Little Walter and His Jukes
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 Black-well 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
Born Walter Marion Jacobs, May 1, 1930, in Marks-ville, LA; died from a blood clot sustained in a street fight, February 15, 1968; son of Adams Jacobs and Beatrice Leveige.
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.
Awards: Won Blues Unlimited Reader’s Poll as best blues harmonica player, 1973.
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, hornlike 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.
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.
More Real Folk Blues: Muddy Waters, Chess, 1967.
Muddy Waters: Trouble No More, Singles 1955-1959, Chess, 1989.
Jimmy Rogers: Chicago Bound, Chess.
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.
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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.
Walter, Little 1930–1968
Little Walter 1930–1968
Blues musician, vocalist
The sound of the amplified harmonica—blaring out sharp contrasts of chords and intricate melody lines, exploding into voice-like moans and grunts, and often matching the musical expressivity of more technically complex instruments—is integral to the music recognized all over the world as Chicago blues. The musician most responsible for the harmonica’s importance was Little Walter, who played the instrument in the band of pioneering Chicago blues guitarist Muddy Waters and later began making appearances and recordings on his own. Little Walter forged an entirely original harmonica style that has influenced virtually all later players of the instrument in the blues tradition.
Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1, 1930, in Marksville, Louisiana. He grew up in rural poverty on a farm in Alexandria. At age eight he acquired a harmonica and taught himself to play it by listening to blues harmonica recordings by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. When he was 12 he ran away from home and eked out a living playing in bars in New Orleans. From there he followed the Great Migration route of southern blacks north to Chicago. He made months-long stops in Helena, Arkansas, in Memphis, and in St. Louis, growing musically along the way as the result of meetings with Williamson, Honey boy Edwards, and others. By 1947 he was in Chicago.
Landing in the musically rich Maxwell Street market area, Little Walter at first had to keep himself alive by playing on the streets. But he quickly became acquainted with local blues stars such as Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy. He especially impressed guitarist Jimmy Rogers, who performed with Little Walter and introduced him to Muddy Waters. Little Walter made his first recordings in 1947 for the tiny Ora Nelle label headquartered on Maxwell Street. The following year, he joined Waters’s touring band. In the words of the All Music Guide, “the resulting stylistic tremors of that coupling are still being felt today.” The combination of Little Walter’s harmonica and Waters’s electric guitar helped to transform the blues from a rural music to a sound that reflected the new conditions of urban black America.
Little Walter toured with Waters until 1952 and was featured on many Waters recordings of the period on the Chess label—recordings that are now considered blues classics. These included national rhythm and blues hits such as “Louisiana Blues” (1951) and “Honey Bee,” one of the occasional records on which Little Walter played guitar. An impatient, magnificent talent in his early twenties, Little Walter began to think of bigger and better things. His chance came when Chess released on the “B” side of a 45 rpm single record an untitled harmonica instrumental that the Waters band had been using as theme music.
Both the recording and the group were given new names by Chess co-owner Leonard Chess—the record was entitled “Juke” and the group was temporarily rechristened Little Walter and His Jukes. On tour, the band heard the song playing on a Louisiana jukebox. According to guitarist Jimmy Rogers, they looked at the label inside the machine and discovered the Little
At a Glance…
Born Walter Marion Jacobs on May 1, 1930, in Marksvillte, LA; died on February 15, 1968, in Chicago, IL.
Career: Played in nightclubs in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, 1940s; arrived in Chicago, c. 1947; recorded for Ora Nelle label, 1947; performed as street musician; joined Muddy Waters touring band, 1948; recorded with Waters on Chess label; instrumental “Juke” released under name Little Walter & The Jukes, 1952; launched solo career; recorded for Checker subsidiary of Chess label, mid-1950s; 14 rhythm and blues singles in Top Ten, 1952-58.
Selected awards: Posthumous winner of Blues Unlimited magazine reader’s poll as best blues harmonica player, 1973.
Walter and His Jukes moniker. “We said, ‘Who’s them Jukes, man?’” Rogers told Blues Review. “Wasn’t no Jukes.”
Little Walter immediately skipped out of an appointment to pick up new matching sets of clothes for the Waters band, and soon he had returned to Chicago alone and gone his own way. “Juke” eventually rose to number one on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart, becoming one of the biggest hits of all time in the pure Chicago blues genre. He continued to record with Waters, but now his own recordings, released under the names Little Walter and His Jukes or Little Walter and His Nightcats, often eclipsed the sales of Waters’s singles.
Backed often by Louis and Dave Myers (or Robert “Junior” Lockwood) on guitars and Fred Below on drums, the same instrumental combination as that of the Waters band, Little Walter created, in the words of Chicago blues historian Mike Rowe, “a different type of blues.… the sound was much more jazz-based, and so big was the sound of Walter’s amplified harp and so revolutionary his phrasing that it seemed at times as if he was blowing a sax.” Often recording on the Chess subsidiary Checker and performing both vocals and instrumentals, Little Walter placed 14 hits in the rhythm and blues top ten between 1952 and 1958. In 1955 his recording of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe,” a reworking of the age-old spiritual “This Time,” brought Little Walter his second number one.
After 1958 things began to go sour for Little Walter. A combination of factors was to blame. One was the musician’s increasingly heavy drinking; when he joined the Waters band he had drunk nothing stronger than colas, but in the late 1950s he became moody and unpredictable. His temper, always sharp, worsened: “If he liked you, he liked you,” fellow harmonica player Golden “Big” Wheeler told the Los Angeles Times. “But if he didn’t like you, you had a problem.” Beyond any personal factors, though, was the fact that blues music was losing popularity among younger African Americans even as white revivalists were beginning to discover it.
Some of those white revivalists were British, and Little Walter wielded a mighty influence over the rock music of the 1960s. He toured Great Britain with the Rolling Stones in 1964, and his musical phrasing echoed in the recordings of blues-oriented British groups such as Cream and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. When Chicago blues finally began to re-establish itself in the United States as a permanent part of American musical tradition rather than as a contender for the top of the charts, younger harmonica players began to study Little Walter’s style closely. These musicians wove Little Walter’s music into the very vocabulary of the blues.
It all came too late for Little Walter himself, however. Gunplay began to enter into the musician’s increasingly frequent street brawls, and he carried a slug in his leg that he himself had accidentally put there during one drunken shootout. Some traced his deterioration to the mental scars he had endured during several years of virtual homelessness when he was barely more than a child. A 1967 recording with Waters and Bo Diddley found Little Walter a shadow of his former self musically. On February 15, 1968, a blood clot caused by a street fight ended his life.
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Blues Boss Harmonica, Chess, 1972.
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Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1993, p. Valley Life-3.
—James M. Manheim