Little Walter

TrackSingle
Can't Hold On Much LongerChecker 758
Mean Old WorldChecker 764
Sad HoursChecker 764
Tell Me MamaChecker 770
Blues With A FeelingChecker 780
You'd Better Watch YourselfChecker 799
Last NightChecker 805
My BabeChecker 811
It Ain't RightChecker 833
Key To The HighwayChecker 904

 

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Little Walter photo 1

Little Walter

 

Contributors: Dave Stephens – with Cal Taylor

I don’t often reach for the word ‘genius’. Like ‘icon’ in the last decade or so it’s suffered degradation by over usage. But I wouldn’t complain if I saw it in association with either of the twin figureheads of Chicago Electric Blues, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I’d even go a step further and apply it to a tiny handful of the records made by their peer, Little Walter.

Marion Walter Jacobs is usually viewed, rightly, as an electric blues harmonica pioneer – indeed he’s always the first name to come to mind when the instrument is referenced – and also as one of the greatest sidemen in Chicago, whose talent adorned several classics from Muddy, Jimmy Rogers plus others. What sometimes tends to be forgotten is that Walter made a number of records that deserve that word ‘classic’ themselves. In a relatively short period recording for Chess/Checker – ostensibly 1952 to 1967-ish but realistically more like 1952 to 1959 – he maintained an amazing level of consistency across a range of blues music with influences ranging from jazz to cool to electric down home, with the ever-present differentiator of his own highly original harp work.

Walter was born in 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana but like many, after much travelling around to places such as New Orleans, Memphis, Helena and St. Louis over several years, he migrated to Chicago. He sang and played guitar and harmonica. It was the latter ability that he found to be in demand in Chicago. He made his first recordings in 1947 for the small Ora-Nelle label. Much of his style at that time was based on the work of Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson) who was arguably the most influential of the blues harmonica players prior to Walter’s arrival on the scene.

That first recording on Ora Nelle is deserving of closer attention (and the fact that he was only 17-years-old when it was recorded is also worth remarking upon). The record itself lists Little Walter J.–Harmonica, and Othum Brown–Guitar as performers but also known to be present on second guitar was Jimmy Rogers, later to feature in the Muddy Waters band. While Walter gets to sing on the B-side, I Just Keep Loving Her, it’s actually the A-side with Othum Brown on vocal which is of greater interest. Entitled Ora Nelle Blues – was this to keep the label owner happy? – it’s actually an early version of That’s All Right (or sometimes That’s Alright) which Chicago blues fans will know as a classic of the genre as recorded by that self-same Jimmy Rogers three years later for Chess. However the Othum Brown/Little Walter J. version was something of a stunner in its own right. Note the at times breath-taking harp work from Walter as he reflects via blowing on the agony of those lyrics. And the tumbling guitar lines familiar from the later Rogers version are already present and correct. Apart from the striking harmonica work, it’s Walter’s empathic ability as a sideman which is particularly remarkable here and was something that would later feature strongly in a whole series of Muddy Waters records.

For completeness, this is the Walter vocal side which was subsequently released on Chance Records and recut for Parkway in 1950. It’s something of a romper and an obvious model for later Checker up-tempo affairs though very few Walter records were straight reruns of anything that had preceded them.

Walter cut several more records as an accompanist in this time frame including efforts with Sunnyland Slim, Muddy Waters and members of Muddy’s band – there’s more on some of these later.

It should be clear by now that even though he’d only been in Chicago a few years, Walter was already mixing in illustrious company. In 1948, he joined the Muddy Waters band and subsequently appeared on many of Muddy’s famous records. He went solo in ’52 and made a fine series of records himself for the Checker subsidiary of Chess Records. These included My Babe, a rare crossover single from the US R&B Chart to the US National Chart. His work also graced the recordings of other Chicago artists and wasn’t limited purely to the Chess stable.

Unfortunately, Walter had a short temper which increasingly got him into fights and scrapes with the law. He also suffered from alcoholism and was a drug abuser, all of which cut down severely on recording activity in the sixties, though he did manage two tours to the UK and beyond in this time frame. It was his excessive usage of alcohol which was to indirectly lead to an early death in 1968. He was just 37.

That’s an extremely short, brutal even, biography which says little about Walter’s artistic abilities. In harmonica terms, he took what had previously been viewed as a relatively basic instrument incapable of delivering a wide range of emotive effects, to places it hadn’t been before, making it sound like a sax one minute, a flute the next and a percussion instrument after that. The sounds he conjured from his harp were in part due to his pioneering use of amplification but that’s not to decry his unplugged skills. He opened the way for a whole generation of mouth harpists to follow, a generation that was such an essential part of the Chicago scene.

