|Birth name||Marion Walter Jacobs|
May 1, 1930|
Marksville, Louisiana, United States
|Origin||Chicago, Illinois, United States|
|Died||February 15, 1968
Chicago, Illinois, United States
|Genres||Blues, Chicago blues, rhythm and blues|
|Instruments||Harmonica, vocals, guitar|
|Labels||Chess, Ora-Nelle, Parkway, Regal, Chance, Tempo-Tone, Checker|
|Associated acts||Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers|
Marion Walter Jacobs (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968), known as Little Walter, was an American blues musician, singer, and songwriter, whose revolutionary approach to the harmonica earned him comparisons to seminal virtuosos Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, for innovation and impact on succeeding generations. His virtuosity and musical innovations fundamentally altered many listeners' expectations of what was possible on blues harmonica. Little Walter was inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 in the "sideman" category making him the only artist inducted specifically as a harmonica player.
Jacobs was born in 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana and raised in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, (although recently uncovered census data suggests he may have been born earlier, possibly as early as 1925) where he first learned to play the harmonica. After quitting school by the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis, Helena, Arkansas and St. Louis. He honed his musical skills on harmonica and guitar performing with much older bluesmen such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and 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 recorded soon after he arrived in Chicago on which Walter played guitar backing Jones. Jacobs reportedly 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 public address system or guitar amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist's volume. However, unlike other contemporary blues harp players such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Snooky Pryor, who like many other harmonica players had also begun using the newly available amplifier technology around the same time solely for added volume, Little Walter purposely pushed his amplifiers beyond their intended technical limitations, using the amplification to explore and develop radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica, or any other instrument. 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 made his first released recordings in 1947 for Bernard Abrams' tiny Ora-Nelle label, which operated out of the back room of Abrams' Maxwell Radio and Records store in the heart of the Maxwell Street 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 acoustic (unamplified) harmonica on Muddy's recordings for Chess Records. The first appearance on record of Little Walter's amplified harmonica was on Muddy's "Country Boy" (Chess 1952), recorded on July 11, 1951. For years after his departure from Muddy's band in 1952, Chess continued to hire Little Walter to play on Waters' 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 three songs 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 had put his career as a bandleader on hold when he joined Muddy's band, but stepped back out front once and for all when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess's subsidiary label Checker Records on May 12, 1952. The first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session became his first hit, spending eight weeks in the number-one position on the Billboard R&B chart. The song was "Juke", and is still the only harmonica instrumental ever to be a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B chart. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: "Off the Wall" reached number eight, "Roller Coaster" achieved number six, and "Sad Hours" reached the number-two position while Juke was still on the charts.) "Juke" was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels, and one of the biggest national R&B hits of 1952, securing 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 number-one hits (the second being "My Babe" in 1955), a level of commercial success 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 performance on one side, and a harmonica instrumental on the other. Many of Walter's vocal numbers were originals that 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 uptempo than the popular Chicago blues of the day, with a jazzier conception and less rhythmically rigid approach than other contemporary blues harmonica players.
Upon his departure from Muddy Waters' band in 1952, he recruited a young band that was already working steadily in Chicago backing Junior Wells, The Aces, as his new backing band. The Aces consisted of brothers David and Louis Myers on guitars, and drummer Fred Below, and were re-christened "The Jukes" on most of the Little Walter records on which they appeared. By 1955 the members of The Aces/Jukes had each left Little Walter to pursue other opportunities, initially replaced by guitarists Robert "Junior" Lockwood and Luther Tucker, and drummer Odie Payne. Others who worked in Little Walter's recording and touring bands in the '50s included guitarists Jimmie Lee Robinson and Freddie Robinson. Little Walter also occasionally included saxophone players in his touring bands during this period, among them a young Albert Ayler, and even Ray Charles on one early tour. By the late 1950s, Little Walter no longer employed a regular full-time band, instead hiring various players as needed from the large pool of local blues musicians in Chicago.
Jacobs was frequently utilized on records as a harmonica accompanist 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 in late 1950s led to a series of violent altercations, minor scrapes with the law, and increasingly irresponsible behavior. This 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 that is known to exist. Footage of Little Walter backing Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor on a television program in Copenhagen, Denmark on October 11, 1967 was released on DVD in 2004. Further video of another recently discovered TV appearance in Germany during this same tour, showing Little Walter performing his songs "My Babe", "Mean Old World", and others were released on DVD in Europe in January 2009, and is the only known footage of Little Walter singing. Other TV appearances in the UK (in 1964) and the Netherlands (in 1967) have been documented, but no footage of these has been uncovered. Jacobs recorded and toured only infrequently in the 1960s, playing mainly in and around Chicago.
