Troy Walker? Louella Parsons described him as ”an inspiration.“ Ronald Reagan called him ”a great entertainer.“ Jerry Lee Lewis titled him ”Killer.“ Local wildo Johnny Legend remembers ”playing on a bill with Troy in ‘66 — it was him, my band and the Seeds, and Troy was weirder than anyone else there.“ A mid-’70s promo flier touted: ”Troy Walker Is Hollywood in Many Ways.“ Sitting inside Walker‘s Hollywood apartment, decorated in resplendent Early Boulevard Deluxe, one can only think, ”Oh, my God, that really is his hair.“
One of this city’s most-outrageous-ever talents, Walker has built a career by smashing every rule that ever threatened to rein him in. He‘s as aggressively forthright in his taboo-shattering persona as he is gifted as a song stylist. Yet over the last 10 years, Walker has made only a handful of live appearances, some at Hollywood rock clubs, others at suburban honky-tonks, all of them riveting and, at times, bizarre. When he struts onto a nightclub floor, a painstakingly coifed roaring fireball of conflict and artistry in 6-inch heels and ostrich boa, audience response is guaranteed. Walker’s mix of intense Orbisonian balladry, scandalous parody (the ”ah-wee-mo-way, ah-wee-mo-way“ chant from ”The Lion Sleeps Tonight“ becomes ”my weenie‘s wet, my weenie’s wet“), wicked vocal impersonations and memorably lewd banter is a thoroughly frantic and simply unforgettable presentation.
Few have plumbed the depths of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood Boulevard as assiduously as Troy Walker. He hit town in 1958, a diminutive, doe-eyed teenage androgyne breathlessly eager for a singing career. He got hot in a hurry, wailing pop, country, soul and rock & roll with genuine passion.
”He was an entertainer, a professional, first of all,“ says Daryl Dragon, who got his start in Walker‘s band years before Dragon’s success with the Captain and Tennille. ”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.“ He was the pretty one with the low voice, with a baritone as big as Frankie Laine’s that could upshift to a razor-edged falsetto, put across with enough voltage to sizzle the cerebellum. Walker‘s was an arresting show — on and off stage.
Walker had so many run-ins with the Los Angeles Police Department that at one time he knew the names of almost every cop in the Hollywood Division. He ran the Strip with young Cherilyn Sarkisian, later a.k.a. Cher, used everyone from the Beach Boys and Leon Russell to the aforementioned Captain as backup talent, played on bills with Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Tina Turner, and wound up, in the 1970s, working a most unlikely residency at North Hollywood redneck shrine the Palomino, establishing himself as the world’s first and only professional transgender country singer.
Walker‘s life has been played out five nights a week before capacity crowds at long-gone niteries (the Lazy X, the Velvet Room, the Roman Terrace, Pandora’s Box, the Rag Doll), but his radical blend of ribald wit and flamboyant presentation was a few decades ahead of its time. Like a singing Lenny Bruce, Walker‘s irresistible rebuke of 1960s California’s stolid hypocrisy ultimately crippled any chance of breakout acceptance.
Born Richard Walker in Chicago, Illinois, Troy grew up in a large, unstable family and wound up coming of age at Arizona‘s Boys’ Camp: ”I graduated from there, went to the University of Arizona, then went into the United States Air Force,“ he says. ”After a year and a half, I discovered me, sort of, and got worried about it. In Yuma, [arranger-bandleader] Skitch Henderson heard me, took me off base, and I sang as Troy Larson. Then I came out here. I wanted to be a singer, ran out of money real quick, so I hit the Boulevard. I was very stupid and naive, and I think I stayed that way. But I walked into a bar called My Desire, I was only 19, and Keith Ferguson was playing piano, and he said, ‘Hey, pretty, can you sing?’ and he shoved me a mike. The owner came over and offered me 10 bucks a night if I‘d walk in and ask to sing a couple of songs. Same routine every night — come in off the street and ask to sing, because I was too young to be in there.
