Steve Winwood – Teenage Titan!

‘ I think a lot of people came into rock ‘n’ roll to try to change the world. I came into rock ‘n’ roll to make music’ (Steve Winwood)

‘ Spencer Davis Group: Of all the bands I saw in those days, they impressed me the most. They had this small public address system and were very unassuming on stage, and then this spotty kid on the organ (Steve Winwood) suddenly opens his mouth and screamed, ‘I LOVE THE WAY SHE WALKS …’ and launched into a John Lee Hooker number. My mouth fell open and I felt a chill down my spine!’ (Noddy Holder lead singer of Slade)

Sometimes the Muses are very generous, even profligate, with their gifts. Sometimes they decide not to bestow slow maturing potential but instead choose to invest the golden one with overflowing talent in the rosy days of youth.

Think of Boris Becker fearlessly winning the greatest title in Tennis, Wimbledon, at 17. Read Mary Shelley’s, ‘Frankenstein’ and marvel that it was written by a teenager or wonder how Rimbaud could, comet-like, appear as a fully fledged poetic genius with, ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ aged only 16!

Today’s The Immortal Jukebox features one of the great figures in popular music, Steve Winwood, a musician, songwriter and singer of prodigious accomplishment who, when yet a boy in Birmingham, as a member of The Spencer Davis Group announced to the world in a series of thrilling recordings that a teenaged white youth, only recently an angelic Church of England chorister, could, astonishingly; play, sing, shout and scream Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Soul music with the power and authority of a veteran from Memphis or Chicago.

Listen to Steve Winwood here, at 17, raising the roof and the hairs on the back of the neck with his vocal and driving keyboards as along with brother Muff on bass, Spencer Davis on guitar and Pete York on drums, he takes Jamaican Jackie Edwards lovely summer splashed, sashaying, ‘Keep On Running’ and turbo charges it to suit the throbbing clubs and the mean industrial streets of his native Birmingham.

No surprise that this fantastically vibrant rave up, released in November 1965 became a Number 1 record on the British charts.

If I was directing a documentary about the club scene in mid 60s Britain I would insist on having Steve Winwood’s exuberantly brilliant vocals blasting out at maximum volume as the camera lovingly took in the boiling energy and the wonderful, ‘you’re not going out dressed like that!’ fashions sported by the young men and women having the time of their lives grooving on the dance floor.

Very few records shout, ‘Its the 1960s and a brave, beautiful new world!’ as clearly as those made by The Spencer Davis Group in their 65/67 heyday.

Steve Winwood was fortunate that his brother, christened Mervyn but nicknamed Muff, was five years his senior. It meant that as a musically omnivorous youngster he got to hear Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Charles Mingus courtesy of tape recordings made from Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America ( the same ones Van Morrison was listening to over the Irish Sea in Belfast!).

Muff, no mean musician himself, realising that his baby brother had really extraordinary talent, particularly as a piano player, called up the 11 year old Steve (wearing long trousers too big for him) when he joined a trad jazz band.

At first sight of the skinny kid fellow musos laughed but their laughter turned to wonder as soon as they realised the younger Winwood’s prowess as a player and his astonishing facility to hear a number once and be instantly able to play it with complete confidence and conviction.

As he became a teenager Steve’s pure choir boy soprano voice inevitably broke and miraculously metamorphosed into a glorious husky tenor ideally suited to emulation of the singer he had just discovered and whom he would idolise – the High Priest himself, Ray Charles.

Steve and Muff formed The Muff Woody Jazz band which with with the addition of Spencer Davis became The Rhythm and Blues Quartette with a residency at the Golden Eagle pub in Birmingham by 1963.

They played with fiery intensity a mélange of blues, and jazzy R&B that soon won a fanatical following around their Midlands stomping grounds.

A key development in late ‘ 63 was Steve’s enraptured discovery of the endless musical landscapes that could be opened up by the Hammond B3 organ. It was the sight and sound of the impossibly youthful Steve imperiously playing the B3 before launching into, ‘Ray Charles on helium’ vocals that persuaded Chris Blackwell, the musically and commercially alert founder of Island Records that this was a band who could take his fledgling music mogul career beyond its beginnings in the Jamaican community into the cash rich world of the mainstream record buying public.

And so, the Spencer Davis Group launched what would turn out to be a highly successful career.

The success of, ‘Keep On Running’ proved the point! And, a March 1966 second number 1 again written by Jackie Edwards – the slow burning, rolling on a river, ‘Somebody Help Me’ showed it was no fluke.