But I was implying in my introduction that Walter was more than the most innovative harmonica player in the history of the blues; he made some mighty fine records too. So, on to …

 

THE CLASSICS

On 12th May 1952, a team assembled in the Chess studio for a Muddy Waters recording session with members comprising Muddy, Walter, Jimmy Rogers and Elga Edmonds, drummer. They cut two tracks plus some alternate takes with Walter on lead and then went on to record a track for Muddy. A record was issued later that year credited to Little Walter And His Night Cats. It coupled an instrumental entitled Juke with a vocal flip side entitled, Can’t Hold On Much Longer, both written by Little Walter. Juke was good, very good. There’s a fine analysis of the record on Wiki, telling us, amongst other things, that the opening phrasing bore some resemblance to a 1941 record from Louis Armstrong called Leap Frog (though such phrasing wasn’t at all uncommon with jazz artists of the thirties and forties). However, the piece goes on to state, “The remainder of the song is an improvisation of Little Walter’s own invention”. What Wiki doesn’t say is that Juke sounded totally unlike the Armstrong record. It was electric, in your face and jam-packed with harmonica effects (and by that I don’t mean gimmicks) of the sort that hardly anyone could have heard until the release of this record. It impressed black buyers at the time to the extent that it zoomed up to the top spot in the R&B Chart and stayed there for 8 weeks.

Juke was an important record historically and deserves the descriptor ‘classic’ but out of this pairing it’s not the one I want to focus on.

Can’t Hold On Much Longer, sometimes referred to as Crazy About You Baby, is almost unique in the Little Walter canon in that a lot of the listening pleasure derives from the delicacy of the twin guitar interplay between Rogers and Waters. But I wouldn’t deny Walter his rightful share of attention; he kicks it all off by running through the first verse with his harmonica stating the vocal line, and then we’re into the chorus:

You know I’m just crazy about you, baby
Wonder, do you ever think of me
You know I’m crazy about you, baby
But you don’t care nothing in the world for me

There’s a calmness and restraint about his delivery that almost belies the underlying pain. I find some similarities here to the sophisticated delivery mode of the West Coast piano/vocal blues guys though the predominant instruments are all amplified.

The song wasn’t original. It was recorded in 1951 by Sonny Boy Williamson II (aka. Rice Miller) for Trumpet Records, (though Williamson/Miller would end up at Chess when Len and Phil of that name bought the bankrupt Trumpet in 1955). This introduces a regular theme with Walter, that of borrowing or cribbing from other sources though that has to be put in the context of the degree of reinvention that took place when he did so. One listen to the Williamson record offers an immediate illustration. Chalk and cheese doesn’t come close.

Record #2 for Checker was only another masterpiece. The instrumental, Sad Hours, was relegated to the B-side this time. The A-side was a version of T-Bone Walker’s Mean Old World though I didn’t discover that was the case for many years (and Walter didn’t help by having W Jacobs listed in the composer credits). T-Bone’s original came out in 1945 and it could well be that it was Walter’s interest as a student of guitar as well as being a student of the blues that caused him to latch on to the number. Both versions stand out as excellent twelve bar slow blues with only the lyrics connecting them though Walter changed a few of those too. The cool California forties style of the source was replaced by fifties Chicago with Walter echoing his vocal phrases with his own mouth harp just like he did with Muddy. His solo when it came, could well have been recorded in one of Sam Phillips’ echo chambers with long mournful notes very like the moody instrumental piece on the flip. At times, one of the two guitarists dropped in that trademark sound of another Chicago hero, Elmore James. It’s also noticeable that Walter found fragments of melody in the number which were non-existent in the T-Bone original.

The record was credited, rather strangely, to Little Walter And His Nightcaps – not Night Cats – which might have been a rather subtle way of telling us that Walter had a new group behind him. That group consisted of the brothers Dave and Louis Myers on guitar plus Fred Below on drums. They were effectively the first incarnation of Little Walter’s Jukes though the name didn’t get adopted immediately. The band had originally been the Aces and they had backed Junior Wells but when the latter picked up the vacant harmonica position with the Muddy Waters band, Walter made a grab for them. He was right to do so. Even though there were changes in the band’s make-up over the years, their levels of both tightness and creativity remained singularly high throughout the W. Jacobs career.

Blues With A Feeling released in the second half of 1953 was another ‘borrow’ though once again the version from Walter and the Jukes (which they had become by this time) didn’t sound too similar to the original. This was it and it came from Jack McVae and his All Stars in 1947 with a gentleman called Rabon Tarrant on vocal. For this one, Chicago replaced jazzy jump blues. There was a difference though: the high swoops on the ‘blues’ word in the original were an approximation to a melody line and Walter more than retained, he emphasised, those swoops. No composer was listed on the new version which might have been minimally better than putting Jacobs or Walter down, but still untrue. No matter though, it’s this version we love and it’s the one that’s rightly recognised as a stand out record of the relatively new genre of Chicago Blues. The cut from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band a decade or more later was a tribute to the Walter version. Below are Walter and the Jukes. Note that statement of intent from our man’s harp at the start which is copied note for note by the Butter Boys. This was blues with more than a bit of aggression/feeling. “I’m gonna find my baby, if it takes all night and day”. And if you notice a bit more bottom on this one, that’s big Willie Dixon on bass.

