Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, Louisiana on May 1, 1930. At the age of 12, he quit school and took to the road, playing harmonica and guitar on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Arkansas, and St. Louis, learning from masters like Sonny Boy Williamson II, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sunnyland Slim.
Jacobs ended up in Chicago, where he grew frustrated that his harmonica was being constantly drowned out by the much louder electric guitars. The youngster began cupping a small microphone in his hands with his harmonica and plugging into a guitar amp or a P.A. so he could compete. Although other harp players (Williamson, Snooky Pryor) had previously adopted this method, mainly to increase volume, Little Walter took it to another level with his creativity and virtuosity, taking the harmonica into a totally different instrument.
|Early 50's Promo Shot|
In 1952, Walter recorded as a bandleader for Chess subsidiary Checker Records, with the Aces (brothers Louis and David Myers on guitars and the great Fred Below on drums). The song, "Juke" became the first, and only harmonica-driven instrumental to hit #1 on the R&B charts.
A frustrated Little Walter left Waters (though he continued to record with him) and formed his own group, the Night Cats (named after "Juke"'s original title, "Your Cat Will Play") and charted 15 hits on the R&B charts, a level of success that topped Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and most other blues artists of the day. With songs like "My Babe," "Mean Old World," "Blues With A Feeling," "Off The Wall," "Sad Hours," "You Better Watch Yourself," and "Last Night," Walter was a regular visitor to the charts for the rest of the 1950's. Most of his singles featured a vocal on one side and an instrumental on the other. In addition to the Myers brothers and Below, Walter was sometimes accompanied by Robert Lockwood, Jr. or Luther Tucker on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, and Willie Dixon on bass. All in all, not a bad set of musicians to see when you walk into the studio to record, is it?
|On Maxwell Street, 1960's|
It was that bad temper that eventually led to his demise. In 1968, he was in a street fight one night during a crap game, while taking a break during a performance. The effects of that fight, though not known for sure (there was a claim cited in Living Blues years ago that he was hit in the head with a hammer during the altercation) apparently led to his death. He seemed to be okay after the fight, though he complained of a headache, but that night Little Walter died in his sleep at a girlfriend's house, at the age of 37.
Not a very noble end for the most influential harmonica players of all time, but Little Walter pretty much set the template for modern blues and blues/rock harmonica players. It's hard to imagine what the blues would sound like today if there had not been a Little Walter.