Moses Walker never told anyone the key. He’d begin a song — steady — but before long, his left hand would begin racing up and down the guitar neck, finding chords in unique voicings, all while anchored by his gravelly, inviting baritone.
If you were lucky enough to play with Moses, you’d best get with it — he’d punctuate a good run of a tune with a smile and a warm “Mighty fine.” If you struggled to keep up — well, he wouldn’t say much of anything. Mo, by all accounts, didn’t have a negative bone in his body.
When Mo was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain and lung cancer in November, he knew his time was up. Friends say he wasn’t sad about his condition but accepted his prognosis with grace and levity.
Before his passing on March 3, Mo played one last big show on Feb. 5; a celebration of his music and life at his favorite venue, the Oriental Theater, accompanied by over two dozen musicians who played with him at various points in his career.
“Thanks for coming to my funeral,” Walker remarked at one point during the four-hour set. The remark might have come across as morbid if uttered by anyone else, but it was folksily on brand for Walker.
Walker’s musical career is the stuff of legend — spanning at least five decades, the impressions Walkers left were many, while the specifics of his life are harder to come by.
One old friend, John Furphy, recounts Walker living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the 1990s and forming a local group called Moses and the Lost Sheep around that time. The band went through a few iterations, namely as Nosmo King (no smoking) and No Dogs Allowed.
Around this time, Walker got married and moved to a horse farm outside of Coopersburg. Shortly thereafter, Walker’s wife died. Around 1997, he decided to follow his harmonica player, Thom, out to Colorado.
Furphy recalled the rowdy nature of Walker’s early shows.
“I booked them to appear at an outdoor gathering for the community staff at WMUH-FM, from the campus of Muhlenberg College,” Furphy said. “Before his performance, he cut his left hand, badly. Still, he wrapped it up and performed a full set, as the blood trickled onto his guitar.
“I went with the band to a performance at a dive bar, since torn down, next to the railroad tracks in South Bethlehem,” Furphy continued. “They were barely into the first set when someone at the bar threw what was believed to be an M-80 at them. Without missing a beat Moses leaned into the microphone and said, ‘That’s all right. People often shoot at me when I’m out.’”
In Colorado, Walker established himself as a singular presence in the state’s music scene, first with his seminal band The Clam Daddies, and later with a variety of collaborations including Moses Walker and Friends, Walker Whalen and Walker Shellist, among others.
Besides being a prodigally talented musician — Walker’s repertoire included hundreds of songs, ranging from standards to originals to contemporary tunes — Walker is remembered by those who knew him as a compassionate, caring friend and an exceedingly positive presence.
“Moses was the most encouraging and positive musical person I knew, always with a kind word and quick to smile,” Michael Whalen, who played with Walker often, said. “Just about every musician that played with him came away richer for the experience. He had this amazingly unique voice, we used to say he was like the long-lost brother of Leon Redbone and Tom Waits.”
“Moses was upbeat and always offered to help me out with anything I needed,” Ronnie Shellist said. “He was there for me when I was at some of the lowest points in my life. I’m not sure how I could have gotten through some of it without his friendship. Moses also had the uncanny ability to make me laugh even when I was feeling way down. Hell, he made everyone laugh.”
“I can say that he was more than generous with his time, knowledge & resources to new musicians & singers,” acclaimed soul singer Hazel Miller said. “He was always optimistic & supportive!”
Andy Bercaw, who played bass with Walker at over 150 shows between 1997 and 2004 — and scores more over the years — said that Walker strived to mentor young musicians with his genre-spanning talents, which ranged from tin pan alley staples to American Songbook standards and just about anything else under the sun.
“He really liked to play with younger musicians that weren’t jaded,” Bercaw said. “With it, were still kind of open minded about music. And Mo’s big deal was kind of just teaching about, you know, all different styles of music and music that maybe younger people have never heard before introducing new genres to young players.
“He’s the most like unconventional bandleader you that you would ever meet,” Bercaw continued. “Because he didn’t have a setlist and he would never tell you what key you’re playing in, because he wanted you to figure it out. And, you know, Mo said he knew nearly 500 songs. And so, you could play with Mo three or seven gigs and not repeat the same song.”
