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Little Walter: The Chess Masters

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The harmonica is an instrument that doesn't turn up often in jazz. When it does, the instrument typically is played in a polished, mannered style. Jazz chromatic harmonica masters include Toots Thielemans, Jerry Adler, Ron Kalina, Julian Jackson and Hendrik Meurkens. Past legends include Larry Adler and Jerry Murad. But deep down, the harmonica is most naturally a blues instrument, and no one played it quite the way Little Walter did. In the 1950s, Little Walter turned what had been a rhythm-keeper into an amplified solo instrument. At times he made the harmonica sound like an electric guitar and at other times a full sax section. Now Hip-O Select has released Little Walter: The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967), a box set that was just nominated for a Grammy Award. The music is stunning in every way, and the box set is an eye-opener for anyone interested in the development of American music.

Born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, LA, in 1930, Jacobs was sent to stay with relatives in New Orleans at age 12 following charges of arson. Two years later he was in Chicago playing harmonica, and in 1946 he was first billed as “Little Walter--Wonder Harmonica King." In Chicago he played behind Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim and Honeyboy Edwards, and he was teamed with blues singer and guitarist Jimmy Rogers. In 1947 Little Walter joined Chicago blues guitarist Muddy Waters and remained in his band for several years. [Pictured, from left: Elmore James, Sonnyboy Williamson II, Tommy McClennan and Little Walter circa 1953 in Chicago]

Little Walter began recording for Leonard and Phil Chess' Aristocrat Records in 1947 behind Muddy Waters. Then in 1952, he was given a shot to record on harmonica as a leader. The result for the newly established Checker Records was Juke, a harmonica instrumental that flew to No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B Singles chart and remained there for six weeks. From that point on, Walter recorded as a leader for the Chess brothers' different labels: Checker, Chess, Cadet and Cadet Concept labels. Between 1951 and 1958, Little Walter had a total of 15 hit singles, including another No. 1 hit in 1955 with My Babe.

And that's as close as Little Walter came to commercial success. In the years that followed, he battled constantly with alcoholism and a chronic short fuse, which led to frequent violent public fights over perceived slights. One such brutal encounter occurred on February 15, 1968 in Chicago, and the head blows he sustained aggravated previous injuries. Little Walter went to bed with a headache that night and died in his sleep.

Admittedly, I am not a huge blues fan. It's not that I don't like blues artists. I'm just disinterested, primarily because I spend my days listening to jazz recordings, which I find more dynamic. But Little Walter is different. Through his singing and harmonica playing, you hear how blues became r&b, which in turn led to early rock and roll. You also hear how Little Walter's high-energy blues appealed to teens and had powerful influence on British rock musicians of the mid- and late-1960s.

In this regard, Little Walter is no traditional Delta blues artist singing about lost love or missed trains. His amplified harmonica remains instantly electrifying, he hammers away at the one and three beats, and his vocal sound is young and feverish. Little Walter was far edgier than many of his older Chicago blues contemporaries and a visionary in terms of what black and white teens wanted to hear and feel.

What's more, Little Walter's gloves-off style became a model for many different rock artists, some of whom recorded for the same label. In this box set's five discs, you hear the roots of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. For example, listen to Who recorded in December 1955 and compare it with Elvis' Too Much, recorded in late 1956. Bo Diddley was clearly influenced by Little Walter's restless temperament and amplified groove after recording with him in April 1955.

You also hear Little Walter's vocal sway in the voices and sounds of British rockers Mick Jagger, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and John Mayall. It's easy to imagine a grade-school Jagger singing Can't Hold Out Much Longer in front of a mirror.

There simply aren't any bad tracks on this box set. Each one held my attention and had my feet moving. You can't help but marvel at the strength and purity of Little Walter's voice, the big yawning growl of his amplified harmonica, and the backbeats and lyrics he crafted. It's a shame he wasn't leveraged as a rock and roller in the 1950s the way Chess recording artists Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were. Maybe the harmonica wasn't as sexy as an electric guitar. Or that Little Walter didn't have a stage gimmick. Or maybe it was just his temper.

JazzWax tracks: Little Walter: The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) (Hip-O Select) is a five disc set with remastered tracks and comprehensive liner notes by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines, co-authors of Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story. The set is available at iTunes and at Amazon here.

JazzWax clip: Here's a must-view short that was put together for Little Walter's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

Here's Little Walter's 1952 No. 1 hit Juke...

And here's his other No. 1 hit from 1955, My Babe...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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