to Little Walter
By T.E. Mattox
here is something mythical about the Blues and the men and women who
generate them. More often than not an occupational hazard, especially
if you happen to be a storyteller. Over decades as legends flourish,
a select few artists become luminaries, but far fewer attain that rare
air of 'icon' status. As technology powered through the 20th Century,
the world plugged in and amplification electrified both instruments
and audiences. But even with emergent electronics, one aggressive young
blues musician managed to set himself octaves apart with his versatility,
distinctive tone and pioneering technique. He was considered then and
remains today, one of the most meteoric and innovative blues harp players
to have ever walked the planet. His name was Marion Walter Jacobs. Generations
since know him simply as
Born in Marksville, Louisiana in May 1930, Jacobs taught
himself to play the harmonica as a child and left home for the streets
and clubs of New
Orleans during the onset of WWII. He had yet to turn 13. There are
dozens of biographical accounts, globally produced documentaries and
countless articles and expose's written about this bluesman and his
style of play. Yet, trying to determine where fact becomes fable or
verifying personal details surrounding Walter's life and storied-career,
a blues elder once told me, is like 'separating fly $&@# from
pepper,' not an easy task.
Honeyboy Edwards. Photo: Yachiyo
One unimpeachable source, at least for me, would have
to be one of America's National treasures, David
'Honeyboy' Edwards. Years ago he provided insight about Little Walter
and his first trip north to Chicago. "I carried Little Walter
Jacobs with me in 1945, he come there with me in '45. In the winter
of '45 I went back south; I was scared of the cold weather. Walter told
me, he said, 'Well Honey,' he say, 'I ain't goin' back. I'm gonna' lay
around and hang around here awhile.' He liked it up there. And I left.
In '46 in the fall I heard Walter's records. Walter had recorded with
Muddy Waters. I said, 'That boys done recorded'.....I say, 'I'm goin'
back' I say, 'I'm going where I can do me somethin'. So when
I come back Walter was hooked up with Muddy Waters."
Honeyboy Edwards became well-acquainted with both Little
Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton. When asked if anyone could
top Little Walter's unique tone, harp style or technique, Honeyboy just
shook his head. "Can't do it. Both of them Walters' had a good
tone. Little Walter had a tone that Big Walter didn't have. Little Walter
had like a Louisiana style, down on the bayou music but he had his own
style of playing harmonica. He had a good, full sound. Little Walter
had a better, fuller sound than Big Walter had
but Big Walter played
more harp than Little Walter played. You understand me? He knew more
riffs. But Little Walter had the best tone."
Even from his youth, players recognized Little Walter's
skills and knew he was ahead of his time, but those who knew him personally
grew to realize his time wasn't long. Honeyboy was of the latter. "Walter
could play that harp. The boy was good, but he lived too fast. He got
down to Chicago and was makin' money. He was a nice-looking boy and
had a lot of womens and a big Cadillac. It went to his head."
Fortunately for all of us, Jacobs most lasting and certainly
most meaningful memorial is his bountiful treasure of recorded session
work and catalogued discography. Possessing an innate ability to express
both mood and emotion, Walter could move listeners from pure joy to
dark desperation in twelve bars or less, leaving ears ringing from pain
no doctor could cure. And the ability to do it instinctually with just
the turn of a phrase, a moan, a shout or a mouth full of chrome is truly
was playing with Muddy when I came to Chicago.
That's the guys I kept my eyes on"
Now more than four decades since his passing, accolades
continue to amass in recognition of Walter's musical accomplishments,
innovative skills and the total mastery of his craft. In celebration
of his life and music, some of the most gifted harp players performing
today came together not long ago, to pay homage in a 'live' recording
as a tribute to Jacobs. The project entitled 'Remembering Little
Walter' was recorded December 2012 in an intimate music and dinner
club called Anthology, just a block up from the San Diego Bay.
Two friends that actually knew and played with Little
Walter, Charlie Musselwhite and Billy Boy Arnold personalized the evening,
while James Harman, Sugar Ray Norcia and player/producer Mark
Hummel brought the event to life with full blown harp virtuosity.
Hummel said when they put together the playlist, "everyone picked
their fave Walter tunes." A fact that became obvious to attendees,
the instant each artist hit the stage.
It's said that listening to Jacobs' early recordings
you hear the distinctive influence of his favorite harp players including
both Sonny Boy's; John Lee and Rice Miller. But Little Walter's unique
style and sound can just as easily be compared to a number of 1940's
big bands and sax players of the era like Louis Jordan.
