TERRY GROSS, host:
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 blues man, showed what you could do with it. In celebration of a five-disc collection of his complete recordings for Chess newly released by Hip-O Select, rock historian Ed Ward tells Little Walter's story.
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ED WARD: Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, Louisiana, sometime between 1928 and 1930, and was raised by his music-loving father in Alexandria. By the time he was eight, 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, and after playing on the street there, he knew that this what he wanted to do, and 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 recorded his first solo, "Evans Shuffle," that October at one of Muddy's recording sessions.
(Soundbite of song, "Evans Shuffle")
WARD: For some reason, Chess didn't want to record the band Muddy used in nightclubs, but in 1951, they 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 one of the defining pieces of the Muddy Waters' band's sound. And finally, in some time left over at one of Muddy's sessions in May 1952, Walter, backed by Muddy and Jimmy Rogers, got to record a tune, which he did in one take.
(Soundbite of song, "Juke")
WARD: "Juke," as it was titled, put Walter upfront 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 - the only harmonica instrumental ever to top the charts. Walter took the opportunity to walk out on Muddy mid-tour, go back to Chicago and steal Junior Wells's band. They headed into the studio in October, recorded three instrumentals and one vocal in 20 minutes, and scored a double-sided top-10 hit with "Sad Hours," the instrumental going to number two, and a T-Bone Walker song, "Mean Old World," to number six.
(Soundbite of song, "Mean Old World")
Mr. WALTER JACOBS (Musician): (Singing) This is a mean old world, try to livin' by yourself. This is a mean old world try livin' by yourself. Can't get the one you love and have to use somebody else.
WARD: Walter was unstoppable. By the end of 1953, he'd became Chess's 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'd 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 1955 off in the studio with a song Willie Dixon, fresh from a gospel session, brought them. A few changes and it wasn't the old gospel number "This Train Anymore."
(Soundbite of song, "My Babe")
Mr. JACOBS: (Singing) My baby don't stand no cheatin', my babe. Oh yeah she don't stand no cheatin', my babe. Oh yeah she don't stand no cheatin'. She don't stand none of that midnight creepin'. My babe, true little baby, my babe. My babe, I know she…
WARD: "My Babe" was Walter's second number one hit, and the one that's been covered the most. Melodic and peppy, it was different from what most Chicago blues artists were recording, and this 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 Walter 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."
(Soundbite of song, "Everything's Gonna Be All Right")
Mr. JACOBS: (Singing) I say, ev'rything goin' to be alright. I say yeah, ev'rything goin' to be alright. When we get together, baby, we can make love, can't we? Come on, baby…
WARD: 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, because 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 February 15th, 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.
You can't hear blues harmonica these days without hearing Little Walter, and his records continue to amaze people. But like the old blues song says, bad luck and trouble followed him all of his days.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. He reviewed "Little Walter: The Complete Chess Masters, 1950-1967" released by Hip-O Select.
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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.