GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN – LITTLE WALTER
by Todd Beebe
The Blues have always been rightfully proud to boast great musicians for numerous instruments, such as vocalists, guitarists, and certainly harmonica (harp) players. When the ultimate Blues Harp player’s list is put together- the name that will most definitely be at the top of that list is, Little Walter.
Marion Walter Jacobs was born on May 1, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana. Both Harmonica and Guitar came easily to the young Little Walter; so easy, he left school at the age of 12 and made money performing and working whatever occasional odd jobs would come his way.
It didn’t take long for people to notice Walter’s ability on the guitar was good, but his ability on the harmonica was almost supernatural! Present day writers will often say [pullquote]what Walter did with the harmonica was much like what Jimi Hendrix did with the electric guitar[/pullquote] – completely reinvented it. In the early years of amplifying instruments, many frowned upon unwanted distortion when volume levels were pushed beyond their limits. Little Walter purposely did this and used the distortion as another means of expression, pushing the envelope for what was expected of a traditional harp player.
Walter’s Harp ability turned heads wherever he went and in 1945 Walter arrived in Chicago. Shortly after Walter turned the right heads and found himself making his first recordings for the Ora-Nelle label. As 1948 dawned, he joined Muddy Waters band, debuting his partnership with Muddy on record with the classic “Country Boy.” Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records knew Walter was a genius, and brought him in to play on countless recordings. In 1952, one particular recording session with the Muddy Water’s band started out by laying down tracks with Walter out front on an instrumental. “Juke” hit #1 on the Billboard R&B charts and stayed there for 8 weeks. The song has become a Blues Harmonica staple. Everyone and anyone attempting to walk down the path of the Blues harp greats is expected to know “Juke.” It is literally the textbook example of how it’s supposed to be done.
Other Harmonica instrumentals followed for Walter: “Roller Coaster”, Sad Hours”, and “Off the Wall” were all hits. Little Walter’s solo career was now in full swing, and he left Water’s band to pursue it. Even after Walter quit Muddy’s band in ‘52, he still played on most of Water’s studio recordings. When people talk about the classic Chicago Blues Harp sound- it’s basically Little Walter they’re referring to.
1955 saw the release of the Willie Dixon penned “My Babe” which once again rocketed Little Walter to the #1 spot on the Billboard R&B Charts. By the end of the 1950’s, harmonica players could be found near and far, especially in Chicago. Many of them used the same techniques and tricks of loudly amplifying the Harp, and technically pushing the instrument and the equipment to its limits. These techniques were now expected, and looked upon as the “Chicago Blues sound.” All of it was born out of Little Walter. Sure, he had his influences too, much like Jimi Hendrix did. But, as with Hendrix, no one but Walter himself can be credited for his genius of pushing the instrument into new, uncharted territories.
As the 1960’s came, many new players like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite credited Walter as a major influence. The new breed loved Chicago Blues and knew that Little Walter was one of the architects of it.
While on break at a Chicago club performance in 1968, Walter was involved in a fight. The injuries seemed minor, but Walter died in his sleep the following day. February 15, 1968 was a very sad day for the Blues. The World lost a true pioneer and innovator. To say Walter was great is an understatement. Walk into any Blues club anywhere in the World, and when it’s time for the harp man to blow, you’ll be listening to Little Walter. Those are his licks. The man wrote the book on what we know today as “Blues Harmonica.”
His legacy is so alive today in the fact that anyone playing Blues on the harp is paying tribute to Little Walter, even if they don’t realize it (although you can bet that they do!) In 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed “Juke” as one of the 500 Songs that shaped Rock and Roll. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine listed The Best Of Little Walter at #198 of the 500 greatest albums of all time. And in 2008 Little Walter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Sideman Category.
Legends live forever. The next time you hear someone playing Blues Harmonica, you’ll be hearing Little Walter.
We also caught up with Walters daughter Marion and the Little Walter Foundation about their up coming event at Legends in February.
BL: Last May, you celebrated Little Walter’s Birthday Bash at Legends with Buddy Guy and Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, tell us how things are going?
Marion: It’s been a huge learning experience. I’ve learned that running a foundation takes a lot of new skills, effort and communication. Just having our web site online helps people find us. We get emails that surprise and delight. My dad’s fans have reached out to us from all over the U.S. and the world.
BL: What can your Dad’s fans do for you?
Marion: We can use more volunteers in different areas, like grant writing and fundraising. I would really like to connect with more musicians and hear how his work has inspired and influenced their own music.
BL: What do you hope to do this year?
Marion: We have the celebration here at Legends on Feb 15, 2013. We also have the Little Walter Blues Heritage Festival in Alexandria, LA this year on May 4, 2013. Thanks to Paul Jacob III and The Jacob(s) Project Foundation for their efforts in organizing the event. We invite all of your readers to come on down to Louisiana and join the celebration.
We will be at the Chicago Blues Festival in the summer on Foundation Row, and look forward to meeting with more of my Dad’s followers. We hope to collaborate with the other foundations to make a bigger impact on preserving the blues and leverage the strength in numbers. We will create bridges to past, present and future generations of artists and listeners through our activities throughout the year.
I personally hope to spend more time at Legends to meet more blues lovers and hear some great music! And a special thanks to Buddy for his support and congratulations on his Kennedy Center honor in December.