist is a master of chord progression. He was really well schooled in that kind of genre. So Jerry was really impressed with the ability as a band to play a song like “Misty” with such flair. That blew him away. So he called the West Coast people at Challenge Records and he told them about us. We did some demo stuff in New York studios. Challenge Records was not really that big of a record company but, you know, we did that to, I don’t know, to show off our abilities to the record company.
So you found yourself playing the Red Velvet Club in Hollywood quite regularly…
Jerry wanted us to move to the West Coast so he got hold of the owner of the Red Velvet and he booked us there. It was a kind of a neat venue because a lot of people from television and the music industry would go there to hang out. It was like a local watering hole for the celebrities. So we got the gig there and, you know, the rest is history. We got a hit record a month later!
Is it there that you first met Bill Medley and especially Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers with whom you collaborated a few years later?
Yeah, they used to come in and listen to us and we got them to sit in with us a bunch of times. We got friendly with them. You see, the thing is the show Shindig was being shot at ABC Studios which was close to home for them. So they would do their Shindig show and drive up Sunset Boulevard out west to where they lived in Beverly Hills. They would drive by the Red Velvet and drop in. Everybody heard about this group (the Knickerbockers) in the business and how good we were so we just drew a lot of curiosity seekers to see what we were all about.
So after the release of “Lies,” the band wanted “Just One Girl” as the second single but your record company Challenge wanted “One Track Mind.” In retrospect, do you still think that was a mistake? I find both songs very exciting and bursting with energy…
I think “Just One Girl” was a more exciting record, but it’s all conjecture as to what would have been a hit. You never know, but the song was written by one of the members of the band and “One Track Mind” was written by Keith Colley and his wife Linda. The record was good and we liked it. It was a good song and I thought we did a good job on the record, but like I said, in this business you never know what’s gonna hit and what isn’t. With the original copy of “Lies,” the record company had assigned it to be the B-side. If it wasn’t for B. Mitchell Reed, one of the big DJs in Los Angeles at the time, who used to come in and see us at the Red Velvet… He asked our promotional guy when he brought the record up to him and said, “Where did you guys record that ‘Lies’ song that they play in the club?” He replied, “Yeah, that’s the B-side” and B. Mitchell Reed, without even hesitating went, “No, it ain’t now!” and put it on the air. He didn’t even listen to it; he just put it on the air, put the needle down and said, “Here’s the brand new record by the Knickerbockers!”
You also mentioned the lack of time in the studio when you were recording, which must have been very frustrating. Nevertheless, the band sounded very tight and that rhythm section between you and John was really happening!
Well, we’ve been together for a while and John and I always had a good groove together. We used to rehearse like crazy before we went in the studio so we knew up front that we won’t get the time to mess around in the studio. I’m kind of a proponent of that. I think that by going in the studio and spending a lot of time on a track, you lose the spontaneity and the electric energy that you can get in the first five or six takes. After that, it can get kind of stale. You know, on top of that, I’d have liked to have spent more time on overdubbing vocals and other instruments. But for the track itself, I like to have it well rehearsed and just play it. Try to get that energy right away.
But you were still trying things in the studio. For example, on that alternate instrumental track of “Lies” released by Sundazed, we can hear you talking and trying to get a certain drum beat.
Oh yeah! Sure. You can rehearse all you want, but when you hear what you rehearsed played back, then you have an objective view point of it. You can stand back and listen to it and discuss good and bad points. Maybe we should try to change this or that. On the first couple of cuts of “Lies,” I was playing too much stuff on the drums and it was pointed out to me by the producer/engineer Bruce Botnick. Bruce said, “You know, maybe you should cut down on some of those fills.” So I thought about it and the guys in the band agreed so I just kept it simple. You know, stuff like that would happen. I was so used to playing that song live that I was just playing too much stuff. And we were just young and still learning what works and what doesn’t.
The band apparently did all the Dick Clark tours. Do you remember playing with the Yardbirds?
I don’t think we ever played with the Yardbirds that I can remember…
Because they did one of those tours when Jeff Beck was in the band. That’s when he had a nervous breakdown and quit!