But Steve was more than a superb interpreter of other writers material he was also a natural composer with a marked ability to invest a song with rhythmic drive and attractive melodies.

In mid 1966 Steve, collaborating with Muff and Spencer Davis as they jammed, at one of their Marquee club rehearsals, around a riff from Homer Banks’ ‘Whole Lott Lovin’, came up with a delirious vocal and organ part to drive one of the most exciting records ever made, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’. You want to start a party? Play this loud and watch the sparks fly!

This was the record that first properly let America know that there was a new kid on the block with talent to burn – a top 10 hit as was the follow up, the relentless whippin’ up a storm, ‘I’m a Man’

Steve Winwood by the time, ‘I’m a Man’ came out in January 1967 was already restless and keen to explore the more expansive musical territory he had glimpsed through his encounters with the musicians he would go onto found Traffic with. With Traffic and in his later, still happily current, solo career he would show over and over again that he had taken proper care of his plentiful natural talent to produce songs and records that positively glow with musical grace. But, that’s a story for another day.

Today, I’m celebrating the dazzling achievements of the teenage Steve with The Spencer Davis Group. This was the time when Steve astonished all who heard him with a soul filled voice that had power, tenderness and flexibility to spare. A voice which commanded and held your attention as he took songs and lit them up – projecting them deep into your heart.

At the same time his piano and organ playing showcased a deep instinctive musicality that could by turns be stately, impassioned, riotously rowdy or even drowsily melancholic according to the demands of the song being played.

I’ll leave you with Steve, at 18, 18! channeling Ray Charles with a breathtaking cover of, ‘Georgia On My Mind’.

It shouldn’t have been possible for one so young to hold himself up against one of the very greatest figures in modern music but incredibly Steve succeeds and puts himself in the company of the musical elect.

Somehow, through some mysterious alchemy and inner fire he was able to have an incarnate grasp of the essence of music so that no challenge was seemingly beyond him.

Notes:

My recommended Spencer Davis Group compilation is ‘the 2 disc ‘Eight Gigs A Week – the Steve Winwood Years’ on Universal/Island which will provide endless delights for anyone taken with Steve’s awesome talents.

Jackie Edwards:

Jackie who died in 1992 was a very fine singer and songwriter whose work was both languorously sexy, humorous and effortlessly charming. One listen to a classic from the early 1960s like, ‘Tell Me Darling’ should have you seeking out one of one of his hits collections.

Before The Beatles – Billy Fury! (Wondrous Place)

British Beat – Some Other Guys 2

John Lennon, with characteristic force, once famously observed that before Elvis there was nothing. When you consider the lamentable history of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Britain in the years preceding the advent of The Beatles it’s hard not to agree with my friend Barclay Butler who once regaled me, over several pints of beer, with a Shakespeare parody proclaiming that, ‘Before The Beatles, in this Sceptred Isle, this other Eden, this demi-paradise, this precious stone set in the silver sea – there was nothing, nowt, nada, Zilch!’

Now, I like a sweeping generalisation as much as the next man but as an old grey-beard I’ve also learned that the rule tends to be proved by the inevitable exception. So I feel it incumbent on me to say that Lonnie Donegan, the founder of Skiffle music in Britain, really did strum the first immortal chords of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the United Kingdom.

In addition,in the the process of recording fine records such as, ‘Rock Island Line’, ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ and, ‘Cumberland Gap’ he inspired every superstar British rocker who followed, from Paul McCartney to Mark Knopfler, to launch their careers in music.

There are also two other pre Beatles records, both featuring wonderful lead playing by disgracefully under appreciated guitarist Joe Moretti, which would fully merit their place on any roadhouse jukebox.

I urge you to spare some of your precious time to listen to 1959s magnificently kinetic, ‘Brand New Cadillac’ by the enigmatic Vince Taylor (the supposed model for David Bowie’s immortal creation Ziggy Stardust) and the thrillingly evocative film noir swagger and strut of, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates from 1960.

As is the way of things most people who know, ‘Cadillac’ know it from the properly rowdy cover by The Clash while, ‘Shakin’ found wide fame through inferior versions by, ‘Guess Who’ in North America and Normie Rowe in Australia. Sometimes the originals really are the best!

Everyone knows that The Beatles were from Liverpool and it was also from that great city on The Mersey that Billy Fury, Britain’s only remotely credible pre Fab Four rocker, hailed. He now has a permanent memorial there through a proud statue which adorns the Albert Dock – an appropriate location for a man who spent two years working as a deck hand on a Mersey tug boat The Formby.