I’m listing one more classic from Little Walter but a few words about its flip first. Last Night was the A-side to Mellow Down Easy, a near single chord jumper written by the just name-checked Mr. Dixon which finds a groove and just sticks with it. Nothing remarkable but utterly unlike anything I’ve featured so far. Last Night couldn’t have been more different. A slow and sombre blues that had evidently had considerable work done to it in the studio judging by the more conventional arrangement of the earlier take (which can be found on The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) on Spotify). The released version starts with an ominously riffing guitar, building tension until Walter enters and takes us into the turnaround, and it’s those few words that tell us everything.

Last night
I lost the best friend I ever had
Now you gone and left me
That makes me feel so bad

Unusually, there’s no harmonica at all until the solo at well over a minute in, and it’s a long, lonesome single note with vibrato until a flurry of defiance takes us into the final verse, “I love you, love you babe, you know that is a crying shame”.

I said “one more classic” and you’re entitled to ask what about My Babe? And you would have a case. Not only is it the only Little Walter song that people who’ve never heard of Little Walter will have heard, probably accidentally, it’s also a fine record in its own right even if it’s anything but typical Walter. The song was penned by Willie Dixon and reportedly the big fellow felt the lyrics fitted Walter to a tee so he kept badgering him to record it. The first run at the number came in a session in July ’54 with the song then provisionally titled Mercy Babe. One gets the impression that the cut was left unpolished because it just didn’t sound right. Certainly, that acidic guitar had disappeared from the final take in January ’55. Interestingly, the earlier version of Last Night was also cut at the ’54 session and it too pales into insignificance beside the released number.

Melodically My Babe was clearly based on the gospel number, This Train, which must ring bells with anyone who lived through the skiffle era – it was a popular live number with several groups. The Wiki feature on the song draws a parallel with the Ray Charles adoption of another gospel number in his creation of an early success, I Got A Woman, but it’s worth noting that Willie Dixon beat Mr Charles to it based on the evidence of Mercy Babe. The second Walter take of My Babe which yielded the released version came out in February 1955. It gave him his second #1 in the R&B Chart and the record has moved largely into the public domain over the years. There was a version with overdubbed femme chorale released in ’61 which achieved minor crossover success but thankfully that now resides in some historic dustbin and only very rarely sees the light of day.

My Babe was a light, non-bluesy outing for Walter with the axe men toned back into an easy funk style. Walter spends the entire record boasting about his baby though, while he’s keen to tell us that “she don’t do nothin’ but kiss and hug me” and she’s “a true little baby”, he does also strongly emphasise that “she don’t stand no cheatin’” as early as the opening couplet. I don’t somehow see those as words that would have appeared in one of Walter’s self-written numbers.

 

WALTER’S APPEARANCES AS A SIDEMAN

This leaves me with three groupings of records: those numbers which didn’t quite make the classic grade for me, the instrumentals and Walter’s appearances as a sideman. In the true spirit of ‘no particular order’ I thought I’d address the last of those groupings next, in part because most of these appearances were early (though one should note that Walter continued to appear on Muddy’s records well after he’d left the live band). Space, or lack of, has constrained me from including any of these cuts in my selections but I was certainly tempted.

My first example is something of a misnomer. 1949’s Blue Baby/I Want My Baby is credited to Sunny Land Slim and Muddy Water – yup, that’s what it says on the tin (record) – but if you look in the small print on the RHS, you’ll see “Little Walter Vocal”. This is the A-side, a good example of early Chicago blues. On the flip we get to hear Messrs Slim and Waters giving vocal support to Walt.

Rollin’ And Tumblin’ is a song with an extensive history. In one of the many tributaries of the song’s flow through time, Walter found himself in a studio with Muddy and Muddy’s drummer at the time, “Baby Face” Leroy Foster. They recorded the number with Foster on vocal as (the) Baby Face Leroy Trio and it was released on Parkway Records. Unusually for the time, it was a two parter with the parts split across the two sides. Leonard Chess, who owned Aristocrat Records and had Waters on contract to the label, wasn’t too impressed with this and had Waters and band (but with Leroy and Walter and his harp missing) record a second version within a month. There’s an argument that the Baby Face Leroy version is the better of the pair with Muddy himself joining in with some enthusiasm on second vocal. According to the Encyclopedia.com feature on Walter, the Baby Face Leroy cut is regarded “by many critics and historians as one of the most powerful Chicago blues songs ever recorded”.