“I’ve been singing ever since. I always told people I was a singer, before I really was, and it just happened — a lovely accident. And because of it, I didn‘t have to compromise myself, didn’t have to do anything but sing. It made life pretty wonderful.”
Walker met husky-voiced teen dynamo Timi Yuro “at a little place in the Valley called the Ebb Tide. We started singing as a duet, signed to Liberty Records, went to Vegas.” The little canary found a perfect partner in Walker, and the notion of recording for Liberty was positively dreamy — but it would never happen.
“My manager called and said, ‘Turn on the radio.’ I did, and I heard Timi. She had a smash. I was thrilled for Timi, but what had happened was, her boyfriend Joe and I started seeing each other. One of the top gay-bar owners in the city was also in love with Joe, so — this is where the story gets incredibly sick — they all got together and decided to bury me. I was heartbroken, because Timi Yuro and I were no more. I was lost. She finally told me that she was angry and got her brother and a bunch of guys and, anywhere, anyone they talked to, they made me look bad. I couldn‘t understand why they would hold me back . . .”
Of course, Walker was an easy target, as the police discovered: “All the experiences I had on Hollywood Boulevard with the cops, all they saw was this character going up and down the Boulevard, with the feathers in my hair, tight pants, flamboyant as hell. This was way before any of that was done, and at the time, nobody could handle it.” On a visit to San Diego, his choice of resort wear was too much for the local constabulary. “I was wearing a bright-red terrycloth outfit from Madison’s of Hollywood for Men — that‘s what the label said.” Walker spits the story out in a clipped tone. “This cop said, ’You a drag queen?‘ I said, ’No, I‘m not!’” He leaps to his feet, staging the courtroom exchange:
“The judge says, ‘Oh, female impersonator.’
”‘No, sir. Look at the label — Madison’s of Hollywood for Men. For Men! It‘s a bright-red outfit, and I’m small, but it‘s men’s clothing. I‘m not a female impersonator.’
“‘Well, you look like a girl to me.’
”‘It’s countenance, I can‘t help that. And I’m not in drag. I‘m not wearing female clothing.’
”‘Sir, you are more in drag, in that robe, than I am.’
“‘One hundred twenty days.’”
He got lucky and didn‘t have to serve the time.
Walker landed a steady gig at upscale Strip nitery the Crescendo: “It was the club on Sunset. I went in there, and there would be lines down around the block clear to DeLongpre — to see me! We had a battle of the bands with Joey Dee and the Starliters, and I cleaned up the parking lot with him. It was a long run — 13 months on the Strip. I was opening for Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Lenny Bruce. I met Ethel Merman, Judy Garland. Gregory Peck came and took my hand. I was dumbstruck . . .”
The engagement also resulted in the rare 1962 Troy Walker Live album. A phenomenal document of his early stage show that rips through gushing ballads, supercharged Latin rhythm numbers and pop hits, the record’s content also knocked his career severely off track. Walker turns Les Baxter‘s phony-folk tune “Sinner Man” into an apocalyptic (and morally questionable) epic; his version of Doris Day’s “Everybody Loves a Lover,” with his deliberate, deadpan reading of the fizzy lyric, clearly made a deep impression on Cher — on Troy Walker Live, he basically invents the Cher style right before your ears.
But it was his throbbing, perfectly delivered rendition of the Arlen-Harburg ballad “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” that effectively killed his bid for stardom. Discussing it today, Walker starts to weep. “We recorded the live album, sent it out around the world, and it came back, and everyone said, ‘We can’t have an album with a man singing a love song to another man.‘ I was so sick, because that was a work of real love, and it was a desperate time when I really felt beat up.”
