2016 saw Junie Morrison’s name on a lot of people’s lips. His music went from being acknowledged but under-appreciated to being a key talking point on two of America’s most notorious albums of the year. First up was ‘No More Parties In LA’ one of two pre-release tracks from Kanye West’s long awaited album “Life Of Pablo”. Produced by West and Madlib, this featured a prominent sample from ‘Suzy Thundertussy’ from Junie’s third and final Westbound album. The sinuous synth line acted as the most memorable hook on the track.
More interestingly Solange Knowles – Beyonce’s sister – released her album “A Seat At The Table”, one of the most critically acclaimed of the year. It featured a track called ‘Junie’ and before release the singer revealed the song was a tribute to Junie Morrison and the freedom he created in music. In an interview Junie gave his reaction when he found out: “When she informed me about her song, I was a bit taken aback by the surprise but very appreciative that she wanted to put time and energy into creating it.”
Alongside his work with Brainfeeder artist Dam Funk and rumours of new solo material, it seemed that Junie was more current than he had been in a long time. Then it all ended with the announcement in February 2017 that Junie had died, at the relatively young age of 62. To the music world it was a shock.
Junie is best remembered for his work with Funkadelic and the Ohio Players. For George Clinton’s crowd he was instrumental in not only the biggest P-Funk hit, but also one of their most memorable samples. With his hometown band he developed his style through their breakthrough hits, before leaving them on the verge of platinum-selling success. However, in between he recorded three albums for the Westbound label which showcased not just his musical talent, but his sharp imagination, lyrical insight and sense of fun. They are often overlooked today, but they deserve to be heard.
This compilation gathers together all the music he recorded as a solo artist for Westbound, his three albums – “When We Do”, “Freeze” and “Suzie Super Groupie” – alongside all single edits, a bonus B-side and a track which first appeared on a 1990s compilation. Together they highlight Junie’s talent at an important stage in his career. Until now they have never been reissued in full.
Walter Morrison Jr was born in Dayton, Ohio in June 1954, and the correlation of both the month and the junior meant he was soon answering to the name Junie. Speaking to theRedBullMusicAcademyhe remembered the city as being full of wonder: “We were constantly reminded of the Wright brothers and would inevitably stroll by their bicycle shop on a daily basis. We believed we could fly!”. He let this sense of opportunity pass on to his own life in music: “I can’t ever remember a time when I was not working in music. From my earliest recollections as a very young church pianist onward, I was always heavily involved with music in some capacity or another.”
He remembers a host of places where music was central to life, from nightclubs to churches, and a teacher, Charles Spencer, at Roosevelt High as being inspirational not just to Junie, but to hundreds of musicians as they were coming through. It’s clear that Junie wasn’t just another child with a passing interest in music, and before long he had become student choir director and orchestra conductor at Roosevelt.
However he thinks he first got the funk as part of a very talented church choir: “At around four years old, I remember playing piano for a baby church choir. My feet could barely touch the floor. My only option was to stamp out the funk using the sustain pedal of the piano, just to give myself some ballast. The resulting funk groove was awesome.” That choir gave an idea of the depth of talent in the city at that time with Thomas and William Shelby – later of Solar Records recording artists Lakeside – and future Heatwave members Johnnie and Keith Wilder also being members.
Despite this level of talent coming through, Dayton’s biggest stars were the Ohio Players. Starting out in the late 50s as the Ohio Untouchables, they had backed the Detroit vocal group The Falcons at the turn of the decade. By 1965 they had changed their name to the Ohio Players, and would continue to record and tour throughout the latter half of the decade. Although they made an album for Capitol in 1969, success continued to elude them but in their home town they were heroes and, according to Junie, an incredible stage show. Again, talking to Red Bull: “I first saw Ohio Players when they performed a concert at my high school. At that time, I was always in the process of forming groups of musicians in some form or another – a drum squad here, a band or choir octet there and anything in between. I thought that if a bee had a knee, I was it. That being said, Ohio Players were spectacular and by far the most progressive band I had ever seen and as a result, they made a big impact on my musical awareness of the possibilities.”
He next came across them a couple of years later and this time it became the beginning of his own professional career: “I was appearing on a local TV show… and the Players were on the show… I was shocked to realise that I would have to rock a grand piano, in a battle, against the group that had impressed me the most – guitars, amps, horns, drums and all… anyway, they liked what they heard and so immediately afterwards invited me to join the them.”
He originally joined the Ohio Players as a piano player, but within a year he had become musical director, and was often featured as singer. Talking to David Nathan in 1981 he recalled “It took quite a bit of adjusting, because the Players were all senior to me – there was something like a ten-year gap to kick off with. But I integrated into the group and contributed to what they were all about”.
Another important change for the band was a new recording deal with the Detroit-based independent label Westbound run by Armen Boladian. An album was recorded in Nashville featuring a gritty, up-to-the-moment funk sound, of which much could be put down to the arrangements Junie had brought to the band. The stand-out track was ‘Pain’ and Westbound took that as the cue for a striking cover photo taken by Joel Brodsky featuring a sado-masochistic pose by model Pat Evans.