Billy as you can see from the image above was moodily handsome in the vein of James Dean, Chet Baker and Elvis. He also sported a mighty quiff and looked dynamite in neon coloured jackets! Moreover, in contrast to almost all his pre Beatles contemporaries, he had a sense of the creative energy and spontaneity at the heart of the revolutionary music sweeping all over the world from the American South.

Billy, like millions of us, had his head, his heart and his soul set aswirl by the epoch shattering sounds of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He also had affection for the folk art masterpieces produced by the Orpheus of Alabama, Hank Williams.

Perhaps it was Billy’s childhood experience of rheumatic fever resulting in a permanently damaged heart that gave him his fatalistic sense that he would die young, his aura of diffident vulnerability and a wounded charisma that was particularly attractive to his female fans.

His career proper began in 1958 in, ‘You wouldn’t dare make it up’ circumstances. Eighteen year old Billy attended a Birkenhead, Liverpool rock/pop revue concert featuring a series of artists promoted by the Svengali like show business manager Larry Parnes. Hearing the self penned songs Billy (then known as Ronald Wycherley!) was pitching to Marty Wilde and instantly recognising his marketability Parnes pushed the trembling Billy onto the stage and by the next morning Ronald Wycherley was rechristened Billy Fury and off on the road in the tour bus!

Girls liked Billy’s looks and his sometimes shy, sometimes shameless, performing manner while the male members of the audience had to admit that he really could rock out when he wanted to.

Both sides of the Fury persona were featured on the 10 song album, ‘The Sound Of Fury’ with every song written by Billy, that he recorded in a single day in April 1960. The, ‘not too far from Sun Studio’ lead rockabilly guitar was provided by Joe Brown and the solid drums by Alan White. The whole album is over in half an hour yet it had then and still now retains the visceral impact of true Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Listen here to Billy bring some heat and style into the grey 1950s London with his own, ‘Turn My Back On You’

Now, hear his heart stilling, heart breaking, blood on the tracks ballad, ‘You Don’t Know’

Billy on record at least never really approached the kind of ecstatic abandon Elvis and Jerry Lee reached (who ever has?) but uniquely for Britain at the time he embodied an affecting personal engagement with his material and vocals that I still find admirable and moving.

His recurring poor health, lack of driving ambition and the erratic tides of popular taste left his career as a Rock ‘n’ Roll star effectively marooned once the Beatles led beat boom hit its stride in the mid 60s .

Yet amazingly, it turns out he had as many 60s hits (24) in Britain as his fellow Liverpudlians though their sales both in Britain and worldwide would, of course, have dwarfed his. Though he continued to write and record and always had a core of life long devotees he became one of those, ‘Whatever happened to’ figures so plentifully present in music history.

Billy, whose health was never robust, finally succumbed to his heart problems and died in 1982 aged only 42. Looking back, few who listen carefully will ever forget his look and his alluring voice. There is a poignancy about him that clutches at the heart.

To my mind Billy’s ability to inhabit a mysteriously powerful vulnerability reached its zenith with a record that haunted Billy (he recorded it three times) and will surely haunt you too – ‘Wondrous Place’.

This is one of those songs where you feel like you are eavesdropping, in an unsettling yet addictive way, to a very intimate psychic drama. Billy seems to be singing to himself as he walks alone in the pre dawn early morning hours down some lonesome moonlit road; perhaps some Merseyside dockland version of Hank Williams’ lost highway.

There is a sleepy reverie suggested by the slow river drifting tempo and the heartbeat percussion. Billy’s lovely humming breaks and artful hesitations combined with his tender, airy vocal seems that of a man trying, not entirely successfully, to persuade himself that the wondrous place he hymns is his to revisit when he wills. There is more of the wistful goodbye to love lost in this performance than a celebration of a continuing relationship.

‘Wondrous Place’ lasts less than two and a half minutes but as you listen you feel it lasts a much longer time. Somehow it makes you aware of all the individual breaths of life that fill all the seconds, all the minutes of all the days and nights you have left to you.

And, perhaps all of us carry memories; recalled on moonlit walks or quiet moments snatched from the hourly burly of everyday life of a wondrous place that we can never quite recapture though we can revisit it in the echoing halls of our imaginations – especially when a singer like Billy Fury shows us the way.

Canned Heat – Going up The Country and Working Together!

The subject of today’s post on The Immortal Jukebox, Canned Heat, have had many, many incarnations since the first proto form of the band emerged from Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles in 1965. By my reckoning they have had almost 40 different line ups featuring more than 50 musicians and issued dozens of recordings in a career that still continues to this day.

