R.I.P. Scott Walker, the Man with the Mahogany Voice, who as Brian Eno said, “took music to a place that it hasn’t actually ever been since”

By on March 25, 2019

Here at Night Flight HQ we were saddened by the news today that the enigmatic Scott Walker — who Ultravox’s Midge Ure once described as “The Man with the Mahogany Voice” — has died at age 76, according to his record label 4AD.

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The American-born singer — he was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, and grew up in Texas, Colorado and New York before he and his mother moved to Southern California in 1959 — found fame in London, England, during the so-called “Swinging Sixties” era after emigrating there in February of 1965 with his band the Walker Brothers ( the other two “Walkers” were John Maus and Gary Leeds).

The band’s second single “Love Her” (a ballad written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill) had fallen under the influence of the reverb-heavy production by producer Jack Nitzsche, who had apprenticed with Phil Spector.

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Before then, Walker — who’d changed his surname sometime in the early Sixties — had already made an impact on the Sunset Strip music scene with the Walker Brothers, covering Beatles and Stones songs during their residency at Gazzari’s.

One of their earliest singles, however, had been the two surf instrumentals “Moongoon Twist”/”Willie & the Hand Jive,” which they’d recorded as the Moongooners for Del-Fi Records’ Donna label in 1962. A second single, “Moon Goon Stomp”/”The Long Trip,” was their last for the L.A. indie label.

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By the mid-Sixties, however, Walker was about to embark on one of the most extraordinary careers — with the Walker Brothers and as a solo artist — the likes of which pop music fans had never witnessed before.

Two months after landing in London, they were already climbing the UK charts with their version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself” (#1 UK Singles) and he was being singled out by the British music papers and tabloids who soon were calling him “The Boy with the Golden Voice” and “The Blonde Beatle.”

More hits came, incredibly rich and beautiful heartbreaking songs like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” (#1 UK Singles), “Another Tear Falls,” and “Stay With Me Baby,” which were wonderfully sublime examples of Walker’s interpretive skills.

He didn’t care much for his new-found celebrity, though, so much so that in August of 1966 he even tried to find solace in a monastery on the Isle of Wight (ostensibly for the purpose of studying Gregorian chant, which had fascinated him). The Walker Brothers would split in 1967.

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His first three solo albums, Scott 1, Scott 2, and (you guessed it) Scott 3, all made the UK Top 3, although his lush-sounding orchestral pop stylings were shot through with a dark, existential tone.

His song lyrics often referenced topics like suicide, and were peopled by characters from society’s margins, including prostitutes, transvestites, even Joseph Stalin.

His 1969 recording of Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas,” which was soon adapted into English as “If You Go Away”(with lyrics by Rod McKuen) had been previously recorded by so many great artists before him, including Barbra Streisand, Marlene Dietrich, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Glen Campell, Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra.

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Walker’s version — for his album Scott 3 — became one of his most incredible solo recordings, surely everyone agrees about that, and from that point forward his selection of well-chosen cover songs revealed that he’d found his true voice as an artist.

“Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” is how the Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone once described Scott Walker.

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In this clip we’ve included at the top, Walker sings “Loss of Love,” the theme song from the 1970 movie Sunflower, written by Henry Mancini. The track appears on Walker’s seventh studio album The Moviegoer, released in October 1972.

It was the first of his six studio albums (two of which were with the Walker Brothers) in which Walker did not contribute any self-penned material, which is something he did frequently over the course of his solo career, largely becoming an interpretive singer, making every song he sang his own.

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By Scott 4, however, credited to Noel Scott Engel and featuring songs he’d written himself, failed to chart, and Walker’s career faltered.

For the rest of the ’70s, it seems now, he recorded material which he’d hoped would re-establish him as a charting pop singer with something to say, but audiences had apparently grown tired of his easy-listening crooner vocal style, and Walker was soon leaving live performances behind altogether.

He apparently struggled with alcohol and tranquilizers, and when the Walker Brothers reunited again in 1975, Walker found himself once again on the UK charts with a hit single, “No Regrets.”

He agonized over the renewed interest in the band he’d left behind, though, and by the time the group had recorded their third reunion album, Nite Flights (1978), he’d managed to steer them back towards sounding like the were once again a Scott Walker solo project.

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Speaking of his solo albums released between 1969 and 1974, Walker would himself later — in the July 2000 issue of MOJO, in an interview with UK journalist David Peschek — call his recordings “useless records.”

“They’re useless records, you know? And in a sense, I was thinking about this: maybe it’s better to have had that awful gap than to have made a lot of half-assed art records like a lot of people did. […] To just not quite get up to the standard in the time, and to have that behind you, I would rather have gone off totally and experimented with standards and had that experience than not.”

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The “gap” he refers to covers the eight years from Til the Band Comes In to the four songs he contributed to the reunited Walker Brothers finale, 1978’s Nite Flights, and then another six years before his 1984 Virgin Records album Climate of Hunter.

For the rest of his career, Walker’s recordings were baffling exercises that critics and fans didn’t quite know what to make of, although to many of his most public cheerleaders — including musicians and writers like Teardrop Explodes’ frontman Julian Cope, who compiled his favorite Scott Walker tracks in 1981 for a collection titled Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker — these recordings were reminders that he was always considered a huge talent, even when he wasn’t always releasing albums that were easy to listen to.

In 1984, Walker was interviewed on The Tube,” which was broadcast live in the UK at the time.

In 1995, Walker appeared in a BBC documentary to promote his then new album Tilt. This twenty minute clip contains interview footage of Walker along with snippets of music video footage (the quality isn’t great, but it’s all we’ve got).

Director Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man looked back at Walker’s remarkable career, exploring his early days as a bassist-for-hire in the L.A. music scene, all the way through his era of mega-stardom in Britain’s swinging 60s pop scene with the Walker Brothers, and then his erratic but fascinating solo career.

The documentary features interviews with his many friends, collaborators and fans, including, among others: David Bowie, Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Brian Eno, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy)(DVD only), Marc Almond, Alison Goldfrapp, Sting, Dot Allison, Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins), Richard Hawley and many more.

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All total, he released fourteen solo albums, and news of his death have brought out the tributes from people like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who took to Twitter to pay tribute to Walker saying “He was a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how I could use my voice and words.”

Brian Eno — who, like David Bowie, cited Walker as a key influence — said about Walker, “He took music to a place that it hasn’t actually ever been since.”

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“For half a century, the genius of the man born Noel Scott Engel has enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of The Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality,” his label 4AD — who released his album The Drift — wrote in a statement on its website.

“Scott Walker has been a unique and challenging titan at the forefront of British music: audacious and questioning, he has produced works that dare to explore human vulnerability and the godless darkness encircling it,” the label said. “We are honored to have worked with Scott for the last 15 years of his life.”

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We’ve left a lot out of the story of Scott Walker so do yourself a favor and do some research on your own to discover more about this incredibly talented man.

Scott Walker is survived by his partner Beverly, his daughter Lee and his granddaughter, Emmi-Lee. R.I.P.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.