Born Walter Marion Jacobs, May 1, 1930, in Marksville, LA; died from a blood clot sustained in a street fight, February 15, 1968; son of Adams Jacobs and Beatrice Leveige.
The most commercially successful Chicago blues performer of the postwar era, harmonica stylist Little Walter Jacobs continues to attract a devoted legion of followers. His recordings as a solo artist and side musician with the bands of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers are among the finest performances of Chicago blues--sessions that continue to be studied and idolized by musical artists around the world. Fusing the style of his mentor John Lee Williamson with the jump blues of saxophonist Louis Jordan, Walter varied the harmonica, to quote Paul Oliver in his work The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, as a "capable but crude horn substitute." A country-bred musician with a modern sensibility for swing music, Walter created an amplified sound filled with dark, haunting tones and flowing melodic lines that became an integral element in the emergence of Chicago blues.
Born to Adams Jacobs and Beatrice Leveige on May 1, 1930, in Marksville, Louisiana, Marion Walter Jacobs was raised on a farm in Alexandria. Taking up the harmonica at age eight, he learned to play blues by listening to the recordings of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. After leaving home at age 13, the young musician played small night spots in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
In 1947 Little Walter arrived in Chicago and supported himself by playing on street corners and in the Jewish market district of Maxwell Street. Performing for tips and handouts, Walter's repertoire included waltzes, polkas, and blues numbers. On Maxwell Street he performed with guitarists Johnny Young, Othum Brown, and Big Bill Broonzy, who became his informally adopted guardian. At this time he also took up playing guitar. Arkansas-born guitarist Moody Jones recalled in Chicago Blues how Walter displayed a deep interest in studying the instrument: "[Walter] played harmonica y'know but he used to follow me to try to play the guitar. Me and him be playing together, we'd go out to make some money and he wouldn't want to play the harmonica. He'd want to play what I was doing. So he finally learned."
Little Walter's burgeoning talent led to his recording debut for Ora Nelle--a small, obscure label located in Bernard and Red Abrams's Maxwell Street record shop --in 1947. Backed by Othum Brown on guitar, Walter cut the number "I Just Keep Loving Her," a blues boogie emulative of Williamson. The reverse side featured Walter playing behind Brown on his original composition "Ora Nelle Blues."
During this time, Little Walter's performances on Maxwell Street began to attract the attention of many musicians. A resident of the Maxwell district, guitarist Jimmy Rogers recalled his early association with the young harmonica great in Blues Guitar: "I met Little Walter ... down on Maxwell Street. He was about seventeen. So I took him down and introduced him to Muddy [Waters], and I told him he was a good harmonica player. In fact, Little Walter was about the best harmonica that was in Chicago--for the blues, at that time."
In 1948 Waters added Little Walter to his road band, which included Rogers on guitar, Big Crawford on bass, and Baby Face Leroy on drums. Departing from his guitar/bass Chess Records studio line-up, Waters recorded with Walter in a trio that produced the nationwide hit "Louisiana Blues" in 1951. Waters also joined Walter on the Parkway studio recordings of the Little Walter Trio and the Baby Face Trio. Guitarist Baby Face Leroy's cut of "Rolling and Tumbling," featuring Walter's harmonica and Waters's stinging slide work, has been considered by many critics and historians as one of the most powerful Chicago blues songs ever recorded. On subsequent sessions for Chess, wrote Jas Obrecht in Blues Guitar, "Waters and Walter further forged their instruments into a seamless voice or created stunning call-and-response dialogues."
This powerful musical exchange is featured on a number of Chess sides, including Little Walter's 1951 Top Ten rhythm-and-blues hit "Long Distance Call." Featured on second guitar on the recording of "Honey Bee," Walter played single-line figures with subtle, yet driving intensity. On "Just a Fool," he was paired on guitar with Jimmy Rogers to create a strong Mississippi Delta setting behind Waters's vocals.
Little Walter's contribution to Waters's band, observed blues researcher Alan Lomax in The Land Where the Blues Began, resulted in the transformation of "the blues combo from a country string band into a wind-plus-string orchestra." With the addition of drums and the piano of Otis Spann, Little Walter remained the primary soloist of the Waters band, his amplified harmonica producing haunting tones and long, drawn-out, horn-like bends. The powerful Waters-Rogers-Walter combination gained a formidable reputation. As Waters recalled in Blues Guitar, "Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and myself, we would go looking for bands that were playing. We called ourselves 'the headhunters,' 'cause we'd go in and if we get the chance we were gonna burn 'em."
After landing a hit with the Waters band's stage theme song for Chess in 1952, Little Walter left the group. Originally an untitled boogie instrumental, the number was released as "Juke." The reverse side featured "Crazy About You Baby," an original song based on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Crazy About You Gal." During a tour of Louisiana the band discovered that "Juke" had hit the charts. In an interview in Blues Review, Rogers remembered that he was sitting in a club when "here comes this song, so we gets up and runs to the jukebox 'fore the record is out. So we're looking to find what's the number, and we found it and it said 'Juke.' And we kept looking at it; it said 'Little Walter and his Jukes.' We said, 'Who's them Jukes, man?' Wasn't no Jukes."