One of the most powerful moments of the night came when
Hummel began to highlight elements of Walter's jazz influence. He broke
out the big chromatic harmonica early in the show, launching into 'Blue
Lights' then followed immediately with, 'Rocker.'
Mark confided later, "'Rocker' was picked strictly for
that reason at our Tuesday rehearsal."
Charlie Musselwhite lays down a musical greeting
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
The jazz feel that often riffed through Walter's music
isn't lost on players today. Los Angeles-based musician, Preston
Smith talked about the trendsetting Jacobs, "Yea, he's my
favorite of all the blues harmonica players. Little Walter, I think
was the Charlie Parker of the era. The way Jimi Hendrix was to rock
guitar, Little Walter was to harmonica. When he first came out, he was
the first person to really use over amplification and everybody thought
it sounded like sax lines, jazzy almost
like 'Blue Lights' and
all those hits he had."
One of the headlining bluesmen for the Little Walter
Tribute is a true legend in his own right, Charlie
Musselwhite. When Charlie first moved to Chicago and was still working
outside music, he got to know a Little Walter that was much different
than that of his reputation. Charlie says "I'd pass a bar that
had a sign on the front of it saying, 'Little Walter, Wednesday night.'
I'd see all these places, write down the addresses and be right down
there at night." And since Musselwhite was in the process of
establishing quite a reputation of his own, he smiles. "I was
just having such a great time, I didn't give a damn. I was wild and
drinking, but big enough to take care of myself. I never would back
up from anybody! So right away they'd figure I was either crazy or not
worth messing with." Of course, none of this seemed to matter
when it was discovered Charlie played. "Walter would have me
sit in and he'd often give me a ride home after the gig. He was always
acting like he was looking out for me; I was a tough man, but we always
got along fine."
Charlie thinks Walter's sound might have come from his
environment, and began "probably with the urban influence of
Chicago horn players." Walter's distinctive saxophone-like
phrasing Musselwhite says, "combined with his creativity and
amplification really took harmonica playing to a whole new level that
hadn't been heard before."
Charlie then proceeded to stop the show with 'Just
a Feeling' and 'It Ain't Right.'
Mark Hummel, multi-tasked at the Little Walter
Tribute. Photo:Yachiyo Mattox
Without question Blind Pig Records made
this Tribute 'the right way' by ensuring the project was guided by a
four-time, blues harp BMA nominee and Little Walter devotee, Mark
Hummel. When conversations turn to the legendary Masters of the
Blues Harp, Hummel says there's little doubt, "Its Little Walter
his playing was so fluid and swung so hard. He was so inventive and
such a masterful musician." Hummel, who has eighteen CD's to
his credit and produces the wildly popular, West Coast Blues Harmonica
Blowout Series believes, "Walter changed all the rules
and raised the bar so high that nobody has yet surpassed him
And when it comes to his music, Hummel enlightens us that Walter's iconic
recordings "have become the holy grail all other harpers are
still trying to aspire to."
Hummel can also be credited with putting together the
house band for this special evening. The guitarists for the occasion;
Little Charlie Baty formerly of Little Charlie and the NightCats
and San Diego native, Nathan James who currently fronts his own
band the Rhythm Scratchers. The drummer, Jun Core, came
from Charlie Musselwhite's band and playing upright bass for the night
was RW Grigsby who also played with Hummel's Blues Survivors
and the late, Gary Primich.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Don't get the impression it was just harmonica players
who took notes when Marion Walter Jacobs came to play. Countless blues
men and women throughout the years have praised Jacobs' talent and skills
and that list included Luther Tucker. Tucker played guitar on
dozens of Little Walter's recording sessions and many of his biggest
hits, including 'Mellow Down Easy,' 'Confessin' the Blues,' 'Crazy
Mixed Up World' and 'Hate to See You Go.' When
asked about Little Walter, Tucker in his usual reserved and respectful
manner told me, "He was quite some character, a very
fellow. Outspoken sometimes, you know? A very beautiful musician. He
had a beautiful talent for the harmonica. He was the best. Nobody could
do it like Mr. Little Walter."
