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A Treasure Trove From A Harmonica Master

Hip-O Select has re-released a five-disc set of harmonica virtuoso Little Walter's complete recordings for the Chess label.
Hip-O Select has re-released a five-disc set of harmonica virtuoso Little Walter's complete recordings for the Chess label.

The harmonica found its way into blues because it was cheap: You could buy a good one in the 1930s for a quarter. But although blues musicians discovered all kinds of tricks with the instrument, it didn't become a vehicle for virtuosity until Little Walter, one of Chicago's greatest bluesmen, showed what could be done with it.

These days, you can't hear blues harmonica without hearing Little Walter, and his records continue to amaze people; a new five-disc Hip-O Select re-release of Walter's complete recordings for the record label Chess is on the shelves now.

From The Big Easy To The Big Time

Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, La., sometime between 1928 and 1930, and was raised by his music-loving father in nearby Alexandria. By the time he was 8, the boy was playing harmonica, and he put his first band together when he was 11. In 1943, he went to live in New Orleans. After playing on the streets there, he knew what he wanted to do, and he hit the road. He met a lot of blues musicians, and many of them had the same goal: to go to Chicago, where the real money was. Two years later, Walter got there, and by 1946 he was headlining at the Purple Cat Lounge.

Like many of the freelance blues players, Walter hung out on Maxwell Street, whose legendary flea market was a kind of musical employment agency. He recorded for a tiny record label with Jimmy Rogers, a guitarist he met there, and Rogers told his friend Muddy Waters that he had met a great harmonica player. By 1950, Walter was in Muddy's band, and he recorded his first solo, "Evans Shuffle," that October at one of Muddy's recording sessions.

For some reason, the Chess label didn't want to record the band Muddy used in nightclubs, but in 1951, it relented, and Walter was able to record with amplification. His ability to play hornlike lines, distorted by a cheap microphone, intertwining with Muddy's slide guitar, was a defining piece of the Muddy Waters band's sound. Finally, in some time left over at one of Muddy's sessions in May 1952, Walter, backed by Muddy and Rogers, got to record a tune. He did it in one take.

"Juke," as that song was titled, put Walter up front — and shot to the top of the R&B charts, where it sat for weeks. It was the best-selling record Chess had ever had, and was the only harmonica instrumental ever to top the charts. Walter seized the opportunity, walking out on Muddy midtour, going back to Chicago and stealing Junior Wells' band. They headed into the studio in October and recorded three instrumentals and one vocal in 20 minutes — and scored a double-sided top-10 hit with the instrumental "Sad Hours" going to No. 2, and a T-Bone Walker song, "Mean Old World," to No. 6.

A String Of Hits, Then Bad Luck And Trouble

Walter was unstoppable. By the end of 1953, he had become Chess' most successful artist, eclipsing even his old boss, Muddy Waters. When his guitarist, Louis Meyers, quit because he felt Walter had treated him badly and was cooking the books, Walter grabbed Robert Junior Lockwood, who had learned guitar from Robert Johnson. And when Meyers' brother Dave quit, Lockwood brought in the 18-year-old prodigy Luther Tucker. The new band started off 1955 in the studio with a song that Willie Dixon, fresh from a gospel session, brought them. A few changes, and it wasn't the old gospel number "This Train" anymore.

"My Babe" was Walter's second No. 1 hit, and it's the one that has been covered the most. Melodic and peppy, it was different from what most Chicago blues artists were recording, and that helped Walter at the beginning of the rock 'n' roll era. Suddenly, Chess was selling loads of records by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and Walter's sound was slightly old-fashioned. He did manage one more top-10 hit, "Who," in 1956.

That was the end of the hits. Part of it was changing times; part of it was that Walter's personality was catching up to him. Lockwood left his band, and tales of drinking and fighting began to circulate. In 1958, a woman shot him in the leg, which caused him to limp for the rest of his life. He played on some Muddy Waters sessions, and in 1959, on a session enlivened by Otis Spann's piano playing, he recorded his last hit, "Everything's Gonna Be All Right." It only got to 25, but that was pretty remarkable.

Walter's last years were sad. In 1964, he attempted to crack England, but the local blues fans were put off by his behavior. His voice deteriorated; on one of the studio tapes, someone can be heard saying, "Don't sing, Walter, 'cause if you do, we're ruined." Walter replies with a sad "all right." He toured Europe in 1967 with the American Folk Blues Festival tour and by some accounts had stopped drinking. But on the night of Feb. 15, 1968, he got into a fight in Chicago, during which he was hit in the head. He went to bed with a headache and never woke up. It was just like the old blues song says: Bad luck and trouble followed him all of his days.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ed Ward
Ed Ward is the rock-and-roll historian on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.