My next example of Walter in sideman mode is another one of those Chicago blues standards and one that got a mention earlier. If there’s a highlight of the Jimmy Rogers career, it just has to be That’s All Right, with Walking By Myself following at a discreet distance. I first came across the number via the Junior Parker version on the Blues Consolidated Duke LP which consisted of six sides each of Bobby Bland and Junior. That’s Alright (the Duke spelling) was a stand-out among stand out tracks. He used the Rogers arrangement but provided his own harp. I’m still torn between the two versions, but here are Jimmy and Walter doling out the misery:

You told me baby, once upon a time
You said if I would be yours, you would sure be mine
But that’s all right
I know you love another man, but that’s all right
Every night and day I wonder, who’s loving you tonight

The near duet approach on That’s All Right – Ernest “Big Boy” Crawford was also there on bass but he was hardly prominent – was also followed on Muddy’s Louisiana Blues where Muddy and Walter hog the limelight but with justification. In a recent blog, Richard Williams recorded some observations on the record. He refers to it as having “the subtlety and intricacy of chamber music” and goes on to comment that “it eases quickly into a graceful pattern that switches between a light-footed stride and a funkier half-time rhythm as the instrumental lines wind around each other.” Keith Shackleton didn’t find room for this track in his superb Muddy Waters Toppermost but I guess there were just too many downright brilliant Muddy/Walter tracks.

Coming slightly back to earth after that one, my last illustration of Walter as a sympathetic support musician has him backing up Johnny Shines (under the alias of Shoe Shine Johnny) on Joliet Blues. Both this and the previous track were recorded in 1950 and this is a more typical example of what was coming out of Chicago at the time in comparison to the almost unworldly Waters’ record.

 

THE INSTRUMENTALS

Yin and yang. That’s the way I think of Walter’s instrumentals: the up-tempo jumpers with Juke as the model but with improv screaming from every groove, and the slow mood pieces which don’t sit too cosily with a view of Walter as not a lot more than a roughneck. I limited myself to one selection only but there’s an argument for a complete Toppermost on Walter’s instros (though there is a risk that that might only attract an audience of harmonica players plus an attendant danger that, not being one of those harmonica players myself, my descriptive skills might not be up to the job).

There was something totally Walter about those sad laments on an instrument that just didn’t seem to be made for them. He could hardly complete a session without adding another to a substantial list. Sad Hours, the flip to Mean Old World, was the first and might well have been the best – if not, it’s certainly up there. Nothing, literally nothing, like this had been heard before. Yes, there’d been blues harmonica players but no one, absolutely no one, had produced anything remotely comparable. (Yes, that’s repeating myself but sometimes if a thing’s worth saying it’s worth saying twice.) There was little even in Walter’s own brief discography up to that date that prepared you for this record.

A slowly riffing guitar opens the piece (not unlike the later Last Night) and takes us through the first 12 bars. Walter then appears ensconced in some distant echo chamber playing a loooooong seventh note. As the number progresses the relative understatement of the starting verses turns to outright wailing and loud aggression, a feeling of “why the f**k is this happening to me”, a feeling even of wanting to strike out. Single note sevenths pulse away towards the end which comes rather suddenly. No fadeout here. Did Walter storm out of the room, one wonders?

I started writing this morning with the full intent of giving my prize instrumental selection slot to another number altogether but one listen to Sad Hours again and that all went out the window. It’s monolithic, a word I’ve used elsewhere to describe certain Johnny Cash records. And yes, ‘classic’ too.

Honourable mentions in the category of sad instros should go to Blue Midnight (with that heartbreaking little stop), Quarter To Twelve, Lights Out (that massive chordal intro is one of his better openers) and Blue Light (wherein he rages against the night using every technique he’s learned, culminating in one of his greatest climaxes, and yes, this was the earlier choice).

The up-tempo outings don’t quite make the same impact on me but they’re all immensely enjoyable. Sometimes he pushes hard on that accelerator, as in Off The Wall. Occasionally he enters latin territory as in Crazy Legs coming on like a horn man on a Louis Jordan dance piece. On one occasion he entered the studio with Bo Diddley and that spurred him onto something different yet again: Roller Coaster, all improvisation over a single chord with the mighty Diddler holding down the riff that kept it all together. And, yes, that last one was under consideration for the ten.

 

… AND THE NOT QUITE CLASSICS

With maybe a couple of exceptions, my selections so far have been on the sombre side so a little balance might be appropriate. 1953’s Tell Me Mama was a chirpy affair though the lyrics which were strongly suggestive of a cuckolded Walter – “Yes, when I came in, who went out that back door” – might have indicated otherwise. Perhaps the mysterious person who disappeared down the alley might have been Howlin’ Wolf in his Back Door Man guise. It Ain’t Right from ’56, also has a super funky drive propelling it along with the thrust largely coming from the two guitar men, Robert Lockwood Jr. and Luther Tucker, but Walter is on top of it all with the lyrics this time consisting of an extended moan about his lady.