If you are in the area you can see them play at the Southside Shuffle in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada tomorrow night (September12). No doubt a fine time will be had by all.

I have neither the space or the inclination to provide a comprehensive history of their overall career here. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on what I consider to be their golden period, 1967 to 1970, when they released a series of superb records which managed to be both classic blues performances and, Lord be praised! world wide hits.

The sides featured here, ‘On The Road Again’, ‘Going Up The Country’ and, ‘Let’s Work Together’ are respectfully rooted in the blues tradition yet have nothing of the musty museum about them. Rather, they are enchanting recordings which sizzle with optimistic life.

They were created by an outstanding group of musicians whom I will always regards as the definitive Canned Heat line up. They comprised; Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite on vocals, Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson on harmonica, guitar and vocals, Henry ‘Sunflower’ Vestine on guitar, Larry ‘The Mole’ Taylor on bass and, Adolfo ‘Fito’ de la Parra on the drums.

It was the above configuration that recorded the glorious, ‘On The Road Again’ at Liberty Studios in September 1967 for the album, ‘Boogie With Canned Heat’ issued in January 1968 with the edited single version following in late April. I’m featuring the album version here.

I can’t resist saying – isn’t that just hypnotic! The slightly eerie introduction, seeming to evoke the, ‘entre chiens et loups’ fading light of the Mississippi evening, signals that the journey we are about to embark on will take us, on the blue highways, to the strangely familiar yet mysteriously alluring world inhabited by the southern bluesmen.

A world where the endless road, battered as it is by the rain and the snow, offers the only comfort available to a man abandoned to his fate by his dead mother and his erstwhile lover. Now he has no special friend just the relentless road ahead.

Clearly, Al Wilson drew heavily from Tommy Johnson’s, ‘Big Road Blues’ from 1928 and Floyd Jones’, ‘Dark Road’ and, ‘On The Road Again’ from 1951 and 1953 to fashion the Canned Heat recording. However, the triumph here is to have so thoroughly absorbed those recordings and influences that his own treatment goes way beyond homage to become a thrilling new creation that is guaranteed to haunt you.

Canned Heat and Wilson in particular were devotees of the one chord E/G/A droning blues form quintessentially represented on record by the great John Lee Hooker. The Canned Heat rhythm section lock in and drive the song forward while Al Wilson works wonders with his spectral hoot owl harmonica and his ghostly high pitched vocals (owing much to his devotion to Skip James). Add in the colour of the exotic Tambura and you have a record that makes its own imaginative weather.

Al Wilson was I believe the soul of Canned Heat and a very remarkable person. He was a highly intelligent and devout scholar of the blues who had listened and thought deeply about what made it special and how it should be played. He aded an intensity of focus and concentration (owing something perhaps to a personality that was somewhere on the autistic spectrum) which allowed him to make spectacular progress as a singer and instrumentalist from teenage neophyte to a genuine master by his early 20s.

It says something about his marrow deep love and understanding of the blues that it was Al who coaxed the rediscovered Son House to remember how his great pre war recordings should sound and be played.

John Lee Hooker wondered how this skinny white kid from Arlington Massachusetts with the baby face, who could barely see, had developed an ear and a heart for the blues so sympathetically attuned to his own way of playing. Al’s contributions to House’s, ‘Father Of The Delta Blues’ (1965) and, ‘Hooker and Heat’ from 1971 are marvels of empathetic accompaniment.

He was a distinctive singer, fine rhythm guitarist, virtuoso harmonica player and a gifted song arranger. Al Wilson’s death in September 1970 (in circumstances involving barbiturates which will never be fully understood) at the tender age of 27 was an immeasurable loss to music.

Listen to him here displaying all the above qualities on the sunlit, ‘you can’t play it only once’ Woodstock era anthem, ‘Going Up The Country’.

The root of this song lies in, ‘Bull Doze Blues’ (1928) by the almost mythical Texan bluesman/songster Henry Thomas. Al Wilson and Canned Heat catch Thomas’ mixture of sturdy danceability and decorative detail. Thomas often used the quills or panpipes to showcase surprisingly delicate melodies. In the Canned Heat version Jim Horn plays the delightful flute parts.

Many will remember this song being used in the movie of the Woodstock Festival and it has since been used countless times in feature films and adverts seeking to call up nostalgia for the bucolic hippy dreams of the late 60s.

