Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Little Walter (1 May 1930- 15 February 1968)

Little Walter was nothing more than the greatest blues harmonica player that ever lived or ever will live.

Hey- what about Rice Miller? Big Walter Horton?  John Lee Williamson?

They're all great, every one of them- huge list- George Smith, Junior Wells, James Cotton- I'm going to stop listing right now, because, for certain, I've left off someone's favorite, and that's not what this is all about.

It's about Little Walter, a force of nature that blew through here a very short time, only thirty- seven years, rewrote the book on post- war Chicago blues and then, suddenly, violently and very predictably checked out.

Nowadays, pretty much every harp player who blows a note within the genre of blues owes Little Walter something, just for that one note.

Marion Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, LA, May 1st, 1930 and was raised in nearby Alexandria, LA.  At the age of twelve he ran away to New Orleans, and began a peripetetic journey that would eventually bring him to Chicago, where he was ultimately discovered by Muddy Waters.

At the time of Walter's arrival in Chicago, the reigning king of the harmonica was John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, whose comment on Walter, given to Billy Boy Arnold, was, "He plays good, but he plays too fast."

Walter went on to tour with Muddy's band and record with it as well, mostly for Chess Records, the immigrant dream of two Polish brothers who had renamed themselves Chess, Leonard and Phil.

One day, during a session of Muddy's (the story goes), the brothers asked Walter to play an instrumental that the band used as a closer to their sets. If the evidence of the takes that remain today are valid, this theme was pretty liquid- the takes that survive the session are very different from one another, mostly because Walter was a tireless improviser, an intense wellspring of musical ideas who seemingly never played the same thing twice.

The Chess bothers named the instrumental "Juke" and issued it under Little Walter's name instead of as a Muddy Waters recording. The instrumental rose up the charts to number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts, Walter left Muddy's band and the rest is blues history.

Walter and Leonard Chess, surrounded by fans
 Okay, so what's the big deal? First, Walter pioneered the use of the close, hand- held microphone to amplify and change the sound of the harmonica. He used several microphones throughout his career, but his early amplified tone is rough and slightly distorted. When it's played through an amplifier, the harp takes on the sound of the big city, perfect for the burgeoning combination of jump, swing and Delta- inspired music that was becoming the signature sound of Chicago blues.

Musicians who heard it couldn't at first believe they were hearing the harmonica.

Second, his rich improvisations transcend the limitations of the harp as it was played at that time. He based much of his playing on "jump" music, swing records that proliferated the charts. He developed his ideas the way a jazz musician would, choruses built on the chorus before it, all of it logical and fitting together like a cosmic jigsaw puzzle.

His sense of time and phrase, although "rushed" occassionaly, swung with such intensity that people who heard his band (called the Jukes, of course) couldn't help but dance. Compared to the music that Muddy was making (as great as it was and still is) Walter's concept had the sheen of newness. It bristled with youth and energy.

He went on to record many singles with the Jukes (at first Fred Below on drums with the Myers brothers on guitar and second guitar, then guitar virtuoso Robert Lockwood with Luther Tucker on second guitar) augmented in the studio by Willie Dixon on stand-up bass, almost all of which are classics. Last year Chess released a more or less definitive collection of Walter's recordings, complete with outtakes and false starts.

Missing would be the early Ora- Nelle and Parkways singles, as well as the incredible Chess Muddy Waters recordings with Walter's unsurpassed back- up harp playing.


As Walter became more successful, he became more self destructive. He drank, he smoked pot, he partied constantly, he went through women like a bull in a pasture. He got into trouble with the police on many occasions, got beat up, and even shot himself in the leg twice.

Walter's forehead scar, the result of a police beating, shows clearly here
As the harmonica and blues lost stature in the African- American community, so did Little Walter, and if it didn't literally kill him, it ceertainly contributed to his untimely death.

Walter, like Charlie Parker, a musician who compares to Walter in many ways, was the ultimate imperfect vessel for the perfect talent. Their gifts seem limitless, almost supernatural (although people who knew both have reported that both played constantly- Bird practiced eight hours a day.) And yet they seem to be unable to nurture those gifts, or themselves.

Later recordings reflect his downward slide. His voice gets gruffer, his tone thinner and his time and improvisations sound sloppy. He had developed a reputation for stiffing his sidemen and could not get the kind of talent he needed for his music.

He lived in friends' apartments, or in his car, and seemed to be a target for mayhem and violence.

Finally, on February 14th in 1968, he got into a fight with some guys who were pitching pennies. According to Junior Wells, who said to me, "Now I wasn't there, I only heard..." Walter got beaten up while trying to pick up money he'd won. Perhaps it was because of all the prior injuries to the head, or just the severity of his beating, but he died shortly after at his girlfriend's apartment early the next morning.

Much like his predecessor, John Lee Williamson, a beating on the streets of Chicago caused his death.

Charlie Musselwhite has said in interviews that before Walter died, he had recovered his skills and was playing better than ever. Freddy Robinson said they had begun covering jazzier tunes like Canadian Sunset and Big Boy. A rare video has him playing with the ultimate primitive Hound Dog Taylor and Walter's chops are definitely intact. Most telling is a raw tape made by drummer Sam Lay of a performance shortly before Walter's death. Little Walter, hired that night as a sideman for about $17.00, plays with all the fire of his Muddy Waters days on four songs. That's all we have- just four songs.

Reportedly, Muddy wanted Walter back in the band, which was just beginning to curry a following among younger white audiences.

So clearly there was a future for Little Walter. But clearly he didn't really want to be around to enjoy it. Although chronologiocally only thirty- seven at the time of his death, he might as well have been a hundred years old, given the stress and general wear and tear he had put himself through.

Walter was done.

For more information on Little Walter, check out his definitive biography
Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines (Jun 28, 2002), available at Amazon Books.


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