Friday, April 6, 2012

Blues Legends - Little Walter

Little Walter
Before Little Walter arrived on the music scene, the harmonica was a humble little instrument, pretty basic in its presentation and style, basically serving as support behind guitar and/or piano for the most part.  Although he may not have been the first to amplify the harmonica, he took the instrument in directions previously unimaginable.  He transformed the harmonica into an almost-saxophone like presence on hundreds of blues recordings.  No one had ever heard anyone play the harmonica like Little Walter when he started.  Today, it's hard to find a harmonica player who wasn't influenced by him.

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
He first recorded in 1947, for Ora-Nelle Records ("I Just Keep Loving Her").  Like many harmonica players of that era, his playing owed a debt to the first Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson), the most influential player of his time.  In 1948, Little Walter joined forces with Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster.  The group was known as the Headhunters, as they would visit most of the Southside Chicago clubs, climb on stage, and "cut the heads" of whoever was performing there that night.   By 1950, Walter was appearing on Waters' recordings for Chess, although playing unamplified harmonica. From the beginning, his presence was felt on every Waters recording he participated in, as he played around, over, and through everything.  He finally was allowed to "plug in" on 1951's "Country Boy."

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.

Walter continued with Muddy Waters until a few days after a performance at Club Zanzibar one night.  A fan requested an extra rendition of "Juke" at a performance and, as incentive, put a coin in front of Waters, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and Walter.  The fan gave Waters and Rogers each a quarter, and Walter, the composer and driving force behind the song, a dime.

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
By 1959, changing tastes in music knocked most blues artists off the charts.  By that time, Walter has fallen deeply into the spell of alcoholism, becoming known for missing performances and recording dates.  He seemed to age thirty years during the sixties and his performances suffered greatly.  He had a notoriously short temper, which also caused him much grief during this time.

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.

Selected Discography

One of the first blues recordings I ever bought was The Best of Little Walter, released by Chess in 1958.  It was probably a part of any blues harmonica player's collection in the late 50's and 60's.  It featured a dozen of his biggest songs and is probably one of the most essential blues recordings ever.  If you're just getting started listening to this great artists, this is the disc to start with.  Trust me, it won't be your last Little Walter album.

His Best, released in 1997 as part of Chess' 50th anniversary celebration, includes ten of the songs on The Best of Little Walter, plus ten more great tunes.  This is now the essential single disc set of Little Walter and is easier to find than its predecessor, but you probably still will want to hear more.

The Essential Little Walter is a two-disc set that covers his entire career, from 1952's "Juke" to 1967's "Dead Presidents."  It has all the classic sides, instrumental and vocal, and should be all a blues fan should ever need, but in case you still want more........

The Complete Chess Masters 1950 - 1967 include EVERYTHING Little Walter recorded for Chess Records, alternate takes and all.  This set would be for the completists in the know who you are, the diehards who love to plow through alternate takes and even Walter's lesser-quality 60's output.  Not the place to start, but maybe a good way to get the whole picture if you're interested.

Another keeper is The Blues World of Little Walter, which features Walter's pre-Chess output in the late 40's and early 50's.  It's worth hearing for the raucous version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," offered up by Walter, Muddy Waters, and Baby Face Leroy.

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