Another noted guitarist that would make his own mark
in the blues talked about seeing Little Walter in the early 50's. "I
heard Muddy Waters after I came to Chicago," Otis
Rush said. "Muddy was the first guy I saw on the bandstand,
and I said, 'well this is for me,' you know? All the guys, Howlin' Wolf
Walter, but it was Muddy! That's the guys I kept my eyes on. Little
Walter, I began to watch him. Walter was playing with Muddy when I came
to Chicago. And after I got here he broke out on his own style. 'Juke,'
yea that was
that changed a lot of things." Otis is nodding
his head. "Sure did, sure did!"
Back in '92 Chicago harp player Carey Bell said he remembered
working with Jacobs in the late 1950's at a club called the Cadillac
Baby Bar when he first got to Chicago. But it wasn't playing with the
already legendary performer that intimidated Bell; his biggest worry
turned out to be his birth certificate. "When I went to Chicago
I was too young to get into clubs. I had to go in the back door. And
I had to sneak around." When asked about Walter's reputation,
Carey was quick to defend his friend, and the rumors surrounding his
volatile behavior. "Nah, everybody tells the same lie!"
Then, begrudgingly he gave ground. "But, I guess he was
if somebody jumped on him. Everybody have to take care of
their self, you know?"
Carey Bell Harrington in Northern Italy, 1992. Photo:
The one thing Carey Bell had no disagreement with, and
that was just how amazing and creative Walter was on the harp. Shaking
his head, he said. "Yea, he was. Well, he gone now, but he still
got some stuff out
that's still great stuff."
Little Walter not only impacted the music, but his playing
gave his instrument, the harmonica, more credibility, increasing the
respect among musicians of all genre's. According to Buddy
until Little Walter and Muddy and them amplified
that thing man, it was obsolete in the music store. You would walk into
a music store before Little Walter made 'Juke,' and you say,
'how much is the harmonica?' and the guy say, 'I don't know man, give
me anything to get it out the way, 'cause it's just in the way.' Because
before he made 'Juke' all harmonica's was a dime and five cents."
Buddy Guy in Los Angeles 2011. Photo:
Buddy recalled vividly, an early conversation he had
with Jacobs, "Walter made a comment before he made 'Juke'
he said, 'if George Washington Carver can get out a peanut, what he
got out of a peanut, I can get somethin' out of this harmonica.' And
That is, if he wanted to. A legendary Chicago bluesman
who wrote for, and recorded with Little Walter during the most productive
and successful periods of his career was Willie
Dixon. Dixon knew exactly how stubborn Jacobs could be. "I
had a hard time in getting Little Walter to do 'My Babe.' Two years,"
Dixon held up two fingers. "Two years I was trying to get him
to do 'My Babe.' He didn't want to record it. He just didn't like it.
But after he recorded it, and it started going over
it was his
top running number."
Willie Dixon at home in Glendale, CA 1987. Photo:
Marion Walter Jacobs aka Little Walter, would go on
to chart a string of popular R&B hits after Juke and My
Babe and is to this day, considered by most to be one of the most
creative amplified harp players that ever picked up the instrument.
West Coast bluesman, Rod
Piazza was emphatic, "Oh yea, Little Walter he was something
else, man. I don't think that anybody could play the harmonica back
then or now, like Little Walter could. I used to pester George Smith
about him all the time you know because they had come up together back
there and I think George was the second best harp player in Chicago
behind Walter. That boy just made so many great records, that I can't,
I can't play enough of his songs, man."
The Man, the Myth, the album cover
As these musicians can attest, Little Walter's music
is just as admired and respected today as it was when he recorded it;
maybe more so. And his innovative style of play continues to influence
present day players more than four decades since his passing. Like much
of his life, there are still unanswered questions and speculation surrounding
Jacobs' death. Whether attributed to a blood clot, too many years of
drug and alcohol abuse or natural causes from a violent past, the fact
remains that Little Walter's life ended in 1968 after a fight in the
streets of Chicago. He was 37 years old.
Like Carey Bell said, Walter's got a lot of 'great
stuff' out. If you're uncertain, any 'Essential' or 'Best Of' compilation
is a good way to start. Then dig a little deeper into some of the amazing
contributions Walter made to Muddy's early Chess sessions. But definitely
keep an ear out for the Blind Pig 'Remembering Little Walter'
Tribute CD coming this spring. It was an incredibly spontaneous 'Off
the Wall' evening of blues harp that you just know Walter would
on the Road (with Charlie Musselwhite); Rod
Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Honeyboy
Blues and Lives Well-Lived