Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

Tribute to Little Walter 

Little Walter (born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, LA, and raised in Alexandria, LA) (May 1, 1930 - February 15, 1968) was a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist.

Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats—his revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix  in its impact. There were great musicians before and after, but Jacobs' virtuosity and musical innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined, and fundamentally altered many listeners' expectations of what was possible on blues harmonica. . Little Walter's body of work earned him a spot in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category on March 10, 2008, making him the only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player.

Biography

Early years
After quitting school at the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Tennessee, Helena, Arkansas, and St. Louis, Missouri, and honing his musical skills with Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, and Honeyboy Edwards, among others.

Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he occasionally found work as a guitarist but garnered more attention for his already highly developed harmonica work. (According to fellow Chicago Bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter's first recording was an unreleased demo on which Walter played guitar backing Jones.) Jacobs grew frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, and adopted a simple, but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica, and plugged the microphone into a guitar or public address amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist's volume. Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who had been using this method only for added volume, Little Walter utilized amplification to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that "He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion."

Success
Jacobs made his first released recordings in 1947 for Bernard Abram's tiny Ora-Nelle label, which operated out of the back room of the Abrams' Maxwell Radio and Records store in the heart of the Maxwell Street market area in Chicago. These and several other early Little Walter recordings, like many blues harp recordings of the era, owed a strong stylistic debt to pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson.) Little Walter joined Muddy Waters' band in 1948, and by 1950 he was playing on Muddy's recordings for Chess Records; for years after his departure from Muddy's band in 1952, Little Walter continued to be brought in to play on his recording sessions, and as a result his harmonica is featured on most of Muddy's classic recordings from the 1950s. As a guitarist, Little Walter recorded for the small Parkway label with Muddy Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster (reissued on CD as "The Blues World of Little Walter" from Delmark Records in 1993), as well as on a session for Chess backing pianist Eddie Ware; his guitar work was also featured occasionally on early Chess sessions with Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers.

Jacobs' own career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess' subsidiary label Checker Records on 12 May 1952; the first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session was a massive hit, spending eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts - the song was "Juke", and it was the only harmonica instrumental ever to become a #1 hit on the R&B charts. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: "Off the Wall" reached #8, "Roller Coaster" achieved #6, and "Sad Hours" reached the #2 position while Juke was still on the charts.) "Juke" was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels, and secured Walter's position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade. Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two #1 hits (the second being "My Babe" in 1955), a feat never achieved by his former boss Waters, nor by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Following the pattern of "Juke", most of Little Walter's single releases in the 1950s featured a vocal on one side, and an instrumental on the other. Many of Walter's numbers were originals which he or Chess A&R man Willie Dixon wrote or adapted and updated from earlier blues themes. In general his sound was more modern and up-tempo than the popular Chicago Blues of the day, with a jazzier conception than other contemporary blues harmonica players.

Jacobs frequently appeared on records as a harmonica sideman behind others in the Chess stable of artists, including Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Rocky Fuller, Memphis Minnie, The Coronets, Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Bo Diddley, and Shel Silverstein, and on other record labels backing Otis Rush, Johnny Young, and Robert Nighthawk.

Jacobs suffered from alcoholism, and had a notoriously short temper, which led to a decline in his fame and fortunes beginning in the late 1950s, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. (The long-circulated story that he toured the United Kingdom with The Rolling Stones in 1964 has since been refuted by Keith Richards). The 1967 European tour, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, resulted in the only film/video footage of Little Walter performing to be released. Footage of Little Walter backing Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor on a television program in Copenhagen, Denmark on 11 October 1967 was released on DVD in 2004. Video of a recently discovered TV appearance in Germany during this tour, showing Little Walter performing his songs My Babe, Mean Old World, and others was released on DVD in Europe in January 2009, and is the only known footage of Little Walter singing his own songs; other TV appearances in the UK and the Netherlands have been documented, but no footage of these has been found.

Death
A few months after returning from his second European tour, he was involved in a fight while taking a break from a performance at a nightclub on the South Side of Chicago. The relatively minor injuries sustained in this altercation aggravated and compounded damage he had suffered in previous violent encounters, and he died in his sleep at the apartment of a girlfriend at 209 E. 54th St. in Chicago early the following morning. The official cause of death indicated on his death certificate was "Coronary thrombosis" (a blood clot in the heart); evidence of external injuries was so minimal that police reported that his death was of "unknown or natural causes"; no external injuries were noted on the death certificate. His body was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL on February 22, 1968.

Legacy
His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players. - His influence can be heard in varying degrees in virtually every modern blues harp player who came along in his wake, from blues greats such as Junior Wells, James Cotton, George "Harmonica" Smith, Carey Bell, and Big Walter Horton, through modern-day masters Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of Blues Traveler.

His 1952 instrumental Juke was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and on 19 December 2007, was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame as an "example of recorded musical masterpieces that have significantly impacted our musical history"

The jazz-funk supergroup, Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood included a composition entitled "Little Walter Rides Again", inspired by Jacobs, on their 2006 CD, Out Louder.

A five-CD box set containing all of Little Walter's tracks recorded for Checker Records between 1952 and 1967 that are known to exist is being prepared for release in March 2009 on the Hip-O Select label.

Source: Wikipedia.