I don’t remember that! I didn’t meet the Yardbirds or Jeff Beck. They’re one of the greatest bands of all time. I love Jeff Beck. I played his material in different bands over the years and I always found his material really interesting.
Oh he’s a genius, he’s very unique…
Yeah, I agree… That’s it! He is unique. He stands totally different from most of the other guitar players. You can’t really tell his roots sometimes. You think, Where did he get that from?
So on those tours, did you feel at times like close to a nervous breakdown or did you actually had quite a bit of fun?
A lot of guys had nervous breakdowns on the road. The road is a killer. You know, when I first met the Rolling Stones, they looked totally beaten down! In the interview I read that Beverly Paterson did with Beau, he said they came in and they looked dark and scary. They looked like they were undertakers! He really couldn’t believe the way they looked and acted. They didn’t say hello to anybody, they just looked spent.
Yeah, it’s true that touring is very tiring…
It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life. Doing one-nighters, traveling and putting out all that energy every night. It’s very hard. I mean, look what happened to Clapton back in the ‘60s. He had to go in for rehab for a while because he was using drugs to get him up and down. That’s where drugs came in. The guys would be using the upper drugs to get up and then the downer drugs to go to sleep. First thing you know, you’re addicted.
Jerry Fuller once commented on the very separate personalities in the band, something that makes the nucleus of a good group. Judging from the pictures, you seem rather outgoing and from your playing, very energetic. How would you describe Beau, John and Buddy back then?
Well, we were all pretty young and we all had the same sort of East Coast sense of humor – self-deprecating, poking fun at one another a lot but knowing it was fun. I mean, we still make one another laugh. The last time we were together in 1990, we were just cracking up all the time!
It was that reunion, wasn’t it?
Yeah, and we still have that same look about things. Jerry loved being around us because we were constantly just cracking jokes about each other. Similar outlook on life! Yeah, we had a lot of energy. I talk to Beau regularly, he’s still playing. He’s doing a little jazz solo thing locally.
You co-wrote “Come and Get It” with Beau Charles and “Can You Help Me” with Jerry Fuller. Did you write the music or the lyrics?
The lyrics and the melody. That’s how I write and then I go to someone who plays an instrument and put chords to the melody that I wrote. Then we discuss that until we come up with something that we both like. I always write both the lyrics and the melody. I just walk in, sing the song and then they’ll figure out what I’m trying to say with the chords. You know, songs occur to me in the most mysterious ways. I find myself singing and saying “Hey, that’s a song!” It’s almost as if I’m not even listening to what my mind is doing until I had stepped back and go “Wait a minute, that’s a song!”
So you were the last to join the Knicks and the first to leave…
Unless you consider that Buddy kind of disappeared… After we had “Lies” and after we had toured a lot, we were kind of looking for another record company but we were stuck with Challenge. They would not let us go, it was a mess. Buddy got into using substances and one night he didn’t show up to work. We were playing a place out in the Valley called the Rag Doll. We played the first set without him and I called his home. His wife said, “Oh yeah, he left about an hour ago,” and we said, “Hmm… that’s weird!” He never showed up and I didn’t see Buddy again for years, until after I joined the Righteous Brothers. He just skipped out of town and left everybody. So he was the first one to leave… That was one of the reasons that I wanted to leave because it just wasn’t the same without him. He was a pivotal player in the band, he was a very powerful player and when he left I felt… You know when you get used to fuor guys and you think like one mind, when part of it is gone you kind of have a big gap in the energy and the process of making music. We really missed him. We tried to get other guys. We tried drummers and then we tried a keyboard player, he was a letdown. So the band at that time was kind of floundering.
So at the time, did you feel a bit bitter and felt the band could have achieved even more or was it pas de regrets and you were looking forward to the future?