Al Wilson was an early member of the conservation movement and the song perhaps reflects both his love of the redwood forests and his disquiet with the lack of respect paid to the nation’s environmental heritage. The song has sunlight but shadows too (the shadows are more prominent in his song, ‘Poor Moon’).

Henry Vestine’s plays subtly brilliant guitar throughout the track. Vestine (who died in 1997) was a superb lead player who, encouraged by his physicist father, had built up a staggering voluminous collection of blues and other roots music recordings during his teenage years in Takoma Park, Maryland. It was there that he formed a boyhood friendship with another legendary figure in American Music – John Fahey.

Through Fahey and a move to the West Coast he met Al Wilson and Bob Hite (a fellow record collector of heroic proportions – in fact Bob Hite did everything to heroic proportions up to and including his drug intake resulting in his untimely 1981 death). With the addition of supple bassist Larry Taylor (whose credits in addition to Canned Heat include work with the original Monkees, John Mayall and Tom Waits) and endlessly energetic drummer Adolfo de la Parra the classic line up was complete.

But,stormy relations between Henry Vestine and Larry Taylor led to the former’s precipitate departure before the recording of their 4th album. They found a very able replacement for Henry in Harvey Mandel.

It is with Mandel on guitar that Canned heat recorded a massive world wide hit with their stupendous pile driving take on Wilbert Harrison’s, ‘Let’s Work Together’. There’s no point thinking you can sit in your chair while this one plays: like Bob Hite says – ‘Aw come on!’

This is a record that takes no prisoners. The Bear grittily bears down on every word as Harvey Mandel, with Al Wilson and the rhythm section shadowing and supporting him, wails and wails on lead guitar.

This record came out when I was 15 years old and something of a studious cove – but I can tell you I did some mighty, mighty, head banging and air guitar pyrotechnics to this one as I tested out the patience of my parents and neighbours as I pushed my amplifier and speakers to their absolute limits.

Canned Heat have often, not without some merit given their post 1970 career, been caricatured as one more routine boogie band. But, for those few years as the 1960s ended they were one hell of a band who played the blues with respect, good spirit and no little style. They should have an honoured place on every downtown jukebox.

Notes:

The best Canned Heat collections I am aware of are the extensive ‘Uncanned’ for those who really get with the groove and, ‘Let’s Work Together’ for those who prefer to cut to the chase.

Henry Thomas – the magnificent collection, ‘Texas Worried Blues’ on the Yazoo label would be one of the very few records I would run into a fire to save!

Though Floyd Jones lacked the drive of many of his blues contemporaries he was a smart and serious songwriter and an interesting performer. See the Classics set, ‘Floyd Jones 1948-1953’.

Little Walter – Blues Giant – Harmonica Genius!

‘You gotta say LIttle Walter invented the blues harmonica .. No one had that sound before him. No one could make the thing cry like a baby and moan like a woman. No one could put pain into the harp and have it come out so pretty. No one understood that the harmonica – just as much as a trumpet, a trombone or a saxophone – could have have a sound that would drop you in your tracks!’. (Buddy Guy)

Some people have just got it. And, by it, I mean IT – the mojo that definitively separates the great from the very good and the merely good. From the sidelines or from the stalls we can often recognise, without expert knowledge ourselves, some invisible aura that marks out the special one, the summiteer, from those still scrambling up Mount Parnuss’ lesser slopes.

It’s not necessary to have been a Major League Baseball player to have recognised, on first sight, that Ted Williams was a great hitter or that Sandy Koufax was the pitcher you’d want pitching for you if your life was at stake. Intensive years of conservatoire schooling are not needed to know, for certain, that Maria Callas had a gift for dramatic singing that is beyond compare or that Glenn Gould as he hunched over the keyboard and played Bach’s divine music was some kind of angel himself.

Anyone, after watching even one round of Muhammad Ali boxing in his peerless prime would in head shaking wonder have had to exclaim, ‘There’s never been anyone like him!’.

Little Walter (Jacobs) a bluesman and instrumentalist of undoubted genius and the subject of today’s Immortal Jukebox post is assuredly one of that elect company. With the certainty that advancing age brings, I confidently declare that there never will be a harmonica player to equal, let alone out do, Little Walter for drive, flair, command, show-stopping technical skill and outrageously imaginative musical daring.

Listen to the brilliance of his playing on, ‘Juke’ his first solo 45 from 1952, recorded with his colleagues in Chicago blues finest ever outfit – The Muddy Waters band.

