Little Walter

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Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs
BORN: May 1, 1930 - Marksville, LA
Died: February 15 1968 - Chicago, IL

Harmonicas Used:  Hohner Marine Band

    Born in Marksville, Louisiana, Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats: Ry Cooder's opinion is that Jacobs was the single greatest blues musician ever. His revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix in its impact: There were great musicians before and after, but Jacobs' startling virtuosity and innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined, and fundamentally altered many listeners' expectations of what was possible in blues music

Early years

    After quitting school at the age of 12, Jacobs left Louisiana and traveled wherever he chose, working odd jobs, honing his musical skills with Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy, among others.

    Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he fell into the thriving blues scene, occasionally finding work as a guitarist but garnering more attention for his harmonica work. (According to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter's first recording was an unreleased demo on which Walter played guitar backing Jones.)   Jacobs grew tired of having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, and adopted a simple, but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hand while he played harmonica, and plugged the microphone into a guitar or public address amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist's volume. Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who used this method only for added volume, Little Walter used amplification to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica. Little Walter is generally considered the first 'urban' blues musician. His sound was very modern, with a strong jazz feeling, and he played mainly composition or modern songs. Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that "He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion."

Success

    Little Walter made his first released recordings in 1947 for the tiny Ora-Nelle label in Chicago. He joined Muddy Waters' band in 1948, and by 1950 he was playing on Muddy's recordings for Chess Records; Little Walter's harmonica is featured on most of Muddy's classic recordings from the 1950s. He also recorded as a guitarist for the small Parkway label, on a session for Chess backing pianist Eddie Ware, and occasionally on early sessions with Muddy Waters. Jacobs' own career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess' subsidiary label Checker Records in 1952; the first completed take of the first song attempted at his very first session spent eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts - the song was "Juke", and it was the first harmonica instrumental ever to become a hit on the R&B charts. It was also the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels. Little Walter scored an impressive fourteen top-ten hits on the R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two #1 hits (the second being "My Babe" in 1955.) A lot of these numbers were originals which he or Chess A&R man Willie Dixon wrote.

    Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter reached the Billboard R&B top 10. Off the Wall reached #8, Roller Coaster achieved #6, and Sad Hours reached the #2 position while Juke was still on the charts.

Death

    Jacobs suffered from alcoholism, and had a notoriously short fuse, which led to a decline in his fame and fortunes in the 1960s, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. (The long-circulated story that he toured England with The Rolling Stones in 1964 has since been refuted.) He died of injuries sustained in a fight a few months after returning from his second European tour.

    His legacy has been enormous: he established the standard vocabulary for blues and blues rock harmonica players for more than 50 years. The influence of his pioneering achievements on harmonica can be heard in virtually every blues harp player who has picked up the instrument since the early 1950s, from blues greats such as Junior Wells, James Cotton, George "Harmonica" Smith, Carey Bell, and Big Walter Horton, through modern-day masters Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of Blues Traveler.

    His 1952 instrumental Juke was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.


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