Born: 1943 | Died: February 4, 2008 Primary Instrument: Organ, Hammond B3
Winston Walls - Hammond organ (1943 - 2008)
There's a lot of cats who can play, but everybody's not special. I'm special-I'm a bad dude. Having somehow managed a 30 year career behind folks like the Pointer Sisters, Lou Donaldson and Sonny Stitt without a single recording of his own until his “Boss of the B3,” in 1993, Winston Walls was certainly one bad dude when it comes to Hammond players.
He was born in a car in Ironton, Ohio, in 1943, as his family was en route from Lexington, Ky., to their Charleston home. Music was a family affair. His father, Harry Van Walls served as house pianist for Atlantic Records during the 1950s and was recognized by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation with a Pioneer Award in 1997.
After studying drums with the late, great Charleston drummer Frank Thompson, Winston got a lucky break when Hammond great Bill Doggett's drummer didn't show for a gig at Charleston's Municipal Auditorium. Soon, he was picking up what he could from Doggett and switched to the electric Hammond organ, filling in for his mentor at weekly jam sessions.
Winston went on to travel with Dionne Warwick, Al Green, Charlie Pride, Ike and Tina Turner, Lou Donaldson and Sonny Stitt.
He and longtime cohort and fellow organist, the late Brother Jack McDuff, discovered guitarist George Benson when he was a teenager playing in Pittsburgh. After a highly spirited disagreement as to whose band Benson would join, Winston accompanied McDuff to Benson's house where they talked his parents into letting him go on the road with McDuff.
Winston would play anywhere and everywhere and I'd venture that nearly every Charleston musician from the '70s to the '90s has a few Winston gigs under his/her belt. It was as a simple duo or trio, with players like Frank Thompson, Marshall Petty, Bob Redd, Dugan Carter and Rabbit Jones, that he absolutely killed.
He was perhaps the finest, most intuitive musician I've ever had the joy of hearing. In his hands, musical labels -- whether Rock Candy (a McDuff tune), the blindingly fast Caravan, a gospel tune, country standard or the Electric Slide -- were meaningless.
He was old school all the way. He came up during a time when entertaining a crowd was nearly as important as developing your chops. With one wisecrack he could put an entire room at ease - or, if he chose, make them wriggle uncomfortably.
He had a razor sharp wit and could read an audience like a stand-up comic - which, along with being a motorcycle trick rider, professional roller skater, and a wrestler (under the name of The Claw), was one of his many itinerant jobs over the years.
And whether your first impression was of a world-class player, a charming gentleman or an incredibly cranky and gruff curmudgeon, you would never forget even a chance encounter.
As is the case with many artists, Winston was often his own worst enemy. He turned down or sabotaged more opportunities (including contracts with the Columbia and RCA labels) than most musicians are offered. Whether it was insecurity, a fear of success or simple cantankerousness, he exhausted the good will of a long list of supporters and benefactors. But that was Winston.
Beneath an exterior that was rough enough to intimidate even the most self-assured musician, he was a soft-hearted sweetheart (he never went to sleep without his favorite Teddy bear). Sitting in with him often turned into a serious music lesson. He knew how to make even an average player sound like a pro.
But if he sensed you were cocky and needed to be brought down a few notches, he would run through key and tempo changes that made even a great player sound like a bumbling amateur. One night at the Empty Glass, I witnessed Taj Mahal shrink to the back of the stage when Winston, who was singing and playing guitar, looked at him with that famous scowl and called on him for a solo.
Onstage, he was ferocious. The Hammond organ is an instrument all its own and he knew it as well as anyone. Pushing and pulling drawbars, and running lightning fast bass lines with his feet, he could coax a symphony - or cacophony - from the beast.
In his heyday, he was one of four top-shelf organists - the others being the incomparable Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff and Richard Groove Holmes - who toured the country performing nightly Battle of the Organs. For his first and only solo recording, 1993's Boss of the B3, producer Steve Bergman and I reunited Winston and McDuff to recreate a classic Battle of the Organ session. Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote after witnessing those shows:
“What began as a standard blues was taking a radical detour. Every limb was working: Walls' feet were a blur, dancing and tapping out a speedy bass line; his left hand was busy playing chords while the fingers on his right hand worked through an intricate solo.
Slowly, Winston stood up and threw his head back. His eyes rolled back in their sockets. Musically, the intervals grew closer, slowly transforming melody into demonic dissonance. The crowd was right there with him. Moving in for the kill, he held down a note while turning the organ on and off. The beast responded with whines and growls. The music was swinging so hard it felt like the entire room might explode.
Winston's musical battle cry was: Somebody say yeah... somebody say hell, yeah!! He would hit the crowd with that a number of times each gig and it never failed to get a rousing response.
Winston Walls passed on Feb. 4, 2008, he was one bad dude!!
Bio by Michael Lipton who is a founder of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and wrote the liner notes to Boss of the B3.
Source: Michael Lipton