Anyone who remembers Troy Walker from his incendiary 1960s stint on the Sunset Strip club circuit or his infamous 1970s run at North Hollywood’s World Famous Palomino is likely beyond surprised to learn that not only did the ultra-flamboyant singer survive, but is now preparing to celebrate his 75th birthday. A strutting, bafflingly androgynous firebrand whose diminutive frame houses a surprisingly huge voice, Walker, who appears at Burbank’s Viva Cantina on Wed., July 17, ruled Los Angeles’ lounges and honky tonks between 1958-78 with his patented mix of dazzling vocal acrobatics and blisteringly blue between-song banter.
Walker, when he first hit Hollywood over fifty years ago, was that rarest of nightclub creatures: an openly gay entertainer whose defiance of contemporary repressive social norms not only became his calling card it also ignited a thriving career with nightly SRO crowds. And these weren’t just local queers by any means; during a lengthy early 60s engagement at the Crescendo Club, Walker’s fans included Gregory Peck, Ethel Merman, Louella Parsons (she called him “an inspiration”), then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who proclaimed Troy “a great entertainer” and once had him play a private party as his Santa Barbara ranch. Phil Spector used to send in henchmen with reel-to-reel tape recorders so he could “borrow’ Walker’s richly creative song arrangements; even Elvis Presley stopped by to check out the local phenomenon. “Oh Lord, I remember that,’ Walker said. “I told the audience, ‘Uh-oh, the King is here—the Queen better sing!’”
Walker, a Glendale resident since 2010, was, for decades, the epitome of Sunset Strip-Hollywood Boulevard nightclub culture. Surprisingly, gay bars have traditionally been the one type of venue where his act—a fast paced blend of country, standards pop and blues, often delivered with hilariously customized, double-entendre laden lyrics—always fell flat. Even more surprising was his acceptance at country music shrine the Palomino, a spot with such a diehard redneck clientele that one would expect Walker to be banned rather than embraced. Nonetheless, he appeared at the Pal least once a week throughout the mid-late 1970s, unfailingly winning over the most conservative of country fans. After his first meeting there with Jerry Lee Lewis resulted in Walker drawing a gun and holding to the Killer’s head (long story), Lewis had Walker open for him almost every time he booked into the club.
“He was an entertainer, a professional, first of all” Daryl Dragon, who got his start in Walkers band years before launching the Captain and Tennille, said in a 1991 interview. “I thought of him as a Redd Foxx, only in the gay area. You didn’t go to a club back then and expect a gay to be fronting the group, and it was wild because he was a wise guy, like a Don Rickles -- anybody who wised off to him, Troy could top it.”
Walker recorded only a handful of singles and two long playing albums, both live, one at Gazzarri’s and another at the Crescendo Club. Released by Crescendo owner Gene Norman’s GNP Records, it’s a brilliant snapshot of Walker’s razor sharp with and amazing pipes—his style sounds like an unusual mixture of Frankie Laine, Roy Orbison and Dinah Washington—but his inclusion of “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” (the 1930’s Harold Arlen ballad from Cabin in the Sky) pretty much guaranteed failure. “Everyone said, ‘We can’t have an album with a man singing a love song to another man.’” Walker said. “I was just sick, because that was a real work of love, and I really felt desperate and beat up.”
A classic Hollywood case of “Got-Too-Big-Too-Fast & Never-Stood-a-Chance,” Walker eventually dropped out of sight in the late-80s and has re-emerged only periodically since. Nonetheless, his pipes are still in fine condition and his show-stopping wisecracks are as wildly potent as ever. Walker is gearing up for a very special Platinum Jubilee birthday performance. “How many people can say they went through life doing exactly what they want? That’s what I have done, but now I want to be serious, just for once.” He said. “I’ve been going through a lot of changes and I’ve been getting in touch with a lot of people I haven’t seen in years. So, this birthday show should be very interesting.”
What: Troy Walker
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W Riverside Dr., Burbank
When: Wed. July 17, 8 p.m.
More info: (818) 845-2425, www.vivacantina.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."