Well, a little of both. I think that when Buddy left we were kind of lost. Buddy was one of those kind of guys… On one side of the coin, he was very brilliant and on the other side of the coin, he was a high maintenance kind of guy you had to babysit because he had some issues. It’s true of a lot of great players. When he left, we didn’t exactly know what to do. So when Bobby Hatfield hit on me to do the Righteous Brothers thing, I then thought, Yeah, let’s go there, because the band was not going into any direction. Also, you have to remember Beau had spoken to me in a coffee shop in Seattle while we were on the road, about seriously considering leaving the band. He wanted to just quit playing for a while. So he was not up and full of energy like he was anymore, he wasn’t happy. He wanted to spend more time at home with his family and he planted that seed in my head. So when I was approached by Bobby Hatfield to join the Righteous Brothers, I had nobody at all so it was time to make a change.
You recorded the album Rebirth in 1969 on Verve/MGM. How much did you write on it and did you play drums as well?
Yeah, I wrote a song called “Nobody’s Gonna Take Me” and I played drums on every cut. I didn’t really want to because my skills as a drummer had eroded a bit as I had not played much. I wanted a band sound and I wanted the same drummer on the whole album but couldn’t get anybody to be available for the whole project. I also produced the album with guitarist Barry Rillera and the engineer, mixing and arranging. Bobby would get bored and leave.
Where did you perform?
All the major universities in America and clubs like the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood. We played in Japan and the Philippines and were regulars in Las Vegas. We had sell-out crowds. We were a very popular act at the Sands Hotel in Vegas. I was with the Righteous Brothers for over four years. I got really good by the time Bobby decided to take a break. I wanted to carry on but Bobby didn’t want to so he broke the act.
You also appeared on many TV shows.
Yeah, we did the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour amongst others. (Note: both can be found on YouTube. They did a great Sam & Dave medley on the Smothers Brothers Show.)
Around the same time, you signed a record deal with Columbia Records as a solo artist.
Yeah, Jerry Fuller left Challenge Records and went to work for Columbia. I recorded three singles including “I Got The Best Of You.” I had a dual contract with both Columbia and Verve/MGM which is quite unusual. Jerry discovered Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, and he had the songs that became hits for Gary like “Young Girl” and “Woman, Woman.” I was supposed to record them before he did but my previous label Challenge would not let me go. I had to record an album to close the contract. It’s called How Can I Forget, and has recently resurfaced on iTunes and other digital downloads outlets. One single was released at the time called “Drown In My Broken Dreams” / “Always Leaving, Always Gone”.
To close the subject on the ‘60s, what do you miss the most and the least about that decade?
Well, to me that was one the most interesting eras of music because it was very experimental.
And very creative…
Yeah, a lot of creativity. The artistry was being allowed to happen. The record companies were more or less standing back and just taking what the artists gave them and then marketing it. Whereas later on, what they did was tell the artists what song to do to make it easier for them to sell it. Instead of the marketers saying, “Just give me your art and I’ll market it,” they say “We want this so we can make it easier for our marketing department to sell it.” That wasn’t happening in the ‘60s. I don’t think that Jimi Hendrix would have made it today. Or the Doors, or a lot of bands like Crosby, Still, Nash & Young. I don’t think they would have passed the front door. Even the Eagles. Because they were different, they were creating something entirely new. Even Otis Redding. I mean, who sounds like Otis Redding? Nobody. They would say, “Well you don’t sound enough like so and so therefore we’re not going to sign you”. But in those days, it was much more open policy and it was a great era of music. The ‘50s had some great moments too. Then in the ‘70s and ‘80s and even the ‘90s, the marketing took control because they could see the huge amount of money that was being made.
In the 70’s, Jimmy joined the hot Soul/Funk band Oasis and later on into the ‘80s, Hot Street, with ex-Tower of Power’s guitarist Bruce Conte. In 1990, the Knickerbockers reunited and performed in Florida to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, Buddy Randell passed away a few years later preventing further reunions.
Jimmy moved to Las Vegas where he formed the Jimmy Walker Band, playing all over town including at BB King’s Blues Club. He also recorded the album Playing To Win with his friend Jeff Palmer. It is available for downloads on CD Baby, iTunes and other digital outlets.
Recently, the solo album that he recorded for Challenge in 1968 resurfaced and is also available for downloads on iTunes. It’s called How Can I Forget.
Jimmy recently released a new album. Download a copy here: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/
Please visit his website: http://jimmywalkerinmysoul.
© Katy Levy 2015