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.
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
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."
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.
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.