Happy Birthday to Little Walter, born Marion Walter Jacobs on this day in 1930. Most blues historians consider Little Walter to be the most influential harmonica (or harp) player of the postwar period. I can say from experience that anytime you talk to a blues harp player about style, tone, technique, etc., you won’t get far before Little Walter’s name comes up. One quality they’re striving toward is his elusive amplified tone – ironic when you consider that much of the time he was playing through a cab dispatcher’s radio microphone. He would cup his hands around the harp and the mic, creating an enclosed, resonant chamber that gave the instrument a powerful, distorted sound, at times reminiscent of a saxophone. It’s that dirty, gritty sound that helped define the electric blues of the time, and today aspiring harp players search second-hand stores for those vintage mics, while manufacturers produce new mics designed to emulate that vintage sound.
Though Little Walter played with many blues notables (he even toured with the Rolling Stones in 1964) and led his own band for a time, he’s probably best known for his work in Muddy Waters’ band, where his intermittent riffs and expertly-phrased solos provided a vital counterpoint to Muddy’s gritty singing and elemental guitar solos. Saddled with a drinking problem and a hair-trigger temper, however, Little Walter died in 1968 following a nasty street brawl. He was just 37 years old.
There is precious little film footage of Little Walter at work, so we take what we can get. This is a performance by Hound Dog Taylor, with Little Walter guesting on harp. He takes a nice solo, but unfortunately this tune doesn’t let you hear his signature tone, as he’s simply playing near a vocal microphone rather than using his cupping technique. Just enjoy his phrasing and melodic creativity.
P.S. – Today is also the birthday of a blues originator, Charley Patton. But in case I’m still doing this a year from now, I gotta save some folks for later!