Born: May 1, 1930 in Marksville LA
Died: February 15, 1968 in Chicago IL
More than any other harp-slinger, "Little Walter" Jacobs owned the Chicago blues scene from the moment of his arrival in 1946, and through the end of the 1950s. A dynamic soloist, Little Walter created new tones and bright new textures with the instrument. An underrated vocalist with a gritty, soulful voice, Walter was also a skilled songwriter and natural-born bandleader. The dominant blues harp player of the post-war years, Walter's influence can still be heard in the music of harpists like Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, and Kim Wilson.
Streets Of New Orleans
Little Walter picked up the harmonica as a child in rural Louisiana. Mastering the instrument by the age of 12, Walter began playing street corners for tips in New Orleans. The young blues musician gradually worked his way north, through Helena, Arkansas and St. Louis, before landing in Chicago in 1946. Along the way, he performed on Sonny Boy Williamson's "King Biscuit Time" radio program on KFFA, and picked up some playing tips from Williamson and Big Walter Horton.
In Chicago, Walter gravitated towards Maxwell Street, playing his harmonica on the corner for passersby. He came to the attention of Chicago blues legend Big Bill Broonzy, and began playing with Broonzy and slide-guitar great Tampa Red, which also led to recording sessions. Walter's breakthrough came a couple of years later when Muddy Waters sought him out to perform on his early Chess Records recordings.
Little Walter's "Juke"
Little Walter became a valued member of Waters' original band, part of the infamous group of "head hunters" with guitarists Jimmy Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster that would go into Southside Chicago clubs and challenge rival bands. Walter's powerful harp playing intensified Waters' naturally ferocious sound, and Chess would use Walter on Waters' recordings long after the harp player had left the band.
At the tail end of one of Waters' early-1950s recording sessions, his band - led by Little Walter - rocked through the instrumental "Your Cat Will Play," which they often played on stage. Chess Records released the song in 1952 as "Juke" under Little Walter's name, and it became a smash hit. While touring in Louisiana with Waters, Walter heard of the song's success and immediately quit the band, returning to Chicago where he took on the Aces, fronted by harpist Junior Wells, as his backing band, and launched a solo career. Ironically, Wells would subsequently join Waters' band as Walter's replacement.
Redefining The Blues
Calling his band Little Walter and His Jukes, featuring guitarists Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below, Walter began a phenomenal string of R&B chart hits, underscored by his enormous performance popularity. Between 1952 and 1958, Little Walter scored 14 Top Ten R&B hits with songs like "Mean Old World," "My Babe," and "Sad Hours" for the Chess subsidiary Checkers Records. Each subsequent single release showcased Walter's evolution as a player, as a song arranger, and as a songwriter, Walter's unique performances redefining the future of the Chicago blues sound.
Little Walter traveled to England in 1962 as part of packaged tour, winning over a new audience of white blues fans. His overseas success led to a 1964 tour with the Rolling Stones, even as the Chicago blues were experiencing diminished commercial returns stateside. Walter's once phenomenal instrumental skills also diminished during the 1960s, plagued by alcohol abuse, a quick temper, and the bluesman's penchant for barroom brawls. Walter Jacobs died in 1968 at the age of 37 from the after-effects of one such fight.
Recommended Albums: His Best kicks off with the raucous hit instrumental "Juke" and rolls mightily through 19 other electric tracks, a mix of Little Walter originals and songs by Willie Dixon, Big Bill Broonzy, and even Bo Diddley.