The next album “Pleasure” followed the theme, and was once again dominated by Junie’s music. ‘Walt’s First Trip’ was a theme that would be carried forward on his solo albums whilst ‘Funky Worm’ – with its granny character and distinctive synth line – became a #1 R&B hit. Again, both the granny character and the synth – an ARP Soloist - would reappear in his Westbound solo records. One more album, “Ecstasy”, followed for the Ohio Players on Westbound, before they parted company with Westbound and with Junie.
Junie told David Nathan that it was business and creative differences which led to the split: “There were a few things I didn’t care for in the business aspects of working with the group, and I felt like there were a lot more innovative things we could be doing. I thought that the group should become two entities – somewhat like Parliament and Funkadelic later became – so we could do our funk and do some serious love ballads. They had the capacity to do it but couldn’t quite get to it concept wise”. Although it seems it was far from an acrimonious split: “Most people don’t know that Ohio Players and I continued to work on projects together – most of which were never presented to the public. Some of them had great potential though. Certain members of Ohio Players also performed on my Columbia [Records] projects.”
Junie dived into his solo sessions immediately recording the single ‘Tightrope’ and its B-side ‘Walt’s Second Trip’, which appeared towards the end of 1973 on Westbound’s Eastbound subsidiary. The A-side was a melodically attractive slice of funk which would appear in a slightly extended form on Junie’s debut album. The B-side was an extension of an idea that had first appeared on the Ohio Players “Ecstasy” album and would be exclusive to this single.
For some reason Junie’s debut album wouldn’t appear for another year, perhaps there were still hopes of a rapprochement with the Ohio Players either for Junie or Westbound; however, by the end of 1974, their debut for Mercury “Skin Tight” had been released. Junie’s “When We Do” appeared the following year on Westbound and looking for a continuum to his work with the Ohio Players, the label had Junie photographed alongside Pat Evans by Joel Brodsky.
Musically the album showed what the Ohio Players were lacking now that their former musical director had left. There was a playfulness and an eclecticism in Junie’s music that was missing from his former employers’ sledgehammer funk success. There is the sheer joy of ‘Johnny Carson Samba’, a cut which allows Junie to explore his own version of jazz. The eponymous opener is a fast, predominantly instrumental workout, which introduces both the strings – by the Detroit Symphony - and horns that define this release, and some incredible Hammond organ playing by Junie, which also returns on the album closer ‘Walt’s Third Trip’. The arrangements on the album, by either David Van Pitte or Jimmy Roach, are vital to enabling Junie’s vision.
Elsewhere on the album we have ballads which I suspect may have been the source of Junie’s dissatisfaction with the Ohio Players mentioned earlier. ‘Loving Arms’ is a plea to a lover, that plays out to an almost classical style guitar riff, before its second half is borne aloft by syncopated groove. ‘Anna’ is a heartfelt letter to a past lover, sung in a distinctive falsetto; ‘You And You’ is another down-tempo piece with an exceptional horn arrangement. The final ballad, ‘Married Him’, is built on a descending bass line, and some luscious harmonies.
Of course there are up-tempo, funky cuts, such as ‘The Place’ with its walking bass-line, incendiary guitar solo and extended instrumental ending. ‘When We Do’ is again defined by the guitar playing on the record, and an in-the-pocket bass line. In the middle of the song Junie makes a call out to the Detroit Symphony, noting that when they play with him they ‘play funky’.
The first Westbound album to be released as part of the label’s new distribution deal with 20th Century Records, it was released in a deluxe gatefold. To promote it ‘Loving Arms’ b/w ‘Married Him’ was presented to radio; a mono promo was made of the A-side, which we include on Disc 2. Although sales were far from spectacular it was a healthy start to his life as a recording artist.
For his second album Junie tried something different: he became a one-man band. Setting up in Ardent Studios on Madison Avenue inMemphiswith engineer Ron Capone (a veteran of many Stax hits), he put together “Freeze”. The title track – a furious, impatient funk number – is more than likely a song about drugs. This then moves into track 2 ‘Cookies Will Get You’, with a long spoken intro between Junie and a synthesised voice of a cookie talking to him imploring him to buy it. The following nursery rhyme funk groove is a throwback to the sound of ‘Funky Worm’. This is something more to the fore on ‘Granny’s Funky Rolls Royce’ which has the cookie voice back in the intro urging the listener to “buy this record”, whilst the song itself sees the return of both the Granny character from ‘Funky Worm’ and the ARP. ‘Super J’ also fits into this mould, with its mid-tempo groove, synth solo, and breakdown that calls out to be sampled (but appears to not have been).
‘Not As Good As You Should’ and ‘Musical Son’ keep to the up-tempo funk mode, while ‘World Of Woe’ is the one return to a ballad sound on this album, with the song built around a grand piano, and telling the story of an affair between an older woman and a poet, and a tragic breakdown of their lives. The album finishes with ‘Junie II’ a largely instrumental groove with wordless vocals and a few sung “Junies”.
