Feb 15, 1968- Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1st 1930 (although recently uncovered census data suggests he may have been born earlier, possibly as early as 1925) in Marksville, Louisiana, and raised in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, where he first learned to play the harmonica. After quitting school by the age of 12, Jacobs left rural Louisiana and travelled around working odd jobs and busking on the streets of New Orleans; Memphis; Helena, Arkansas; and St. Louis. He honed his musical skills on harmonica and guitar performing with much older bluesmen, including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, Honeyboy Edwards and others.
Arriving in Chicago in 1945, he occasionally found work as a guitarist but garnered more attention for his already highly developed harmonica work. According to fellow Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones, Little Walter’s first recording was an unreleased demo recorded soon after he arrived in Chicago, on which Walter played guitar backing Jones. Jacobs, reportedly frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, adopted a simple but previously little-used method: He cupped a small microphone in his hands along with his harmonica and plugged the microphone into a public address system or guitar amplifier.
He could thus compete with any guitarist’s volume. However, unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Snooky Pryor, who like many other harmonica players had also begun using the newly available amplifier technology around the same time solely for added volume, Little Walter purposely pushed his amplifiers beyond their intended technical limitations, using the amplification to explore and develop radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica or any other instrument. In a short biographical note on Little Walter, Madison Deniro wrote that he was “the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”
Jacobs made his first released recordings in 1947 for Bernard Abrams’ tiny Ora-Nelle label, which operated out of the back room of Abrams’ Maxwell Radio and Records store in the heart of the Maxwell Street district in Chicago. These and several other of his early recordings, like many blues harp recordings of the era, owed a strong stylistic debt to pioneering blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson). Little Walter joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948, and by 1950 he was playing acoustic (unamplified) harmonica on Waters’ recordings for Chess Records. The first appearance on record of Little Walter’s amplified harmonica was on Waters’ “Country Boy” (Chess 1952), recorded on July 11, 1951.
The problem with Little Walter was simple: he was, in a word, brash. A friend of Walter’s, Luther Tucker, once said that he “loved to smoke grass, drink whiskey, chance [sic: supposedly “chase”] women, fight. . . . And he beat women, too. If a woman give him some lip, he’d fatten it up for her. And they’d just love it . . . it was amazing; they liked what he was doing”. His personality in real life was not exactly as marketable as Muddy Water’s ‘mysterious bad black man’ persona, which attracted customers to his music. Dixon wanted Walter to attract people, not have them report the misanthropic harmonica player for black eyes and fat lips! So, Dixon started to create a persona for him, someone who could match Muddy Waters in charm but younger, slicker and a little less rough around the edges. He needed a clean look, and Dixon made him out to be “an ideal boyfriend who is truthful to his girl- friend: a ‘one-woman guy’ or ‘nice guy’” through some of his song choices and ideas
For years after his departure from Waters’ band in 1952, Chess continued to hire him to play on Waters’ recording sessions, and as a result his harmonica is featured on most of Waters’ classic recordings from the 1950s. As a guitarist, Little Walter recorded three songs for the small Parkway label with Waters and Baby Face Leroy Foster (reissued on CD by Delmark Records as “The Blues World of Little Walter” in 1993) and on a session for Chess backing pianist Eddie Ware; his guitar work was also featured occasionally on early Chess sessions with Waters and Jimmy Rogers.
Jacobs had put his career as a bandleader on hold when he joined Waters’ band, but stepped back out front once and for all when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess’s subsidiary label Checker Records on May 12, 1952. The first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session became his first hit, spending eight weeks in the number-one position on the Billboard R&B chart. The song was “Juke”, and it is still the only harmonica instrumental ever to be a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B chart. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: “Off the Wall” reached number eight, “Roller Coaster” achieved number six, and “Sad Hours” reached the number-two position while “Juke” was still on the charts.) “Juke” was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels and one of the biggest national R&B hits of 1952, securing Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade.
Jacobs scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two number-one hits (the second being “My Babe” in 1955), a level of commercial success never achieved by Waters or by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Following the pattern of “Juke”, most of Little Walter’s single releases in the 1950s featured a vocal performance on one side and a harmonica instrumental on the other. Many of Walter’s vocal numbers were originals that he or Chess A&R man Willie Dixon wrote or adapted and updated from earlier blues themes. In general, his sound was more modern and up-tempo than the popular Chicago blues of the day, with a jazzier conception and less rhythmically rigid approach than that of other contemporary blues harmonica players.
Upon his departure from Muddy Waters’ band in 1952, he recruited a young band that was already working steadily in Chicago backing Junior Wells, the Aces, as his new backing band. The Aces consisted of brothers David and Louis Myers on guitars and drummer Fred Below; and were credited as “The Jukes” on most of the Little Walter records on which they appeared. By 1955 the members of the Aces had each left Little Walter to pursue other opportunities, initially replaced by guitarists Robert “Junior” Lockwood and Luther Tucker and drummer Odie Payne. Others who worked in Little Walter’s recording and touring bands in the ’50s included guitarists Jimmie Lee Robinson and Freddie Robinson. Little Walter also occasionally included saxophone players in his touring bands during this period, among them a young Albert Ayler. Ray Charles joined one early tour. By the late 1950s, Little Walter no longer employed a regular full-time band, instead hiring various players as needed from the large pool of blues musicians in Chicago.
Jacobs was frequently utilized on records as a harmonica accompanist behind others in the Chess stable of artists, including Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Rocky Fuller, Memphis Minnie, the Coronets, Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Bo Diddley, and Shel Silverstein, and on other record labels backing Otis Rush, Johnny Young, and Robert Nighthawk.
Jacobs suffered from alcoholism and had a notoriously short temper, which in late 1950s led to a series of violent altercations, minor scrapes with the law, and increasingly irresponsible behavior. This led to a decline in his fame and fortunes beginning in the late 1950s, although he did tour Europe twice, in 1964 and 1967. (The long-circulated story that he toured the United Kingdom with the Rolling Stones in 1964 has since been refuted by Keith Richards). The 1967 European tour, as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, resulted in the only film/video footage of Little Walter performing known to exist. Footage of Little Walter backing Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor on a television program in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 11, 1967 was released on DVD in 2004.
Further video of another recently discovered TV appearance in Germany during this same tour, showing Jacobs performing his songs “My Babe”, “Mean Old World”, and others, was released on DVD in Europe in January 2009; it is the only known footage of him singing. Other TV appearances in the UK (in 1964) and the Netherlands (in 1967) have been documented, but no footage of these has been uncovered. Jacobs recorded and toured only infrequently in the 1960s, playing mainly in and around Chicago.
In 1967 Chess released a studio album, Super Blues, featuring Little Walter, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters.
A few months after returning from his second European tour, he was involved in a fight while taking a break from a performance at a nightclub on the South Side of Chicago. The relatively minor injuries sustained in this altercation aggravated and compounded damage he had suffered in previous violent encounters, and he died in his sleep at the apartment of a girlfriend at 209 E. 54th St. in Chicago early the following morning. He died on February 15, 1968 from injuries incurred in a street fight at age 37. The official cause of death indicated on his death certificate was “coronary thrombosis” (a blood clot in the heart); evidence of external injuries was so insignificant that police reported that his death was of “unknown or natural causes” and there were no external injuries noted on the death certificate.
He is said to be the first harmonica player to amplify his harp giving it a distorted echoing sound. His revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix in its impact, his virtuosity and musical innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined on blues harmonica.
He was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10th 2008, making him the only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player.