He dropped out of Edison High School at age 16 because he was making more money playing in a Minneapolis rock band than his dad was at a printing job. That group morphed into Gypsy, Minnesota's seminal progressive rockers and the first local act to sign a major album deal in the 1960s. For more than six decades, James "Owl" Walsh remained a stalwart on the Minnesota music scene.
"He was a leader, an organist, a pianist, a producer, a killer vocalist and a very, very underrated songwriter," said Minneapolis drummer/singer Bobby Vandell, who joined Gypsy in 2021 but had admired Walsh since a 1965 Minnesota State Fair gig. "As a songwriter, James Walsh was breathing the same air as Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor."
Walsh died Saturday at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital of congestive heart failure. He had been in declining health with diabetes, heart issues and mobility concerns. He was 74.
Gypsy hung out with Jimi Hendrix, toured with the Guess Who for two years and played in front of 300,000 people at Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970. In the early '70s, Gypsy's songs "Gypsy Queen, Part 1" and the 11-minute "Dead and Gone" became staples on FM radio, especially in the Twin Cities and St. Louis.
"Little Jimmy Walsh from 31st and Pierce Northeast" Minneapolis, as he told it, started his career at age 12 playing drums in a polka band. His mother sang in a barbershop quartet. Having switched to accordion and then piano (with lessons from Mom), he joined a local rock outfit called the Hot Half Dozen and then got recruited by the Underbeats, who had the local hit "Foot Stompin.' "
In 1968, the Underbeats evolved into Gypsy and moved to Los Angeles. They became the house band at the popular Whisky a Go Go for nearly two years, making lots of friends in the music community, opening for such acts as the Kinks and Little Richard.
"Jimi Hendrix came to see us and apologized for using the name Band of Gypsys [for an album title]," Walsh said. "We didn't care. He came to the [Gypsy] house for a few days. We jammed a little bit, hung out mostly."
Gypsy received recording offers from the established Atlantic Records and Metromedia, a broadcast company suddenly hot in music with Bobby Sherman. Gypsy chose Metromedia, for which they made two records (including a rare double-LP debut) and then two more for RCA.
"The joke on the bus on our way to California in '68 was: We were going to go out there and get a record deal and we'd retire in '73 and cut our hair," Walsh said in November 2021. "So here I am. I still haven't cut my hair, whatever I have left."
In 1975, the band broke up but singer-keyboardist Walsh, after the drug-related suicide of lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Enrico Rosenbaum in '79, periodically resurrected Gypsy, releasing five albums, including one in 2021, and doing occasional performances.
When he was 38, Walsh turned his life around and his girlfriend became pregnant. She wanted an abortion; he committed to raising the baby without her. So, Walsh got a job as manager of Metro Studios in Minneapolis' Warehouse District and worked on more than 100 albums, including one by Sheryl Crow. He also recently toiled one day a week in a Roseville piano shop.
"Owl could be a real sweetheart and he could be very bully-like," said drummer Stanley Kipper, who played in Gypsy on and off since 1974. "He's still a dear friend of mine. It was like brothers fighting. He was hard-working. We played a lot of great shows."
In 2021, Gypsy delivered "Red Stone Line," which Walsh described then as "Gypsy's grown up. We are taking it from a less starry-eyed view and more of a musical position." The sound was still adventurous but less long-winded. Influenced by Steely Dan and early Chicago, the songs were still trippy, eclectic and philosophical.
"Spent many, many days in the studio with him," said Todd Fitzgerald, an engineer/producer at Winterland Studios in New Hope. "He still had an amazing voice."
Gypsy last performed in October at Crooners in Fridley. Walsh went into the hospital in the fall but he was coming up with ideas for another album.
"He was telling me he had a whole new batch of songs in his head," Vandell said. "And they were coming quickly. He was excited about doing another album."
Survivors include his wife, Tere Walsh, sons Ryan and Jon; daughters Gina, Jennifer, Natalie and Jessica; brother John Walsh, sister Jeanne Armstrong and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.