Little Walter became so excited upon hearing "Juke" that he left the group and rushed back to Chicago. Returning to the city, he discovered that the Four Aces' harmonica player, Junior Wells, had left that outfit to fill his spot with the Muddy Waters band; thus, he immediately welcomed the opportunity to join the Aces, a group that included Louis and Dave Myers on guitars and Freddie Below on drums.
Dave Myers explained in Blues Access, "We gave him the framework. The work he needed was our type of work to be able to express himself at his level of playing. We was all fast and flexible, and we was all in the process of learning much different types of music and different expressions of music." At the helm of the band, Walter brought to it a vibrant sense of energy and creativity. "Walter was simply a person you could always learn something from," recalled drummer Below in the liner notes to Little Walter. "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 interested in."
At Chess studios, the band--now billed as Little Walter and His Jukes and Little Walter and His Nightcats--recorded a string of hits, many of which outsold those of the Muddy Waters band, including the 1952 recording "Mean Old World," and the 1953 releases "Blues with a Feeling" and the instrumental classic "Off the Wall." When Louis Myers left the band in 1954, he was replaced by guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood, whose brilliant jazz-style fills were featured on numbers like "Thunderbird," "Shake Dancer," and the haunting slow blues "Blue Lights."
Although Little Walter remained on the rhythm and blues charts throughout 1954, it wasn't until 1955 that he had his biggest hit, with Willie Dixon's "My Babe"--a song adapted from the gospel number "This Train." Despite Walter's initial dislike for the tune, Dixon, as he wrote in his autobiography, was determined to persuade him to record it: "I felt Little Walter had the feeling for this 'My Babe' song. He was the type of fellow who wanted to brag about some chick, somebody he loved, something he was doing or getting [away] with. He fought it for two long years and I wasn't going to give the song to nobody but him. [But] the minute he did it, Boom! she went right to the top of the charts."
But as Little Walter hit the charts with "My Babe," his career faced several setbacks. Soon afterward, Dave Myers left the band, followed by drummer Below. Excessive drinking and an erratic lifestyle greatly affected Walter's ability as a bandleader. "He was behaving like a cowboy much of the time," wrote Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, "and would roar up to a clubdate in his black Cadillac with a squeal of the brakes that sent everyone rushing to the door to stare."
Though Little Walter's studio performances of the late 1950s continued to produce first-rate material, his rough lifestyle began to take its toll. By the 1960s he bore facial scars from drunken altercations. As Muddy Waters told Paul Oliver during the 1960s in Conversation With the Blues, "He's real tough, Little Walter, and he's had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!" Walter's street-hardened behavior resulted in his death, at his home, on February 15, 1968, from a blood clot sustained during a street fight. He was 37.
Upon his death, Little Walter left a recording career unparalleled in the history of postwar Chicago Blues. His musicianship has influenced nearly every modern blues harmonica player. In the liner notes to Confessin' the Blues, Pete Welding wrote: "Honor Little Walter, who gave us so much and, who like most bluesmen, received so little." But as a man who lived through his instrument, Walter knew no other source of reward than the mastery of his art and the freedom to create music of original expression.
by John Cohassey
Little Walter's Career
Began playing harmonica at age eight; left home at age 13 to play nightspots in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri; arrived in Chicago, 1947, and performed as a street musician until joining the Muddy Waters band, 1948; left Waters after scoring first hit record, 1952; joined the Four Aces and recorded a string of hits under own name, including "My Babe," 1955; continued to record and perform, late 1950s; toured Europe, early 1960s.
Little Walter's Awards
Won Blues Unlimited Reader's Poll as best blues harmonica player, 1973.
- Selective Works
- Little Walter: Confessin' the Blues, Chess.
- Little Walter: I Hate to See You Go, Chess.
- The Best of Little Walter, Chess.
- The Best of Little Walter, Volume II, Chess.
- Boss of the Blues Harmonica, Chess.
- The Blues World of Little Walter, Delmark.
- Little Walter, Chess, 1976.
- The Essential Little Walter, Chess, 1993.
- With others More Real Folk Blues: Muddy Waters, Chess, 1967.
- Muddy Waters: Trouble No More, Singles 1955-1959, Chess, 1989.
- Jimmy Rogers: Chicago Bound, Chess.
- Anthologies The Best of Chess, Volume I, Chess.
- The Best of Chess, Volume II, Chess.
- Chicago Boogie! 1947, St. George Records, 1983.
- Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, From the Pages of Guitar Player Magazine, edited by Jas Obrecht, Miller Freeman Books, 1993.
- Dixon, Willie, and Don Snowden, I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story, Da Capo, 1989.
- Lomax, Alan, The Land Where the Blues Began, Pantheon Books, 1993.
- Oliver, Paul, Conversation With the Blues, Horizon Press, 1965.
- Oliver, Paul, The Blackwell Record Guide to Blues Records, Basil Blackwell, 1989.
- Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1989.
- Rowe, Mike, Chicago Blues: The City and the Music, Da Capo, 1975.
- Periodicals Blues Access, summer 1994.
- Blues Revue, fall 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Confessin' the Blues, by Pete Welding.