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 insignificant that police reported that his death was of "unknown or natural causes", and there were no external injuries noted on the death certificate. His body was buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL on February 22, 1968. His grave remained unmarked until 1991, when fans Scott Dirks and Eomot Rasun had a marker designed and installed.
Music journalist Bill Dahl described Little Walter as "king of all post-war blues harpists", who "took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy." 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 Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of the band Blues Traveler. Little Walter was portrayed in the 2008 film, Cadillac Records, by Columbus Short.
Little Walter's daughter, Marion Diaz Reacco, has established the Little Walter Foundation in Chicago, to preserve the legacy and genius of Little Walter. The foundation aims to create programs for the creative arts, including music, animation and video. Stephen King's novel Under the Dome (2009) features a character named Little Walter Bushey, based on Little Walter.
Awards and recognition
- 1986 – Blues Hall of Fame: "Juke" (Classics of Blues Recordings – Singles or Album Tracks category)
- 1991 – Blues Hall of Fame: Best of Little Walter (Classics of Blues Recordings — Albums category)
- 1995 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "Juke" (500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll)
- 2008 – Grammy Awards: "Juke" (Grammy Hall of Fame Award)
- 2008 – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Little Walter inducted (Sideman category)
- 2008 – Blues Hall of Fame: "My Babe" (Classics of Blues Recordings — Singles or Album Tracks category)
- 2009 – Grammy Awards: The Complete Chess Masters: 1950–1967 (Best Historical Album Winner)
- 2010 – Rolling Stone: Best of Little Walter (#198 on list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time)
Little Walter released fifteen singles that made the charts during his career. These were issued on Checker, a Chess subsidiary; the chart information is the peak position the single reached on the Billboard R&B chart.
|"Sad Hours"||Checker 764||
|1953||"Mean Old World"||
|"Tell Me Mama"||Checker 770||
|"Off the Wall"||
|"Blues with a Feeling"||Checker 780||
|1954||"You're So Fine"||Checker 786||
|"Oh Baby"||Checker 793||
|"You Better Watch Yourself"||Checker 799||
|"Last Night"||Checker 805||
|1955||"My Babe"||Checker 811||
|"Roller Coaster" Ellas McDaniel||Checker 817||
|1956||"Who" B. Roth||Checker 833||
|1958||"Key to the Highway"||Checker 904||
|1959||"Everything Gonna Be Alright||Checker 930||
*Also reached #106 on the Billboard Pop chart.
As with most blues artists before the mid-1960s, Little Walter was a singles artist. The one album released during his lifetime, Best of Little Walter, included ten of his charting singles, plus two B-sides. After his death, various singles would be compiled on albums, often with significant overlap. Currently available albums, released by the most recent Chess successor, are as follows:
|1993||The Blues World of Little Walter||Delmark||includes 5 pre-Checker songs w/Little Walter on unamplified harp, plus 3 on guitar; reissue of 1980s Delmark album|
|1998||His Best: Chess 50th Anniversary Collection||Chess/Universal||includes 12 of his charting singles, plus 8 non-charting songs; essentially supersedes 1958 Chess Best of Little Walter|
|2004||Confessing the Blues||Universal Japan||reissue of 1974 Chess album, plus 6 extra tracks|
|2004||Hate to See You Go||Universal Japan||reissue of 1969 Chess album, plus 2 extra tracks|
|2007||Best of Little Walter||Universal Japan||reissue of 1958 Chess album, plus 3 extra tracks|
|2009||The Complete Chess Masters: 1950–1967||Hip-O/Universal||126 songs on 5 CDs; all available Checker/Chess recordings, including many alternate takes|
Little Walter also recorded a number of songs as a sideman. Muddy Waters' The Definitive Collection (2006) and Jimmy Rogers' His Best (2003) (both on Universal) featured a selection of songs with Little Walter as an accompanist.
- Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 4 – The Tribal Drum: The rise of rhythm and blues. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu.
- Glover, Dirks, & Gaines. Blues with a Feeling – The Little Walter Story, Routledge Press, 2002
- Dahl, Bill Little Walter Biography
- Material Girl becomes a Hall of Famer, MSNBC, December 13, 2007
- Little Walter's official entry into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2008,
- O'Brien, J. "The Dark Road of Floyd Jones", Living Blues #58, 1983
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- Chicago Defender, February 21, 1968
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- "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". Exhibit Highlights. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 1995. Archived from the original on March 1995. Retrieved July 14, 2013.
- "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards". Grammy Awards. The Recording Academy. 2008. Retrieved July 14, 2013.
- "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". Rolling Stone. 2010. Retrieved July 14, 2013.
- "45 discography for Checker Records". Globaldogproductions.info. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- Whitburn, Joel (1988). Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Record Research, Inc. ISBN 0-89820-068-7.
- Little Walter Foundation