‘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.
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.