‘Granny’s Funky Rolls Royce’ was lifted as the single from the album. Its intro was trimmed to about ten seconds and mixed to mono for radio purposes. On its flip was an edit of ‘Super J’, which thankfully retained the breakdown. Once again neither the album nor the single was a hit.
‘Junie III’ opened his third Westbound album “Suzie Super Groupie”, which saw a return to Pac Three Studio in Detroit and the addition of a team of musicians to play with, several of whom were members of the Crowd Pleasers who would have their own album released on Westbound in 1979. The first track, ‘Suzie Thundertussy’, opens with a clever synth lick and rhythm track which made it perfect for sampling by Kanye West and Madlib, is interesting in that musically it is a virtual history and foretelling of Junie’s career in one song. That intro is right back in Ohio Players territory, but the verses sound like something he could have written for Funkadelic around 1978/79, as does the catchy, accessible chorus. The next track ‘If You Love Him’ is a great soul song, which in structure harks back to the sound of his first single ‘Tight Rope’.
‘What Am I Gonna Do’ is back in the funk world, starting off as sounding like Sly Stone at the time of “Fresh”, although Junie’s humour comes through as the frustrated protagonist takes to drink and demands his rum and coke. ‘Surrender’ also mines the same territory, this time Junie’s voice is backed up by some great harmony vocals. ‘Spirit’ has a spoken intro, before mutating into an extended funk rock work out.
‘Super Groupie’ and ‘Suzie’ both take on the band talk of the 70s and the figure of the groupie. The lyrics on ‘Super Groupie’ range from humorous to dirty, all fuelled by the infectious groove and tight horn arrangements. ‘Suzie’ is more of a disco song all about “the biggest player from here toTennessee”. ‘Stone Face Joe’ is another character song, this time one that chugs along on a boogie rhythm. ‘If You Love Him’ was edited for single release and was backed by ‘Suzie Thundertussy’; neither shook up the charts.
After its release and the lack of sales “Suzie Super Groupie” experienced, Junie’s time with Westbound was coming to its natural conclusion, perhaps aided and abetted by a serious car accident that happened on tour; his bus driver fell asleep and Junie sustained injuries which could have left him unable to work. By all accounts it was a miracle he recovered.
The next step in his career came when he became involved with the Parliament Funkadelic set up. He explained how it happened: “I don’t know if “join” is the right way to describe it. I think “starting to work with them” would be more accurate. I would often meet the members of P-Funk on tours we would all be a part of, so the idea of working with them was not that far-fetched. Whenever I would run into Bootsy Collins during a recording session inDetroit, he would always say... “Yabba dabba doosie Junie Baba!!! You should come and do some tracks with P-Funk!” There was also Mallia Franklin, whom I had known since early Ohio Players days, who thought it would be a good idea. Garry Shider and I had also become good friends and would meet from time to time. However, I’d have to say Garry was most responsible for my initial involvement in working with the group.”
There was an obvious synergy. The rock tracks on his own records sounded like they belonged on earlier Funkadelic records, whilst his nursery rhyme funk seemed to fit into the world-view offered up by George Clinton in his Mothership-dominated fantasy.
Talking to David Nathan he described the situation the P-Funk camp at that time as “trying to recover from the “Flashlight” syndrome. They’d had a hit with the record and didn’t quite know how to follow it”. His initial involvement gave Funkadelic its biggest hit and the first international P-Funk anthem in ‘One Nation Under A Groove’. “The track for ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ was in fact the first project I co-wrote and arranged for P-Funk. However, as I recall, George [Clinton] was not present at the inception of the track. Thankfully, Garry Shider was there and very supportive during the process. Garry helped to ease the tension between myself and the members that I did not yet know personally, which made my arrangement easier for the band to handle. Bootsy Collins added his drums at a later date. Bernie Worrell was not present at the track’s inception either. However, once Bernie and Bootsy added their vibes to the track, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ became unstoppable.”
Junie was a writer on five out of the six tracks on the original album, and central to the creative process on the Parliament album “Motor Booty Affair”. When it was time to create the next Funkadelic album “Uncle Jam Wants You” it was Junie who created much of the lead single ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep’, but when the single and album appeared he wasn’t credited as a songwriter. At the time this was put down to a mistake, although speaking to RBMA Junie attributed George’s tendency to grab things for himself. This may be a retrospective point of view, as he continued to work with George well into the 1980s.
However by 1980 Junie had also signed to Columbiawhere, on the back of writing two #1 R&B hits, he was a prestige signing. Initially there was talk of him working on several different production projects, but in the end only two albums by Junie appeared “Bread Alone” and “Junie 5” before the deal ended. His next solo album “Evacuate Your Seats” appeared in 1984 for Island’s 4th & Broadway label. It was to be his last for twenty years until he released “When The City” on his own Junie Funk Recordings, the same label on which he has digitally released a few tracks in recent years.
Since then he had worked with UK acts such as the JTQ and Soul II Soul, been sampled by acts as diverse as Doctor Dre and the Spice Girls, and of course worked with Clinton a few times. His recent work and relatively young age suggested he had much left to offer, but as I write this in late March 2017 instead we find that another musical great has left us.