My penultimate selection is another jumper and perhaps his best record in this style. You’d Better Watch Yourself, from 1954, is a stop time shuffle on which Walter puts his stamp right from the outset. One of the two guitarists puts in a sterling performance behind him but it’s Walter’s record.

I’ve already remarked on Walter’s habit of picking up older or contemporary songs and usually thoroughly Little Walter-ise them but so far I’ve only scratched the surface. Driftin’ (or Driftin’ Blues) from L.A.’s king of cool, Charles Brown, was an early effort performed sympathetically but the Chess brothers didn’t judge it worthy of release. A later one in terms of Walter’s recording date (1958), but earlier in terms of the source recording – from Walter Brown with the Jay McShann Band in 1941 – was Confessin’ The Blues, the song with the immortal line “Baby don’t you want a man like me” though the killer couplet was the final one:

Want you to think about your future, baby
Forget about your used-to-be

But neither of those was intended to be a selection, rather the objective was to lead in to arguably Walter’s most famous ‘version’ of another artist’s song, Key To The Highway, a record which I’m sure some readers will regard as CORN (and yes, in caps)! My reasons for its inclusion are threefold: it was one of the very best of Walter’s reinterpretations, its singalong qualities were often loved by blues singers – witness a version of Wee Baby Blues from a host of blues greats on YouTube – and, I love it. If you want a fourth reason, what about the live version of the number on Derek And The Dominos’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs which was a highlight of the album and certainly among the better white blues efforts and was definitely based on the Walter cut. And a fifth reason? The introduction of a piano – Otis Spann’s keyboard tickling and the song were made for each other. I’m not saying that a piano hadn’t been used before on the number. It had, but the most well-known version prior to the Walter cut was Big Bill Broonzy’s excellent take in 1941 with Jazz Gillum on harmonica. “I’m due in West Texas and I’m going to get on down the road.” Take a listen to Walter though:

The bounce of the Broonzy version (which is even more pronounced in a solo cut from the man, also on YT) has been replaced by something heavier and darker. The mood has changed from putting-a-good-face-on-things resignation to something more akin to despair. There’s anger writ large in Walter’s harmonica break, which doesn’t entirely disappear afterwards. And I confess that I have a tendency to mishear the phrase which opens the second verse, ”I’m going back to the border” as “I’m going back to the bottle” which would have been chillingly true to life.

In a sense this record captured some of the worst and the best attributes of Little Walter: on the one hand his tendency to ‘crib’ other artists’ songs, and on the other, his wholesale remodelling of songs in the spirit of the blues tradition of performing (and recording) other performers’ numbers.

 

PLUS THOSE THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT

… or what one could call reserves to the selections in the ten. They’re at least roughly in recording order:

Tonight With A Fool – straight slow blues catching Walter at his rawest, and he wasn’t smooth at the best of times. Henry Gray on the piano echoes the pain too.

Too Late – apart from consistent usage of seventh notes, this isn’t at all a conventional blues number and it captures Walter being experimental as early as 1953.

You’re So Fine – everything is all right with the world and Walter tosses out one of those effortless little jumpers where every component fits to perfection.

Come Back Baby – more experimentation and maybe too much for the Chess brothers since it didn’t see single release. Pitched somewhere between one of those Wolf numbers based on a descending guitar riff (but in this case with both guitar and harmonica carrying the riff) and the structure of Rollin’ And Tumblin’, it’s another example of Walter and support team attempting to do something different.

I Got To Find My Baby – the words might have indicated otherwise but this was Walt and the boys, particularly guitarist and pianist (Otis Spann) having a ball. It might have been little more than rearrangement of the familiar blues tropes but it’s all done with such enthusiasm and élan. And I wonder if Walter wrote the line “Gonna walk the floor baby till my moustache drags the ground” which is not included in the Doctor Clayton original.

I Hate To See You Go – the number appeared on the 2016 Stones album and if I were reviewing it I might have said something like “this one catches the Stones channelling Little Walter who in turn is channelling Bo Diddley” (see also Footnotes). In terms of rhythm construction and melody line, the song is virtually identical to Diddley’s You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care), if somewhat faster. As if to accentuate the similarity, Bo himself appears on guitar holding down the key riff that, at least in part, defines the song (though I should add that at least one usually very reliable source doesn’t have him present). The fact that there was a harmonica on the source, blown by Billy Boy Arnold, completes the resemblance. An intriguing steal but since Diddley was complicit I don’t see that any great harm was done.

Who – another intriguing one from Walt and boys. Apart from the distinctly bluesy guitar and of course the harmonica this could almost have been a jazzy night club thing. The composer is listed as B Roth who was the Bernard Roth who wrote Forty Days And Forty Nights plus Just To Be With You for Muddy Waters.

Boom, Boom Out Goes The Lights – another song that didn’t originate with Walter, and one that again has distinctly jazzy touches. Composer this time is Stan Lewis, all round music entrepreneur and song writer. Did Walter identify with the somewhat aggressive, or even misogynistic, theme of Stan’s lyrics?