I believe the proper expression after bearing that is, ‘Lord, Have Mercy!’. This is Little Walter stepping up the stage, front and centre, to announce to his fellow musicians and the wider world that he was the new royal ruler of the blues harmonica.

Sure, on his way up he had been influenced by the two blues harpists named Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton. He had arrived in Chicago as WW2 ended by way of his birthplace, Marksville Louisiana, New Orleans, Helena Arkansas, Memphis and St Louis – all the while soaking up music and developing his awesome technique.

It is clear that he had also been listening intently to thrusting saxophonists like Big Jay McNeely in addition to harp masters. But, then Walter took everything he had learned and at the warp speed of his imagination, moved into interstellar overdrive, taking the humble harmonica into uncharted territory. The territory all subsequent blues harmonica players live in.

Juke, recorded at the end of a Muddy Waters session for Chess subsidiary, Checker Records, became an enormous hit. It was biggest seller the label had up to that point and the first (and still only) harmonica led instrumental to top the R&B charts.

Walter and the commercially savvy Chess Brothers realised that while Walter should remain an essential part of the Muddy Waters sound he now needed to have his own band, The Jukes, for recording and touring purposes. Walter was obviously the star of the show but he was fortunate to have such alert and sympathetic sidemen as guitarists, Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below.

Together in the period 1952 to 1958 they had 14 top ten R&B chart successes – records that are rightly regarded as blues classics. The general pattern was for each 45 to feature an instrumental allowing Walter to swoop and soar wherever his seemingly unlimited imagination took him coupled with a tough, street wise vocal side.

Walter was not a great singer but he could give a lyric a dramatic authority that lodged a song deep into your memory. It’s hard to believe that any set of sides were ever more perfectly engineered to blast out of South Side Chicago Jukeboxes!

On, ‘the threatening ‘You Better Watch Yourself’ below his harmonica doubles as a switchblade slicing the air powered by intoxicant fouled male bravado. Or perhaps that should be doubles as a, ‘Saturday Night Special’ handgun waved to all and sundry in the joint as a signal – a declaration, that, ‘look out brothers and sisters! I’m a mean, mean dude and you had best not get in my way or mess with MY woman’.

More evidence here of Walter’s ability not simply to plug in to use the power of electricity to add volume to his harmonica but his understanding that testing the limits of the amplifiers could produce feedback and other distorting effects which he could harness to produce ever more individual and wondrous sounds. There was something of the sorcerer about Walter – casting mysterious musical spells from a book unreadable to all but him.

Walter was a genius. He was also mean, moody and unreliable though he could be charming when he wanted to. Easily slighted, especially when drunk (and he was rarely without a bottle to hand) he was always one step, one sideways look, away from a fight.

His hungry indulgence in booze and drugs inevitably wore down his body and though his talent was immense it could not survive in its true glory beyond the late 1950s given the sustained onslaught of self abuse he visited upon it. But when he was in his prime there was no one in Chicago or the whole wide world to touch him!

Walter, certain in his mastery of his instrument could play at the fastest tempos to whip an audience into a frenzy. But, like all the great musicians, he could exercise a mesmeric hold on his listeners playing at very slow tempo. Listen to him on, ‘Quarter To Twelve’ sounding like some orchestral nocturnal spectre briefly visiting this material world to pass on some vital message.

I hear many things in the harmonica sounds of Little Walter. I hear the cry and moan Buddy Guy heard. I also hear air renting sobs of pain, sly seduction, bitter rage – sometimes suppressed sometimes inescapably aimed right between our eyes and ears.

I hear terror and exultation, anxiety and ambition, lust, longing, and oceans of loss. Oceans of loss. I hear a proud and angry grown man and a bewildered, bereft child. I hear all the swirling sea of human emotions we are heir to drawn from the very air and brought to shining dramatic life through Walter’s miraculous sound.

A last treat – here he is, courtesy of the pen of blues godfather WIllie Dixon, with what has become a blues standard, ‘My Babe’. What a huge sound! No fooling, this is Chicago blues at its best – this is the stuff of life.

Goodnight Walter. May your story be heard and your tears dried. You gave us treasure from your magnificent gifts.

Notes

The Chess catalogue has zig zagged through many incarnations for reissue purposes with complications appearing and disappearing with frustrating frequency.

The compilation I listen to most is the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection. You could also investigate the sets from the Proper and Jasmine labels.

A record not to miss is, ‘The Blues World of Little Walter’ on blues specialist label Delmark. This is a quartet outing with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Leroy Foster. Their 1950 version of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin” will send shivers through your whole being.