Little Walter (born Marion Walter Jacobs) (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968) was a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist best known as the creative pioneer of amplified blues harmonica playing.
Born in Marksville, Louisiana, Jacobs eventually moved to Chicago, where he joined the Muddy Waters band and quickly gained renown for his powerful, innovative harmonica playing. He also had a successful solo career with number one R & B hit songs such as "Juke" and "My Babe." His revolutionary harmonica style set the standard for blues players to this day and has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix in its impact.
A quick tempered man, he died of injuries sustained in a fight at age 37. His influence on the tradition of blues harmonica playing, however, can hardly be overestimated.
After quitting school at the age of 12, Jacobs left Louisiana and traveled, working odd jobs and honing his musical skills with blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, among others. Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he quickly entered the thriving blues scene there. He occasionally found work as a guitarist, and according to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter's first recording was an unreleased demo on which he played guitar backing Jones. However, Walter garnered more attention for his harmonica work.
Frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, Jacobs adopted a simple but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hand while playing the harmonica and plugged the mic into a guitar amp or public address system. This not only allowed him to compete with the guitarists' volume, but enabled him to take full advantage of his unique talent as a musical innovator. He was soon a sought-after side man and played with many of the best known Chicago musicians.
Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who used this amplification method only for added volume, Little Walter used it to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica. Not only did he create wailing saxophone-like blues notes that enabled him to match the powerful leads of the best electric guitarists of his day; his tiny instrument also emitted some of the most emotionally powerful double-note effects on record. Like Williamson and others, he was master of "tonguing" the instrument to block certain notes and produce chords. Considered to have one of the strongest mouths in the business, he was also able to use his harp as an effective rhythm instrument.
Jacobs was also innovative in his use of harmonicas of various keys. Most blues players of his day used only the standard "cross-harp" technique of playing in the key a fifth down from the key of the diatonic mouth-harp (for example, using an "A" harp to play in the key of "E"). Little Walter also used what has become known as the "slant-harp" variation of playing a harp one step down from the key (using a "D") harp to play in the key of "E," enabling him to create unusual modalities and hit notes, relative to the key, unavailable to most players. He also used chromatic harmonicas to great effect, as with his haunting, rhythmically innovative solo on the Muddy Waters hit "I'm Ready."
He also sometimes intentionally used small amplifiers with blown-out speakers in order to create distortions that added to the effect of his wailing solos. One of his biographers, Madison Deniro, said that "He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion." Along with Muddy Waters, Little Walter is generally considered as one of the first great "urban" blues musicians.
Little Walter made his first released recordings in 1947 for the tiny Ora-Nelle label in Chicago. His big break came when he joined the hot Muddy Waters' band in 1948. By 1950 he was playing on Muddy's recordings for Chess Records, and his harmonica is featured on most of Waters' classic recordings from the 1950s. He also recorded as a guitarist for the small Parkway label, on a session for Chess backing pianist Eddie Ware, and occasionally played second guitar on early sessions with Muddy Waters.
Jacobs' solo career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess' subsidiary label Checker Records in 1952. The first completed take of the first song at his very first session—"Juke"—spent eight weeks in the number one position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts. It was the first harmonica instrumental ever to become a hit on the R&B charts. Walter scored an impressive 14 top-ten hits on the R&B charts between 1952 and 1958. Among these were two number one hits: "Juke," and “My Babe" (1955), the latter featuring Walter's vocal performance as well as his harmonica. Many of these numbers were originals, written either by Jacobs or Chess' A&R man, bass player Willie Dixon.
Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter reached the Billboard R&B top ten. "Off the Wall" reached number eight, "Roller Coaster" achieved number six, and "Sad Hours" reached the number two position while Juke was still on the charts. His vocal hits included "My Babe," "Mean Old World," "Tell Me Mama," and "Blues With a Feeling."
Death and Legacy
Jacobs suffered from alcoholism, and had a notoriously short temper. Both of these flaws led to a decline in his fame and fortunes in the 1960s, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. He died of injuries sustained in a fight a few months after returning from his second European tour, at the age of 37. Had he lived, there is little doubt that his acclaim would have been enormous as a result of the blues revival that he had just gotten started at the time of his death.
Jacobs' legacy has been enormous. His harmonica solos on the classic Muddy Waters records established the standard vocabulary for blues and blues-rock harmonica players for more than 50 years. Black Chicago blues harp players in his tradition include Junior Wells and James Cotton, both of whom began their careers filling Little Walter's shoes as harmonica players with the Muddy Waters band. White blues players who learned from little Walter either directly or from his records include Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and John Popper of Blues Traveler. Indeed, no blues harp of note would deny a great debt to Little Walter Jacobs. Several of his solo songs have gone on to become blues classics, including: "My Babe," "Blues with a Feeling," "Mellow Down Easy," and "Can't Hold on Much Longer." In pop music Righteous Brothers' version of "My Babe," loosely based on Little Walter's original, was one of the duo's first smash hits in the 1960s.
Little Walter's 1952 instrumental Juke was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.
Currently available albums
Source: Rolling Stone
- Stray Dog Blues—2006
- Blues Twin Pack—2002
- Live In The Windy City—2000
- His Best—1997
- Blues With A Feeling: Chess Collectibles Vol. 3—1995
- Quarter To Twelve—1995
- Blues Masters—1994
- The Blues World Of Little Walter—1994
- The Essential Little Walter—1993
- Best Of Little Walter Vol. 2—1989
- Best Of Little Walter—1988
- Confessin' The Blues—1974
- Hate To See You Go—1968
- ↑ O'Brien, J. "The Dark Road of Floyd Jones." Living Blues #58, 1983.
- ↑ See for example "Standing Around Crying" on Muddy Waters: His Best: 1947 to 1955. Chess, 1997. ASIN: B000005KQH
- ↑ See also, on the same album, "I'm Your Hoochie Cochie Man." Ibid.
- ↑ See for example his backing to Muddy Waters "She Moves Me, Man." Ibid.
- ↑ Deniro, Madison."Marion Walter Jacobs" www.bluesharp.ca. Retrieved December 5, 2007.
- ↑ Little Walter Discography www.rollingstone.com.
- Glover, Tony. Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 978-0415937115
- Oliver, Paul. The Story Of The Blues. Northeastern University Press, 1998. ISBN 1-55553-355-8
- Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. Viking, 1981. ISBN 0-670-49511-5
- Rowe, Mike. Chicago Breakdown. Eddison Press, 1976. ISBN 0-85649-015-6
All links retrieved November 3, 2022.
- Little Walter Bio www.allmusic.com.
- Blues Harp Legend www.bluesharp.ca.
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