Blue And Lonesome – a minor key excursion for Walter, something very rare in his oeuvre. Once again there are elements of all-encompassing pain in his approach which are in no way diminished by the ferocity with which he hits the harp break, blasting out full chords at high volume. This one almost caused me to go back and rewrite the words I’d written for Tonight With A Fool, the agony is so intense.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve not mentioned the Little Walter voice – critics rarely do. But it was a real blues voice, full of cracks and flaws but utterly convincing. Perhaps the instant recognition that you got with Muddy or the Wolf (or Elmore, or Jimmy Reed) wasn’t there, but there was more variation. Walter’s tonsils wrapped themselves around a much wider variation in songs than any of those artists and did so with conviction and aplomb.

The arrangements applied to those songs were something special. According to drummer Fred Below (in Encyclopedia.com), “Walter was simply a person you could always learn something from. He was always calling rehearsals for us to go over tunes or tighten up our old ones. It was like Walter was running a school where you could really learn something you were interested in.” While in later days, Willie Dixon might have had a lot to do with the arranging side, on those early records I suspect that much of this responsibility was down to Walter himself. And apart from his habit of claiming credit on some of the ‘borrowed’ songs – and even that you have to put into context of what stardom he had, not necessarily lasting (which it didn’t) – I don’t have any issue with his usage of existing numbers rather than those he’d written himself or had written for him. This was accepted common practice for older blues artists and Walter was merely carrying such a tradition on albeit into a new age, taking in other influences while he was about it.

Cal managed to pick up some fine quotes on Walter which definitely bear repetition. The first from Mike Leadbitter in “Nothing But The Blues” focuses on his harmonica playing:

“He almost single-handedly fashioned the stylistic approach for harmonica which has since become standard for the genre and has been emulated by virtually every blues harmonica player.”

The second goes further and talks about Walter in more general terms:

“Walter Jacobs was one of the very greatest, most exciting and original interpreters the blues has ever seen.”

Those words came from Pete Welding and appeared in the sleeve notes to the LP, Confessin’ The Blues.

The last quote appeared in an interview with Marshall Chess (son of Leonard). I think the whole paragraph is relevant. It comes after a comment from Marshall that bluesmen didn’t generally consider drinking to be part of the blues culture:

“Little Walter was an exception in that he was an alcoholic and a drug-abuser. Those traits often go hand in hand with genius. Miles Davis once said to me that Little Walter was as much a musical genius as Mozart and I wouldn’t disagree. The way he played harmonica completely transformed the blues. There was nobody at Chess more talented than Little Walter.”

In my view Little Walter should be seen as one of a triumvirate of blues artists, with the others of course being Muddy and the Wolf, who fashioned a new kind of blues in Chicago in the fifties and early sixties. The evidence is there in those records which stand proudly alongside all those other great records out of the Chess studios.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Ora Nelle Records was formed by Bernard Abrams in 1945 and run out of his shop, the Maxwell Radio and Record Company at 831-833 West Maxwell Street, Chicago. It produced only two official releases plus ten sides of alternates and other unreleased material. Artists recorded included Sleepy John Estes. The name “Ora Nelle” came from a female relative.

2. While Ora Nelle Blues/That’s All Right might have the ring of an earlier number there’s nothing to confirm such a suspicion. Wiki reports that Robert Lockwood Jr. and Willie Love (a pianist and singer from Mississippi who worked with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James) were known to sing something along the lines of this song but neither ever recorded it. Jimmy Rogers certainly added verses.

3. Juke was the biggest selling record for Chess/Checker up until that time. It was also the first time a harmonica instrumental had topped the R&B Chart.

4. From 1952, at the age of 16, Albert Ayler, later to be a pioneer of free jazz, spent two summer vacations playing tenor sax with the Little Walter band.

5. For more on the song Rollin’ And Tumblin’, I would point the reader in the direction of Cal’s excellent Robert Johnson Toppermost.

6. That’s All Right inspired several good versions. I’m partial to the one from the elegant Mose Allison from the 1959 album Mose Allison Sings.

7. While the section on Walter as sideman seemed to come to a natural conclusion with the Johnny Shines track, he didn’t stop such work after his solo career kicked off. Apart from his continued work with Waters there were other excursions. One such was an appearance on Bo Diddley’s Diddley Daddy in 1955. According to Stefan Wirz in his sessionography on the man, Walter was using Billy Boy Arnold’s harmonica. Assuming this was true, was there a story here, one wonders.

After completing this Toppermost, Cal and I found what that story was. Bo Diddley’s Diddley Daddy was an adaptation of a Billy Boy Arnold song I Wish You Would (yes, also the Yardbirds debut single) which Arnold had just recorded for VeeJay. Billy Boy was Bo’s harmonica player at the time and was present at the recording session on 10th May 1955. Leonard Chess, maybe unaware that Billy Boy had just recorded the song for VeeJay, asked him to record it at this session. Billy Boy explained that he was under contract to VeeJay and couldn’t do any vocals and took no part – so Little Walter stepped in and used Arnold’s harmonica. Not to be outdone, Chess changed the words of I Wish You Would and got Bo to sing it with added backing singers and that’s how Diddley Daddy came into being with Walter backing him on Billy Boy’s harp.

