Little Walter: American Blues Legends Series
Known as the greatest Blues harmonica player, Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, Louisiana. He grew up in nearby Rapides Parish where he learns the harp and guitar. At the age of 12, Walter quits school and leaves home to work odd jobs and busk from town to town. He sharpens his skills on the harmonica and guitar while performing with older musicians, including Sonny Boy Williamson II and Honeyboy Edwards.
Chicago and the Amplified Harp
His travels lead him to New Orleans, Memphis, and St Louis before arriving in Chicago in 1945. Chicago is where he begins working with an amplified harmonica. At first, to match the volume of the electric guitars, but soon, he begins to create new sounds using the amp’s distortion. Walter was not the first to play an amplified harmonica (holding an amplified microphone next to the instrument as he plays). However, where other artists used it solely for the volume, Walter stretched it to its limits perfecting revolutionary sounds. He was the first artist to use the amp’s distortion in his music to expand what a harp (harmonica) could do.
Me and my harp was a love affair from way back.Little Walter
In 1948 he joined the Muddy Water’s band and began recording for Chess records. He also records with other artists like Bo Diddley and Memphis Minnie. In 1952, Walter sought fame as a bandleader for Chess’ subsidiary, Checker Records. His first single, “Juke,” becomes number one on the Billboard’s R&B chart. “Juke” is the only instrumental to reach the top of the R&B chart, both before and since. The song posthumously won awards from the Rock & Roll Hall a Fame, Blues Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Awards. “Juke” is the first of 14 top 10 hits he releases between 1952 to 1958. Little Walter also reaches number one with his classic “My Babe.”
Although his last hit was in the 50s, like so many other Blues and R&B performers, he toured Europe in the 60s riding the music’s newfound popularity overseas. Back in the States, his tendency as a heavy drinker with a quick temper led to bars fights and run-ins with the authorities. His reputation begins to damage his career.
The fights also led to his death at only 37 years old. The legend goes that after a scuffle in which he receives no external injuries, Walter aggravates internal trauma from past fights. He dies in his sleep that night of a blood clot in his heart. No charges were filed by the police since there were no external injuries.
Little Walter’s Legacy
That’s an understatement to ask me if he was the greatest. No, I don’t think he was the greatest. I know he was the greatest.Sam Ley
His legacy includes Hall of Fame recognition for “Juke” and “My Babe.” He is also an influence on the music of other artists like Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Kim Wilson. Fans of the Blues will never forget his musical contribution.