MEMORIAM: Scott Walker of the Walker Brothers

IN MEMORIAM: Scott Walker of the Walker Brothers

Scott Walker (from his record company 4AD)

Scott Walker (born Noel Scott Engel; January 9, 1943 – March 22, 2019) was an American-born British singer-songwriter, composer and record producer. Walker was known for his distinctive baritone voice and an unorthodox career path which took him from 1960s teen pop icon to 21st-century avant-garde musician. Walker’s success was largely in the United Kingdom, where his first three solo albums reached the top ten. He lived in the UK from 1965 and became a British citizen in 1970.

Rising to fame in the mid-1960s as frontman of the pop music trio the Walker Brothers, he began a solo career with 1967’s Scott, moving toward an increasingly challenging baroque pop style on late-’60s albums such as Scott 3 and Scott 4 (both 1969). After his solo work did not sell well, he reunited with the Walker Brothers in the mid-70s. From the mid-80s onward, Walker revived his solo career while moving in an increasingly avant-garde direction; of this period in his career, The Guardian said “imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.”

Walker continued to record and release music until 2018, and was last signed to the label 4AD. As a record producer and guest performer, he worked with a number of artists and bands, including Pulp, Ute Lemper, Sunn O, and Bat for Lashes. Walker was described by the BBC upon his death as “one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in rock history.”

Noel Scott Engel was born in 1943, in Hamilton, Ohio, US, the son of Elizabeth Marie (Fortier), who was from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Noel Walter Engel. His father was an oil industry manager whose work led the family to various successive homes in Ohio, Texas, Colorado and New York. Scott and his mother settled in California in 1959. Engel was interested in both music and performance and spent time as a child actor and singer in the late 1950s. Originally championed by singer and TV host Eddie Fisher, he appeared several times on Fisher’s TV series and recorded several songs – one of which was called “Misery” – which saw him briefly marketed as a teen idol (and in the style of other popular singers of his time).

At the time of his arrival in Los Angeles, Scott had already changed both his taste and his direction. Interested in the progressive jazz of Stan Kenton and Bill Evans, he was also a self-confessed “Continental suit-wearing natural enemy of the Californian surfer” and a fan of European cinema (in particular Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Robert Bresson) and the Beat poets. In between attending art school and furthering his interests in cinema and literature, Scott played bass guitar and was proficient enough to get session work in Los Angeles as a teenager.

In 1961, after playing with The Routers, he met guitarist and singer John Maus, who was already using the stage name John Walker as a fake ID to enable him to perform in clubs while under age. At first they formed a new band, Judy and the Gents, backing John Walker’s sister Judy Maus, before joining other musicians to tour as The Surfaris (although they did not play on the Surfaris’ records). In early 1964, Scott and John Walker began working together as the Walker Brothers, later in the year linking up with drummer Gary Leeds, whose father financed the trio’s first trip to the UK.

As a trio, the Walker Brothers cultivated a glossy-haired and handsome familial image. Prompted by Maus, each of the members took “Walker” as their stage surname. Scott continued to use the name Walker thereafter, with the brief exception of returning to his birth name for the original release of his fifth solo album Scott 4, and in songwriting credits. Initially, John served as guitarist and main lead singer of the trio, with Gary on drums and Scott playing bass guitar and mostly singing harmony vocals. By early 1965, the group had made appearances on TV shows Hollywood A Go-Go and Shindig and had made initial recordings, but the start of their real success lay in the future and overseas.

While working as a session drummer, Leeds had recently toured the United Kingdom with P.J. Proby, and persuaded both John and Scott to try their luck with him on the British pop scene. The Walker Brothers arrived in London in early 1965. Their first single, “Pretty Girls Everywhere” (with John still installed as lead singer) crept into the charts but did not place highly. Their next single, “Love Her” – with Scott’s deeper baritone in the lead – was a more substantial chart hit and he became the group’s frontman.

The Walker Brothers’ next release, “Make It Easy on Yourself”, a Bacharach/David ballad, swept to No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart (number 16 on the U.S. charts) on release in August 1965. After hitting again with “My Ship Is Coming In” (number 3 UK), their second No. 1 (number 13 U.S.), “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More”, shot to the top in early 1966 and shortly thereafter their fan club grew to contain more members than the official fan club of The Beatles, though this is no indication that the Walker Brothers’ actual fan base was ever larger. In any case, the Walker Brothers, especially lead singer Scott, attained pop star status.

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Walker died at the age of 76 on March 22, 2019. His death was announced three days later by his record company, 4AD, who called him “a unique and challenging titan at the forefront of British music”. Tributes included those from Thom Yorke, Marc Almond, Neil Hannon and Labour deputy leader Tom Watson. He is survived by his partner Beverly, his daughter Lee and granddaughter Emmi-Lee.

Categories: In Memoriam

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