8. I have a few words from Cal on the subject of the song, Key To The Highway:

“Key To The Highway is an old blues standard going back many decades before first being recorded by Charlie Segar (Feb 1940). Next to record it was Jazz Gillum (May 1940), with Big Bill Broonzy on guitar. Then, a year later (May 1941) Big Bill Broonzy, with Jazz Gillum on harmonica, recorded what is probably the most famous and most copied version. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Little Walter recorded it as a tribute to Broonzy as it was done the same month as Big Bill died, August 1958.”

9. I stumbled over another interesting example of Walter’s work as a sideman after putting the bulk of this document together. In ’53, he and the Jukes plus Willie Dixon backed one of the lesser known Chicago blues men, John Brim, on a number called Rattlesnake but it didn’t see release due to a resemblance to a number that most readers should know – Elvis had a hit with it, is a clue that should give it to you.

10. The instrumental Crazy Legs was released in July 1961 which did make me ponder whether it was inspired by Chuck Berry’s nickname. However, Berry didn’t start recording for Chess until mid ’55 while Walter’s Crazy Legs was actually recorded back in Spring ’53; it was one of a clutch of tracks which didn’t see release till many years later. Hence no connection, though there’s always the possibility it could have picked up the name later; it might not have been sitting in the can with that cognomen.

11. The Stones album Blue & Lonesome, released in December 2016, contained their takes on four Little Walter numbers including, of course, the title track. And they went for the obscure; only two of the tracks, once again including the title track, have been mentioned in this essay, though given Walter’s consistence, that’s not a comment on such songs’ quality.

12. According to the sleeve notes to the album Chess Blues – Disc 3, the writer comments in relation to Walter’s record, Key To The Highway, “During a radio interview Paul Butterfield once told this writer that hearing this record forever changed his perception of the relationship of the harmonica to the human voice.”

13. In the Toppermost on Silas Hogan and other Swamp Blues artists, a gentleman with the name of Boogie Jake had slightly more than a walk-on part in that one of his few recorded tracks got into the selections. It was noted that Jake’s full name was actually Matthew Jacobs. Cal has dug out the fascinating snippet that Jake/Matthew was actually second cousin to our Mr Jacobs i.e. Walter and was a couple of years older.

14. Walter toured the UK in 1964 as an individual artist and again in 1967 with the American Folk Blues Festival where Cal saw him with Our Esteemed Editor. His (Cal’s) main memory from the performance is of Walter backing up Koko Taylor on Wang Dang Doodle, rousing stuff apparently. That was less than four months before he died. Here’s a clip from that same tour (taken in Copenhagen) and shows Walter firstly with Hound Dog Taylor and then backing Koko Taylor.

15. On 5th February 1963, Walter recorded a rather curious song entitled Dead Presidents (with an organ and horns in tow). JFK became a dead president on 22nd November that same year. (Another Cal ‘spot’)

16. Blues fans will be aware that there was another harmonica player called Walter: Walter Horton sometimes referred to as Big Walter and sometimes as Shakey Horton. His birth date has elements of fluidity about it but Cal’s research suggests that he was between 9 and 13 years older than our Walter. Wiki reports that Shakey, if I can call him that, claims to have taught some harmonica techniques to both Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson I. They also state that Shakey was prone to fabrication. That shouldn’t detract from the fact that he was a well-respected harmonica player whose best known track was Easy recorded for Sun in 1953 (and was the first to be released on that label on the new 7″ 45rpm format). It’s based on Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind.

According to the Blues And Rhythm Complete Muddy Waters Discography, Shakey was present at one Waters session believed to be held in January 1953, between the departure of Junior Wells and the arrival of Little Walter. However, in an interview conducted with Willie Dixon in 1988 – see clip contained in Lee Sankey’s Harmonica Blog – Willie states that Shakey was frequently present at sessions for Little Walter and Waters though he couldn’t be relied upon because his alcohol and unreliability issues were greater than those of Mr Jacobs. I should add that this isn’t corroborated elsewhere.

17. Cal has some interesting comments about pre- and post-war blues and the fact that Little Walter drew influences from both:

“Post-war blues singers are largely different animals to pre-war blues singers. The post-war guys might have had more indirect links with the pre-war guys by using and adapting some of the older blues material but direct links weren’t so obvious, although there are exceptions with examples of blues artists who transcended both genres. Little Walter was one of the few artists who had links with both pre- and post-war blues. Mainly because of the Petrillo ban (the major musicians’ strike between 1941 and ’43), there’s a natural break and to anyone who knows a bit about blues it’s quite easy to distinguish between pre-1943 stuff and post-1945. Music had moved on in many respects including the use of more electrification but also because it became much more urban in nature (rather than rural) and many other things.”

