Midwest's Got Soul: Five Fellas Named Willie You Oughta Hear

To an outsider, it may seem like the Midwest is best known for its thick accents and cold weather, but insiders know it also happens to be home to many talented soul men. Inspired by Secret Stash Records' amazing lost funk and soul compilation, we decided we had to dig even deeper into the Midwestern soul sound. To introduce your earbuds to a couple gents, we challenged Secret Stash's general manager (and — full disclosure — my main squeeze) Will Gilbert to toss us a few of his favorites. 

What did Will do? Not only did he come through with five winners, but he delivered five guys that share his name. Will(ie)s gotta stick together.

1. Willie Walker

Minneapolis’ Dakota Jazz Club calls him “one of the region’s best kept secrets,” but the cat’s out of the bag for Willie Walker and his smooth tenor voice. Originally from the south, Willie moved to Minnesota in 1959 and has called it home ever since. Willie’s talent was first discovered when he was singing a Capella in a park with friends (something we’d definitely peer up from our iPhones for today) and “A Lucky Loser” is plain proof he’s something special. Oh, and did we mention he’s frequently compared to Sam Cooke? It doesn’t matter what field of work you’re in, we consider this a great addition to any résumé.

2. Willie Parker

Illinois' Willie Parker was born Willie Newsome, but he's a pretty hard guy to track down. Over the course of his career, he performed and recorded under the pseudonyms Willie Parker and Frankie Newsome (which is essentially just like me telling strangers my name is Beyoncé, right?). Though Willie recorded close to a dozen 45s, the story behind his names has remained fairly unknown until recently. Willie would use his manager’s last name (Parker) to get into bars to perform when he was still underage. As for Frankie, in the late 1960s Willie’s career wasn’t taking off, so he decided to change his name to Frankie, a rebrand proving that he’s also got marketing chops. Will picked “I Live the Life I Love” because it “has all the intangible elements that make for a Northern Soul heavyweight — Northern Soul, as in primarily African-American R&B songs from the 1960s that have remained popular with groups of dancers in the Northern cities of the UK.” Okay, you can sign us up for that.

3. Willie Schofield

Wilson Pickett is the lead singer on this Falcons track, but Willie Schofield’s a big part of the magic. Willie was one of the founders of The Falcons, a group that formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1955. That same year, James Brown recorded “Please, Please, Please,” and Ray Charles released “I Got a Woman.” Will told us that these groups like The Falcons are largely responsible for “helping meld the gospel chords, harmonies, melisma and phrasing with secular R&B topics to create the genre we call ‘soul’ today.” How’s that for a history lesson?

4. Willie Murphy

Willie Murphy's musical career started as a teenager at Central High School in Minneapolis, playing with R&B bands. In the late 1960s, he started experimenting with let’s just call them, “mind-expanding substances,” and got really into folk music. He started playing with Koerner, Ray, and Glover and released records on Elektra Records, a major national label. The group was a big draw across the country and even caught the eye of a young Bonnie Raitt. Bonnie was such a fan that she asked Willie Murphy to produce her debut album and they recorded it on an island in Lake Minnetonka. Willie missed his R&B roots though, so he started Willie & The Bumblebees in the early '70s. While never picked up by a national recording label, the band spent a decade as Minnesota’s most popular bar band. Can we get a t-shirt for that?

5. Willie Henderson

This might be our favorite track title of the bunch: “Soulful Football.” Come again? Willie Henderson is best known for his contributions in the studio, rather than as front man. Living in Chicago, Willie is a true jack of all trades. Will (Gilbert) name-drops on his behalf, “He’s recorded saxophone as a session musician for Donny Hathaway, produced songs for Tyrone Davis, Little Richard, Otis Clay, directed music for Young–Holt Unlimited, The Chi-Lites, Jackie Wilson and arranged music for recordings by Syl Johnson, among many others.” At one point, Willie even channeled some of his seemingly endless creativity energy towards recording under his own name for a brief time. While you don’t hear his own name very often, the music he’s worked on is definitely being listened to by someone somewhere at right this very moment.

Did we miss another Willie worth writing about? Or are you tired of us talking about "Willies" like it's not even mildly inappropriate/NSFW? Give us a stern talking to in the comments!