Born Marion Walter Jacobs, 1 May 1930, Marksville, Louisiana
Little Walter was the king of the blues harmonica, a pioneer in the use of the electronically amplified harmonica in rhythm and blues recordings. His style so widely influenced other bluesmen that it has become an integral part of the mainstream of blues and rock music.
Born into a poor sharecropping family in rural Louisiana, Walter Jacobs began to play the harmonica at age eight. He ran away from home when he was twelve. Even at that young age his harmonica skills became his major means of support, playing on the streets in New Orleans and later in Helena, Arkansas. There he met Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), the local harmonica star, who took young Walter under his wing and taught him a few things about blues harmonica. Walter also learned to play guitar during this period. He continued to travel and worked in St. Louis for a while before arriving in Chicago in 1946.
In the Windy City Walter hooked up with Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. He made his first recording in 1947, credited to Little Walter J, "I Just Keep Loving Her", which was first released on the Ora-Nelle label and later reissued on Chance. His obviously extraordinary talent was noticed by Muddy Waters, a fair harmonica player himself, who knew the possibilities of the instrument. In 1948 Walter joined the Muddy Waters band (then called the Headhunters), whose other members were Jimmy Rogers and ‘Baby Face’ Leroy Foster, apart from Muddy himself. By 1950 Little Walter had started amplifying his mouth harp. He had taken the harmonica, until then often seen as a cheap, ‘lowly’ instrument, out of its rural setting and brought it into an urban context. It has been written that Walter only chose to play the harmonica because he couldn’t afford his preferred instrument, a saxophone. Louis Jordan’s phrasing of the sax was a clear influence on the way Walter played his harp.
Muddy Waters recorded for Aristocrat, soon renamed Chess Records. The Chess brothers were deeply impressed by Little Walter’s performances on the Muddy Waters sessions and in May 1952 they gave him the chance to record on his own, both as a singer and as an instrumentalist. He had a fine singing voice, which is somewhat underrated. Walter's first Checker single paired the instrumental "Juke" with the vocal "Can’t Hold Out Much Longer" (Checker 758), credited to Little Walter and his Night Cats. "Juke" was a huge success, topping the R&B charts for eight weeks in the autumn of 1952. Little Walter was off and running, quit the Muddy Waters band and formed his own four-piece group. But he would continue to do session work for Waters and other Chess artists throughout the 1950s.
Over the next six years he would hit the R&B Billboard Top Ten 14 times, a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. The biggest hits were "Sad Hours" (# 2, the follow-up to "Juke") and its flip, "Mean Old World" (# 6), "Blues With A Feeling" (# 2, 1953), "You’re So Fine" (# 2, 1954) and "My Babe" (his second number one, 1955). "My Babe" was adapted (by Willie Dixon) from an old spiritual tune, "This Train", and became much covered during subsequent years, notably by rockabilly artists like Dale Hawkins, Ricky Nelson and Narvel Felts.
After the excellent "Key To the Highway" (# 6, 1958), Walter had only one more chart entry, "Everything Gonna Be Alright" (# 25, 1959). Following the rock ’n’ roll covers of "My Babe", Checker reissued Walter’s version in 1960, but this time there was no chart success. However, it was picked up by UK Decca the second time around (London HLM 9175, his first UK release), and must have influenced quite a few British harmonica players.
Unfortunately, Walter suffered from alcoholism and had a notoriously short temper, which led to increasingly irresponsible and sometimes violent behaviour in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This led to a decline in his fame and fortunes, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. The latter tour resulted in the only film / video footage of Little Walter performing that is known to exist (Danish TV show on October 11, 1967, released on DVD in 2004). He recorded and toured only infrequently in the 1960s, playing mainly in and around Chicago. In 1967 he did a ‘Super Blues’ session for Chess with his old studio mates Muddy Waters, Otis Spann and Bo Diddley. Walter was obviously in bad shape ; there was nothing ‘super’ about his performances.
By the time of his death in 1968 (following head injuries after a street fight), he was largely forgotten. He revolutionized harmonica blues playing, but at the age of 37 he was lying in a pauper’s grave in Chicago. A sad end to an exceptional talent.
More info : http://www.bluesharp.ca/legends/lwalter.html
Biography : Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines, Blues With A Feeling. The Little Walter Story. New York : Routledge, 2002. 314 pages.
Illustrated discography / sessionography (not yet completed) :
Acknowledgements : Joop Visser, Lee Cotten, Nadine Cohodas.
Dik, February 2015
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