Calvin Walker: Legendary Musician

alvin Walker has a long history as a drummer, singer, producer and music industry insider and confidant. In October of 2012, he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for excellence in all of those areas. As a musician, he is (not was) a drummer and vocalist. He has been described as a “pivotal player” in the music scene in Oregon since the 1970s. He has performed with Shirley Nanette who sang with Calvin and the Conquerors Orchestra, plus with the Natural Gas Company and Cruise Control. He has been on the same bill with Miles Davis, the Temptations and Lou Rawls.

Legend has it that Walker was in the band that first performed at the newly restored Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The Calvin Walker Band was popular, and so was the music Walker produced for artists such as Michael Allen Harrison, Five Fingers of Funk, Sheila Wilcoxson, and many others. Walker also headed up the local musicians union.

In 2003 Walker became development director of KMHD, the jazz radio station that at the time was a part of Mount Hood Community College. The operation of the station was transferred to Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2008. While Walker was there he was, many times, the voice of reason in a sea of chaos. I joined the station in 2007 and found the lengthy conversations with Walker not only to be a great help, but also very entertaining. He is known for speaking at great length. He is remembered fondly by the KMHD DJs for that reason, even if it was difficult to get off the phone.

KMHD was a minefield at the time. Hamstrung by union rules (ironically), the management of the station was unable to move out personnel who were harming the product. Walker knew this. When KMHD went over to OPB, Walker stayed put at Mount Hood Community College, not on the radio side or even the development side, but as a counselor.

At his Oregon Music Hall of Fame induction this past October, Walker surprised everyone who knows him by sticking to the time allotted. He performed at the event later that evening.

How do you feel about being inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame?

I think it was very cool. I started to play music because I got that same feeling I’m sure thousands of others have had. They don’t know why they have it and they don’t even know why they get good at it, even when they look back on it. There’s certainly a lot of time and dedication to it, and you learn your craft as well as you can and you emulate others. If you’re lucky like I was you were in an environment where there were really great musicians, during a great time in the history of where music was. I’m 61 years old, so you have to remember I started playing music professionally when I was 8, 9 years old. I was playing nightclubs at 12 years old.

Nightclubs? At 12?

I mean nightclubs. You know, hanging out with grown-up people.

Did you look like you were older than your age?

No. No, man. By fifteen I was doing sometimes six nights a week, you know. I was backing up singing groups, people who came in off the road. I saw some great groups on the way up and on the way down. I got to play at the famed Teen-Age Fair and I wasn’t even a teenager. I was probably 12 or 13 then. I saw Sly & the Family Stone in 1966-67 before they were even a big group. I played all that stuff.

You were playing drums?

I was playing drums, yeah. I played trumpet a little bit. I tried to sing and play drums at the same time and was in a group with two drummers. I was playing with the people that were unique: Thara Memory, for instance. When you’re only 16 or 17 years old—I mean, really.

You have to remember back in those days in Portland, as liberal-minded as we choose to be these days (and I don’t say it with any kind of trepidation at all, really truthfully), at that time there was a certain racial division. The black community had several nightclubs, man—the Cotton Club [on Vancouver Avenue], and others up and down Williams Avenue. Ron Steen was living right across the street [from the Cotton Club]. That club was packed—packed with floor shows, singing groups and female impersonators. And then on Sundays, the jam sessions… at 12 or 13 we’d get each other up there and play with all the jazz cats. Imagine coming up in that, 6 nights a week.

You know, we never believed in that whole thing about you should only play on the northeast side of town, so we went downtown and started playing down there. We drove a truck out to Vortex (the Albina Arts Center) and we could go in there and practice. We set our stuff up in there permanently and we just went there to practice every day after school. I came up in a wonderful, wonderful time. There was no Internet. You were lucky if you got to see Hullabaloo and Shindig on TV.

When you were that young did you think, “This is what I am going to do for the rest of my life”?

No, man. I was interested in being a schoolteacher. I mean of course I wanted to play music, but at the same time, I wanted to go into education. I was involved in political things too. It was the sixties so I was into H. Rap Brown. I was president of the Black Student Union at our high school. I went to Reed College and from there I went to Portland State, becoming a teaching assistant.

But you still wanted to have a hit record.

