BLUE AND LONESOME Little Walter

As evidenced on a massive new anthology, the
2008 Rock Hall of Fame inductee revolutionized the blues harp.

 

BY
REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Little
Walter Jacobs was, without argument, the greatest blues harmonica player ever,
an instrumental virtuoso that revolutionized the use of the instrument and
influenced virtually every harpist that would attempt to follow in his
footprints. Sodbusters like Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza,
and Jason Ricci were all influenced by Walter’s enormous shadow.

 

For
a while, blues harp master Little Walter was Chess Records’ biggest and
best-selling star…bigger than Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. From 1952 through
1958, Walter ran off a string of fourteen Top Ten R&B chart hits, and even
his recordings from the late-50s and early-60s display a dazzling presence, a
willingness to take chances, and an uncanny skill as both an instrumentalist
and vocalist.

 

Hip-O Select’s The Complete Chess Masters
(1950-1967)
collects better than ten-dozen tracks recorded by
Walter, including nine previously unreleased performances. Across the five CDs
included with the set, Little Walter is accompanied by a veritable “who’s
who” of Chicago
blues royalty, including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and Jimmy
Rogers.  

 

The
first disc includes some of Walter’s early big hits, including the
career-making “Juke,” from 1952. A fluid, swinging instrumental with
an easily-recognizable central riff and some tasty six-string fills courtesy of
Jimmy Rogers, the song would spend an incredible 20 weeks on the R&B
charts. Backed with the soulful “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” the
single created a blueprint that Chess would follow for much of Walter’s career,
featuring an instrumental ‘A’ side backed by a ‘B’ side that would feature
Walter’s underrated vocals.

 

When
“Juke” hit the top of the charts, Little Walter ditched Waters
mid-tour and, scooping up Junior Wells’ band the Aces, launched his solo career
in earnest. Recording with the new band, sessions from late-1952 and early-1953
resulted in another big hit in “Sad Hours.” Paired with T-Bone
Walker’s “Mean Old World,” the steady shuffling “Sad Hours”
offers the first use of Walter’s unique “warble” method that created
a multi-dimensional sound for the instrument.

 

The
second disc kicks off with one of Little Walter’s signature songs (and a blues
standard), “Blues With A Feeling.” With Chess Records finally letting
him put his soulful vocals up front alongside his instrumental prowess, the
song was the perfect framing of mood and performance, drenched in emotion and
bristling with energy.

 

Little
Walter’s recording of Bo Diddley’s houserockin’ instrumental “Roller
Coaster,” with Diddley himself providing some rattling fretwork alongside
Walter’s frantic harp, represented something of a changing of the guards. By
1955, the commercial market was beginning to thin out for blues music as rock
‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues took over the charts. “Roller
Coaster” would be the last of Walter’s instrumental hits.

 

Between
1956 and ’58, Little Walter recorded a number of tracks that, while standing up
with some of his best work, none of it proved to be a commercial success. Bo
Diddley and Chuck Berry were Chess Records’ latest stars, and otherwise red-hot
songs like the spry instrumental “Flying Saucer” or the hard-driving,
Berry-styled rocker “It Ain’t Right” were ignored by record buyers.

 

In
January 1959, Little Walter would record with guitarist Luther Tucker and
pianist Otis Spann, producing a number of strong sides, although only one – the
smoldering “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” – would inch midway up the
R&B chart. Benefiting from Spann’s rollicking piano-bashing, the song
features one of Walter’s most emotional harp performances, the lonesome
desperation of his solos matched by his mournful vocals.

 

Other
songs recorded in 1959 showed that, while Walter’s skills with the harmonica
remained unsurpassed, his once-expressive voice was slowly being eroded by
alcohol. In some instances, his diminished vocal capabilities worked to his
advantage, as in the tear-jerking “Blue and Lonesome.” Backed by
Freddie Robinson’s hypnotic fretwork, Walter’s low-register vocals define
sadness and depression, his blistering harp a reflection of his inner turmoil.

 

Little
Walter’s commercial fortunes continued to decline from 1960 until his death in
1968, and the sessions he was offered became few and far between. Still, there
are some treasures to be plucked from Walter’s increasingly obscure recordings.
Willie Dixon’s “As Long As I Have You” is a precursor to the British
blues-rock that would rise up during the ’60s, the song full of switchblade
guitar and rough-hewn vocals. From one of Walter’s last sessions, in 1967, a
final shot of “Juke” recorded with Buddy Guy and Otis Spann would
cement Little Walter’s legacy as the greatest.

 

Yeah,
you’ve probably figured out that five discs, featuring better than two-dozen
tracks apiece, is a heck of a lot of material to wade through, and you’d be
right. Although The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) might only appeal
to the most rabid of fans, it is also an important historical document. The set
provides a portrait of a musical genius in the prime… and decline… of his
talent, and it’s a worthwhile addition to the library of any serious blues
collector.  

 

 

 

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