Ryan Chrys, who fronts popular Colorado country band Ryan Chrys and the Rough Cuts, said Walker took Chrys under his wing musically, advising him on tricks for soloing and different ways to play. Before then, the pair bonded over Walker’s signature beard.
“I first met him around 15 years ago,” Chrys said. “I had no beard myself then but some years later I started growing it and through the years we always laughed cause each time it was longer, and he had more approval. ‘It’s finally started to come in there, youngling,’ he’d say each time and even after it had gotten really long.
“He spoke always in truth and wonder,” Chrys continued. “He was a truly unique man with a truly unique style. I have never seen anyone with a music sense like his — the swagger in his low vocals or the swing in his guitar playing, he never ceased to amaze me, and I was enthralled every time I saw him play and sing. He taught me a lot about music and I learned to be freer in my exploration of sounds in playing and soloing. He was a great inspiration to me.”
Melanie Owen was a fan of The Clam Daddies who nervously attended one of Walker’s jams, where Walker made her immediately comfortable and forged a lasting friendship.
“When I got to sit in and fangirl at his jam at the D Note, he was really encouraging,” Owen said. “Moses had this way of talking to you that made you believe you could do it — whatever it was. He was generous with his music and his time and his encouragement and made such a positive impact on so many musicians and fan family. I am really lucky I got to be friends with Mo.”
Mo at The O
A month before he died, Walker played one last show at what was likely his favorite venue; The Oriental Theater, which his old bassist Bercaw purchased about 14 years ago. Bercaw said that before he died, Walker — a mainstay at the Oriental, or the O as he called it — wanted to play final shows at his favorite places; La Dolce Vita Coffee Shop in Arvada and The O.
Be Be, Walker’s banjoist for many years — first with the Clam Daddies, then with Moses Walker and Friends — frequently accomanied Walker at La Dolce Vita, and will be taking over his standing slot there every fourth Sunday of the month.
“(Walker) was an awesome person, proficient singer musician and held greataffection for the people in his life,” Be said. “He will be greatly missed.”
Be was working on recording Walker singing 20 of his favorite songs shortly before his death, and will make the recordings — which she describes as sounding as if “he’s in the room with you” — available to anyone who wants them via her email: email@example.com.
On Feb. 5, Walker took the stage at the O one last time, joined by over 20 musicians from throughout his career. Despite his failing health, Walker put on a tour de force, playing for over 4 hours and completing over 40 songs.
“He probably played for like four hours straight,” Bercaw said. “Everyone else ran out of gas and he was still going. It was it was like the most epic day for me. In the all the years I’ve owned the Theater and for so many people that came it was so incredibly rad.”
Whelan helped Bercaw plan the event and called the concert “the most important show I’ve ever been a part of.”
“It was a beautiful retrospective of his life and music career,” Whelan said. “Local blues legends Hazel Miller and Erica Brown sang with Moses. Former members of the Clam Daddys reunited to play songs together one last time.
“Most people don’t get a chance to say goodbye,” Whelan continued. “We gave that to Moses and all his friends… Moses was so excited and full of energy in the days leading up to the show, where he performed for over 4 hours! I believe it might have been one of his greatest days and shows of his life.”
Walker might not have been ready to go — he had plans to travel more, and had designs for how he’d spend his earnings from the Oriental show — but his friends were able to give him a proper send-off in traditional Moses Walker fashion. A livestream of Walker’s final show can be found on the Colorado Music Network’s YouTube page.
“Everything was perfect,” Bercaw said. “And at the end of the night, we got him home. And you know, we went to dinner a couple days later, and I paid him, and we talked about the show and he’s super stoked… Mo said it was the best-paying gig he ever had.”
“I’m honored that I could walk him to the end and give him that last hoorah and be in a room full of love,” Whelan said.
When Walker died, Bercaw left a message for his old friend on the O’s marquee: “RIP Moses Walker.”