David Walker, who was born in 1941 and raised in Washington DC, was a member of the Sensational Wonders and their off shoot the Mighty Clouds Of Joy at the end of the 50s, recording several songs on Fable, mostly as a background vocalist to Joe Ligon. But he had a penchant for the secular side of life as well as the religious one, earning money as a pro boxer and reportedly enjoying the high times. Around 1961, possibly looking with envy at the success Sam Cooke had made from his “conversion” to R & B music, Walker thought about trying his hand at it as well.
He met Ray Vernon who thought the idea an excellent one and brought his brother guitarist Link Wray into the project. They took Walker to their studio in Maryland and recorded a series of tracks in 1962 / 3 which have become legendary in rock ‘n’ roll history. Vernon took the two part “Hide And Go Seek” to Mala and as Walker was rightly nervous about the reaction he’d get from the gospel community to his secular activity, the song was credited to “Bunker Hill”. This name doesn’t have the same resonance this side of the Atlantic as it does in the US as a seminal event in their War Of Independence, but just about anybody can get the same air of excitement the song generated. Over a party atmosphere and rough drum rhythm Walker chants his way through what is basically a series of nursery rhyme fragments, howling and screaming out like the fine gospel singer he was. This style of vocal work would be nothing new to an audience that understood gospel music but to white listeners it must have been a bit of a shock. The nearest comparison would be Screaming Jay Hawkins “I Put A Spell On You” or any one of Little Richard’s Specialty releases – hence the chart position that the disc achieved in both pop and R & B in 1962 - and also the regard that Bunker Hill is still held in today.
Mala put out a couple more of these hi octane rock ‘n’ roll 45s but the novelty had worn off with “Hide And Go Seek” and sales were poor, despite Walker’s wild uninhibited vocals. And if it wasn’t for one particular track I would leave Bunker Hill to the rockers, of whom there are many who love his 45s very dearly indeed. After all there are a lot of ex gospel singers on these pages and hearing the vocal styles they learnt in church is certainly no novelty here. But on the back of the frantic Richard Penniman inspired “Red Ridin’ Hood And The Wolf” you can find an excellent version of that old spiritual Nobody Knows that shows just how good a vocalist David Walker could be when actually singing. He and Link Wray turn the song into a doo wop anthem that packs a really powerful punch. You won’t find any mention of this track on any of the Bunker fansites but if you check out the way Walker goes into the bridge and run out groove you’ll hear a great singer at the peak of his powers. Sensational.
Despite his best efforts Walker was spotted by the gospel community when he tried to rejoin the Clouds and he sang with them only fitfully thereafter, before he disappeared from view. It is not clear what happened to him but there are reports that he passed away in the 80s. I wonder what this fine singer might have achieved if he’d taken a more orthodox route into secular R &B and continued down that path.
UPDATE ~ Heikki Suosalo kindly writes to say that when he interviewed Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds Of Joy he had this to say about Bunker Hill "he died in Houston, Texas. It had to be at least fifteen years ago." I'm grateful to Heikki for this sad info.
Hide and go seek / Pt 2 ~ MALA 451 (1962)
Red ridin’ hood and the wolf / Nobody knows ~ MALA 457 (1962)
The girl can’t dance / You can’t make me doubt my baby ~ MALA 464 (1963)
Note only named Bunker Hill 45s shown. There is a very full discography here.
Special thanks to my great friend Michel.