Of course. Everybody has those dreams. But you gotta have some reality too. I guess I had a good upbringing that way because a lot of those cats only chased that dream. You know where they are now and it’s a cold world out here today, man. I’m blessed by God and the spirits above for the ability and the good fortune to have that type of freedom filling me with artful thoughts and music every single day. Yeah, I’m thankful that I did that. But I’m also thankful at this late date that I can go out and make a living, pay my bills.

What exactly do you do at Mt. Hood Community College?

I’m an academic advisor. I started in that job after I had been development director at KMHD. I certainly miss, not so much the job, but the personalities and the individuals that I had the opportunity to work with over that period of about five-and-a-half years at KMHD. It was really an enlightening experience. And being a musician, a jazz musician—you know, having played that music—I was really acquainted with it, so it was never just a job (dollars and cents) for me. I really believed in the notion of public radio.

You’re no longer involved with Portland’s Musicians Union, Local 99, right?

No, but I have great respect for what union local president Bruce Fife is doing and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do that too. I thought, look, I’m blessed again. I meet great people at great concerts. How could I complain about that? Unions are a great part of the American landscape. That’s just all there is to it. They give the common man the opportunity to have his voice, but you have it collectively. Now individually we’re just little mice, you know, “of mice and men.” But collectively we’re a power and a force and I hope that never goes away.

And so how would you sum up your experience with the union?

I loved every single second of it. I love playing music, but you have to realize that I came from a place where there was dignity and respect for musicians, man. People went out and lived with each other, for a lack of a better term. That’s what they did every night. And I was lucky enough to be a musician at that point in time. Like I said, that was such a beautiful, wonderful time. It was the baby boom in their prime. It was in its own little cocoon, in its own little bubble, which was just fine. There was more art, and people appreciated the written word more; they appreciated music more. We had more clubs, and I don’t want to see anybody hurt by drinking and driving, but you know, the laws were a little bit more lax so people could go out and have a good time.

I’m a musician and I hang out with musicians and they’ll say, “Oh we don’t want to play too much you know because we’ll get overexposed.” Well what a bunch of crap. I played six, seven nights a week. We tried to get better every night. We’d try to take it somewhere else every night. Can you imagine John Coltrane saying that? It was about the glory and the work, and that was the cool thing about playing with great musicians. Even playing pop music was cool… when nobody knew who Portland was.

Do you consider yourself more of a jazz musician, a soul musician or funk musician?

I’m just a musician, man. That’s what’s going to be cool about this new group I’m in with Terry Robb. I’m getting to play with some of my favorite people that I’ve ever played music with. Ron Regan and I were on the road together for about 3 or 4 years and did a couple of records together. Vince Carter, one of the best jazz producers in town, was also my drummer for years.

We’ve already started working on some original songs. We’re gonna play original music and then songs that we love. Those guys are great to play with, and if we’re blessed enough, we’ll be able to play in places and have the opportunity to do things… you know, just play music and not worry about selling somebody a beer.

So what will the music be? Is it blues? Is it soul? Is it rock? Is it funk? What is it?

It’s all that because that’s what all of us are. It’s everything you can possibly imagine because we love every single bit of it. Who cares what you call it.

Okay, so you’ve got this whole body of work, you’ve got your work with the union, you’ve got your KMHD work—is there one thing of those three that got you into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame or is it a combination of everything?

You’d have to ask the people who voted and said that. I wouldn’t know, but I’m glad they did it. I’m glad they did it. I’ve been able to produce these really cool records. I wrote a song for Curtis Salgado—it was an early Curtis Salgado record. I mean I’ve done a lot of stuff, man.

So they put you in the Hall of Fame for being an all around guy, for being multi-talented.

Yeah, yeah—I’m a multi-tasker. I don’t know man, I don’t care. I’m glad I got it. It was really cool. And to hang out with Terry Currier from the Hall of Fame, who owns Music Millennium—it was cool. Tony Starlight MC’d and Bruce Fife did my induction.

And you brought it in on time. Everybody was saying, “Calvin’s gonna speak man—we’d better hire the hall for another hour!”

Yeah and where they get that I have no idea because I don’t remember any long stints as an orator. You know I did want to say something though, which is really very important to me. Years ago in another life when I was a marketing manager for the club/restaurant called Billy Reed’s—the Internet and the whole technology thing was just starting to happen. You have all these little intersections in life, and then sometimes they come back around. That’s another part of the great, great mystery of life. I mean, look how many times our lives have intersected and bumped and it’s still happening to this day.

About The Author: Tom D'Antoni