Born: May 1, 1930 | Died: February 15, 1968 Primary Instrument: Harmonica
Little Walter could make his harp sound like a tenor sax; he was instrumental in defining the sound that is now known as Chicago blues harp. Singer, composer, bandleader and peerless harmonica virtuoso, Little Walters music in virtually all its significant details was forged in the crucible of the emerging and maturing postwar Chicago Blues. It was as a member of, and a vital contributor to the Muddy Waters band that Walter was given full rein to stretch his wings, and it is a tribute to Muddy's foresight and generosity of spirit that he early recognized Walter's great talent and allowed him every opportunity and encouragement to develop it.
Little Walter, born Walter Marion Jacobs on May 1, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana, taught himself harmonica age at the age of 8. He ran away from home, formed a group and worked the streets and small clubs of New Orleans in 1942. He worked in the Helena, Arkansas area from 1943-1946, performing on 'King Biscuit Time' and with Houston Stackhouse. When he was fourteen he came under the influence of Rice Miller, who along with Walter Horton, gave him pointers on the harp. The following year, Little Walter’s evolution beyond traditional folk-blues began when he started to listen to the records of jump saxophonist Louis Jordan and learn his solos note for note on harmonica.
Jacobs moved to Chicago around 1946 and played on Maxwell Street and in clubs with Tampa Red, Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Slim. His first recordings in 1947 were for Ora Nelle, a small Maxwell Street record label. After Muddy Waters started recording for Chess in 1947 with Ernest Big Crawford on bass. In 1948 he added Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rodgers on second guitar, and Leroy Foster on drums to his band, and this group of musicians defined the modern blues band through their experience playing in Chicago's clubs. Their first recordings appeared on Chess in 1950, all classics of postwar blues. Walter's innovative playing and distinctive sound from his amplified harmonica contributed heavily to making Muddy's recordings of the early 1950's the magnificent achievements they still are. Walter toured with the Muddy Water's band during the years 1948-1952.
On May 12, 1952, Little Walter recorded an instrumental under his own name that the Muddy Waters band had been using to close sets with. Juke, with its fat, amplified tone and sax-like phrases, was released under Little Walter’s own name and became a huge hit. In 1952 Walter left Muddy's band to showcase his own vocal skills. Walter formed a group called The Jukes with David and Louis Myers on guitars and Fred Below on drums. This trio, known as the Aces then, had been working previously with Junior Wells. Their first recordings were for the Checker subsidiary of Chess in 1952.With Walter as frontman they were popular with songs like Last Night, Blues With a Feeling, Mean Old World, and Quarter to Twelve. Little Walter placed 14 hits in the rhythm and blues top ten between 1952 and 1958. In 1955 his recording of Willie Dixon's My Babe, a reworking of the age-old spiritual This Time, brought Little Walter his second number one.
From 1952 to 1968 Walter recorded about 100 titles for Chess, of which about half were issued on record as of the early 1970's. Previously unreleased material is making its way to newly released CD reissues. Walter also recorded frequently as a sideman for Chess/Checker in the years 1952-1968 in addition to extensive touring, including a tour of England in 1964 with the Rolling Stones. One of his last sessions was on 1967’s summit meeting of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Walter for Chess as the “Super Blues Band.”
Walter died on February 15, 1968 in Chicago at the age of 37 as a result of head injuries sustained in a street fight.
From his very first to his very last record, Little Walter was unique among post war blues artists. From the outset he was a true original, a visionary musician whose natural mode of expression was the modern electrically amplified ensemble blues, to the development of which he had contributed so significantly. In the legacy of his recordings he has enriched even further those traditions with some of the finest, most perfectly achieved distillations of the art of modern blues ever recorded. Through his transcendent innovative genius Little Walter , singer, composer, bandleader and peerless harmonica virtuoso, helped to redefine and reanimate the blues and in doing so earned a secure place among the very greatest contributors to popular art America has given the world.
Adapted from bios by Pete Welding.
Source: Pete Welding