Early-’60s Strip nightclub commerce methodology was nothing short of savage — nobody got a fair shake, nobody got all their money, and, if one was stupid enough, it could get extreme, as Bobby Fuller found out after he tapped a mob loan shark and did not make good. Walker learned the hard way, after swallowing plenty of fast talk and bullshit, losing jobs because agents jacked his price up too high, working out song arrangements for his stage show that he‘d later hear over the airwaves. Meanwhile, running with Cher meant hanging with Sonny, which meant hanging at the studios, which meant exposure to Phil Spector:
“’To Know Him Is To Love Him‘ . . . Marshall Leib was a friend of mine, and Carol Connors, the Teddy Bears . . . We went to that session and I helped out with an idea, and it changed the song. And Phil Spector . . . I was doing ’River Deep, Mountain High‘ onstage, and one night Spector came in, and the next thing you know, here comes Tina with it . . .”
“The business was very cutthroat at that time,” says Gary “Spider” Webb, the former Hollywood Argyles drummer who worked with Walker from 1962 to 1968. “Yeah, we were doing ’River Deep, Mountain High‘ in the show. People would actually bring tape recorders into the clubs to tape live performances and get ideas for arrangements. Troy should have had a lot more success, and would have if he’d made the right contacts — but it was all about who you knew, not what you knew.”
Others benefited from Walker‘s gift as an arranger. “Leon Russell and I worked together for a long time,” says Walker. “I was doing ’Cry Me a River‘ with Leon, singing in that whispery Julie London voice, and I said, ’Leon, let‘s kick this thing.’ And we rocked it. Then he used it with Joe Cocker. But we laughed about it. We‘re good friends . . .
”Because I just wanted to be onstage. This gave purpose to my life, and all that other shit didn’t matter. One night Elvis came to see me, and I said, ‘Uh-oh, the King is here! The Queen had better sing!’ I had my hair short, I was wearing a suit, and I did ‘Make the World Go Away.’ I went over to his table afterward, and Elvis was crying. And a week later he came out with it.“
Walker was a nightlife staple by the mid-‘70s, a fixture at clubs, saloons and lounges all over the county, but he still had one more wild upshift to make, and when he created his finger-popping, gender-blurred, hip-shakin’ LadyBoy character, it was not in a Hollywood gay club but at California‘s country-music shrine, the Palomino. ”[Owner] Tommy Thomas said, ’I want you in the Palomino.‘ I said, ’You‘re kidding!’ So I tried it, went onstage, and it was magic. In we went, and that‘s where this whole female thing came out for the first time. Now, I have never been in drag — I’d wear a suit, but I was diminutive and pretty. If I was a joke to a lot of people, I didn‘t hear it. People were wonderful . . .“
Set to open for Jerry Lee Lewis at the Pal, Walker went backstage and found the Killer with a headlock on two of Troy’s musicians. ”He says, ‘I’m gonna kill these motherfuckers! This guy wants to fuck my daughter! And who the fuck are you?‘ I said, ’I‘m Troy Walker. I was your opening act. Do you want to let them go?’“ Walker whipped out a gun and leveled it at Lewis‘ forehead; he released the gasping musicians and stalked away. Then, Walker says, ”One of his cronies comes out and says Jerry Lee wants to see me. I said, ’Fuck him. No way. That man has shot people from the stage. I‘m not goin’ back in the dressing room with him.‘ But I walk in, and he’s got a beer, he‘s sitting there and he says, ’Troy Walker. Goddamn, I heard about you. You‘re a ballsy little shit.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not — wrong is wrong.‘ And his daughter comes in screaming, ’Daddy, you asshole, they didn‘t do nothing! I was comin’ on to him!‘ Then Jerry Lee says, ’Oh . . . Well, I want you to open for me, and I‘m gonna introduce you.’ And I said, ‘No sir, thank you, no.’ And he says, ‘You hear me, boy? Whatever I did, I’m sorry. I‘m an asshole sometimes.’ He went out and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t introduce nobody, and this is the first time I‘ve worked with a dude wearin’ a doily. I don‘t know what the hell he is, but I’m giving him my name right now. I want you to give a big hand to the Killer, Troy Walker!‘
“I was delirious . . . but I tore the place a new asshole, and Jerry Lee had me open for him just about every time he was in town.”
Troy Walker appears at Crazy Jack’s, 4311 Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, on Tuesday, September 21, and Tuesday, October 5. (818) 769-3472.