“Little Walter, unusually, had direct links to both types. When he was young and went to places like New Orleans, Helena and St. Louis before going to Chicago he had mixed with SBW II, Honeyboy Edwards and Houston Stackhouse but when he got to Chicago he played with the likes of big pre-war artists such as Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Slim besides being influenced by SBW I. Little Walter was right there at the beginning of what we now call Chicago Blues and was certainly one of its very biggest names but his mixing with these pre-war artists must have helped him be what he was and became musically.”

18. As usual I’m heavily indebted to Cal for extra info, thoughts and corrections. There’s one particular one of the latter which would have been highly embarrassing had it remained in.

19. I’m well aware that I’ve used the word classic with what appears to be total abandon in this essay, and that’s after cutting back the usage by about a third. I’d defend my apparent abuse of the English Language by saying, just take a listen to the music in those clips.

 

Little Walter photo 2

Little Walter (1930–1968)

 

Little Walter Foundation

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Little Walter

Little Walter discography at 45cat

“Blues With A Feeling: The Little Walter Story” by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, Ward Gaines (Routledge, 2002)

Little Walter biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Cal Taylor has avidly collected records since the early 1960s, gravitating to deep soul and blues. As time went on he got more and more into studying pre-war blues and accumulated a vast record collection. Cal saw many such artists live in the sixties. He has written several posts for this site including Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Redding.

The Stephens/Taylor toppermosts include Johnny Ace, Arthur Alexander, Cyril Davies, The Falcons, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alexis Korner, Johnny Otis, Junior Parker, T-Bone Walker.

TopperPost #728

6 Comments

  1. Ian du Feu
    Jun 28, 2018

    Amazing musician & an amazing post. ‘Sad Hours’ is one of my favourite pieces of music, really pleased you admire it too. I didn’t know much about Little Walter until reading this post; it doesn’t come as a surprise he had addiction problems and died young. I think what is really effecting is the way his harmonica playing conveys such raw, soulful emotion.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 28, 2018

    Dave & Cal, thanks for this superb piece. Like a lot of people, I reckon, I first discovered Little Walter through Rick(y) Nelson’s version of “My Babe.’ It sent me back to the original, and this great piece fills in the story further. Thanks again.

  3. Merric Davidson
    Jun 29, 2018

    This was my introduction to Little Walter, The Blues Volume 1, the wonderful Chess sampler (from Pye International in UK) in 1964 which contained not one but two Walter tracks: My Babe of course and Juke, the totally amazing track that Dave refers to in his epic post. I still play the album regularly, but on CD now that the LP is just too worn out.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 30, 2018

      Gentlemen thank you for those comments and I know that Cal will echo that thought. Ian, Walter’s “Best Of” album was for me, one of the finest to come out of Chicago, even if it was JUST a comp. “Sad Hours” was the most striking number on it. Totally original and still knocks me out. Andrew, I’d agree that Mr Nelson’s rockabilly version of “My Babe” might well be the best in that genre though the Dale Hawkins cut runs it close. And Merric, that “varied artists comp.” you reference was an absolute killer set. High proportion of classics and not a duff one present. And a reminder of the great service that Pye International provided at the time.

  4. John Chamberlain
    Jul 9, 2018

    Another excellent piece, well done chaps. I wonder if you were aware of this trailer for a film on his life which has never been completed?

  5. Cal Taylor
    Jul 10, 2018

    Thanks, John, for a great find. I’m sure that if Dave or I had come across it we would have included it in the post. Thank you also for your kind comment and I’m glad that you enjoyed this Toppermost.
    I was intrigued by this video and looked into its history. It seems that Mike Fritz started on a project in the early-1990s that he’d been formulating for a couple of years, to produce a film that was to be called ‘Blue Midnight: The Film Biography Of Little Walter’, that he was originally financing himself. He truly deserves recognition for his efforts. It’s a great pity that, so far, he hasn’t managed to obtain enough finance to complete the project. Read this article ‘The Quest For Blue Midnight’ from 1997 which summarises the situation. Mike’s frustration is tangible. As time goes on (and it’s now over 25 years since the project was started) it seems unlikely that it will be completed – but five years ago (2013) Mike said, “I’m still working on it … still trying to get funds.” Despite all this, by itself, the 11 minute trailer is a great piece of work in its own right. Good luck to Mike Fritz in his further endeavours.
    The trailer – including interviews with Junior Wells, sister Lillian Marshall plus others who were close to Little Walter – is a real insight. It’s nice to know that, despite his human frailties, he was genuinely revered and respected by those who knew him and by his peers who worked with him. Fellow harmonica players seem to say with one voice that Little Walter was the best – no.1!

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