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As well as a general description of some of the “top 10′ blues harp players I thought I would explore in some more detail, some of the real greats. I have started with  Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson) and Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Rice Miller) and now we have Marion ‘Little Walter’ Jacobs. One of the best ways to learn blues harp is to first listen to as many great players as you can exploring the wide variety of sounds that can be produced by this humble instrument.

Little Walter (born Marion Walter Jacobs in Marksville, LA, and raised in Alexandria, LA) (May 1, 1930 – February 15, 1968) was a blues singer, harmonica player, and guitarist.

Little Walter Jacobs

Jacobs is generally included among blues music greats—his revolutionary harmonica technique has earned comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix  in its impact. There were great musicians before and after, but Jacobs’ virtuosity and musical innovations reached heights of expression never previously imagined, and fundamentally altered many listeners’ expectations of what was possible on blues harmonica. . Little Walter’s body of work earned him a spot in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category on March 10, 2008, making him the only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player.

One version of the life of Little Walter:

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 on which Walter played guitar backing Jones.) Jacobs grew frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists, and 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 guitar or public address amplifier. He could thus compete with any guitarist’s volume. Unlike other contemporary blues harp players, such as the original Sonny Boy Williamson and Snooky Pryor, who had been using this method only for added volume, Little Walter utilized amplification to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects previously unheard from a harmonica Madison Deniro wrote a small biographical piece on Little Walter stating that “He was the first musician of any kind to purposely use electronic distortion.”

Early Little Walter 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 on Muddy’s recordings for Chess Records; for years after his departure from Muddy’s band in 1952, Little Walter continued to be brought in to play on his recording sessions, and as a result his harmonica is featured on most of Muddy’s classic recordings from the 1950s.

Jacobs’ own career took off when he recorded as a bandleader for Chess’ subsidiary label Checker Records on 12 May 1952; the first completed take of the first song attempted at his debut session was a massive hit, spending eight weeks in the #1 position on the Billboard magazine R&B charts – the song was “Juke”, and it was the only harmonica instrumental ever to become a #1 hit on the R&B charts. (Three other harmonica instrumentals by Little Walter also reached the Billboard R&B top 10: “Off the Wall” reached #8, “Roller Coaster” achieved #6, and “Sad Hours” reached the #2 position while Juke was still on the charts.) “Juke” was the biggest hit to date for Chess and its affiliated labels, and secured Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade. Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including two #1 hits (the second being “My Babe” in 1955), a feat never achieved by his former boss Waters, nor 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 on one side, and an instrumental on the other. Many of Walter’s numbers were originals which 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 uptempo than the popular Chicago blues of the day, with a jazzier conception than other contemporary blues harmonica players.

and many people’s favourite…My Babe

Key to the highway

and an early recording of Moonshine Blues (Little Walter Trio)

His legacy has been enormous: he is widely credited by blues historians as the artist primarily responsible for establishing the standard vocabulary for modern blues and blues rock harmonica players. – His influence can be heard in varying degrees in virtually every modern blues harp player who came along in his wake, from blues greats such as Junior Wells, James Cotton, George “Harmonica” Smith, Carey Bell, and Big Walter Horton, through modern-day masters Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, William Clarke, and Charlie Musselwhite, in addition to blues-rock crossover artists such as Paul Butterfield and John Popper of Blues Traveler.

Blues with a feeling:

His 1952 instrumental ‘Juke’ was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, and on 19 December 2007, was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame as an “example of recorded musical masterpieces that have significantly impacted our musical history”

Last night:

Little Walter was also a much in demand session player and played with a number of great artists, here he is playing with Hound Dog Taylor.

And here’s some technical info from the ‘official’ Little Walter web site

The subject of how Little Walter got “his sound” has been an area of great interest among blues harp players over the last 50-plus years, and has spawned much speculation and debate concerning the exact types of amplifiers and microphones he used. Unfortunately – and amazingly, considering his huge popularity during his heyday – there are no known photographs of Little Walter performing with his own band in the 1950s that show his amplifier, either on a live gig or in the studio. Many of the people who were present on his gigs and studio sessions have been queried over the years – musicians Jimmy Rogers, Dave Myers, Louis Myers, and Jimmie Lee Robinson, among many others – but none of them were paying enough attention to Little Walter’s equipment at the time (let alone their own) to remember any of the specifics of Little Walter’s set-up when they were asked about it later.

There’s also the issue of defining “The Little Walter sound”. It’s more-or-less generally accepted these days that Little Walter’s signature harmonica sound was the harsh, heavily distorted sound of a cheap mic and an old tube amp pushed to its limits. But if one takes the time to listen to the recordings of Little Walter’s amplified harp playing in chronological order, it becomes obvious that his sound changed noticeably and sometimes dramatically from session to session, from the almost-acoustic sound of “Juke” and “Can’t Hold On Much Longer”, to the broken-kazoo rasp of “Rocker”, and everything in between. In fact, close examination reveals that there were a lot more recordings made with a light-to-moderately amplified harmonica sound than there were with the over-driven, harshly distorted sound that so many latter-day harp players think of as ‘the LW sound’. So although we may not know specifically what he was playing through on any given session, based on the ever-changing nature of his amplified harp sound on records, it does seem pretty clear that he went through a wide array of different amplifiers, and that there was no single microphone & amplifier combination that he settled on, or considered essential to achieving his desired results.
When Little Walter himself was asked about it, he was unable to even remember the brand name of his favorite amplifier, let alone the model, and offered a somewhat confusing description of what it looked like. So unless a pile of Little Walter performance photos that has been buried in someone’s closet for last half century suddenly comes to light, it appears that the precise identity of any of the many different amplifiers Little Walter undoubtedly used during his prime years will remain in the realm of educated guesses and wild speculation. It simply is not known with any certainty, and it would be wise to question the motives of anyone who claims otherwise – they’re probably trying to sell you something.
Some diligent detective work has turned up a few possible candidates in the amplifier category though. According to several of the musicians who played in his bands, in the early ’50s Walter had a portable P.A. system which he took on the road and used for both vocals and harp, which makes sense – guitar amps were for guitars, and P.A. systems were for microphones. As a singer/harp player, Little Walter needed something not just for harp, but also for his vocals, so a P.A. system would have been the logical choice for the job. Guitarist Jimmie Lee Robinson, who played in LW’s band from 1955 to 1959, said LW never even brought an amp to his local gigs in Chicago – he always played through the house P.A. system in local clubs. But it’s important to consider that Little Walter’s choice of a P.A. system (as opposed to a guitar amp) for his harmonica probably wasn’t based on any special ‘mojo’ factor afforded by the P.A. amp vs. a guitar amp. More likely, it was simply because that’s what ALL singers used; it’s what was available at the time, and if you were a singing harp player in the ’50s, you played your harp into the same mic you sang into. In other words, one wouldn’t have one mic/amp combination for the harp, and a separate mic plugged into a P.A. system for the vocals, as so many do today – according the guitarists Jimmie Lee Robinson and Dave Myers, Walter always used the same mic for both harp and vocals on club gigs. It was just a happy accident that the relatively low quality of vocal mic / P.A. set-ups available at the time was well suited for the amplified harp sound.
There are a number of photos taken in Chicago blues clubs during that era that show house P.A. systems consisting of the same type of portable systems referred to above, so it’s entirely likely that he would have a similar set up of his own for road gigs. Guitarist Dave Myers, who played in LW’s band from 1952 until 1955, said that he thought that LW had a “Macon” amplifier at one point; since there doesn’t appear to be such a brand available at the time, he probably confused the name with “Masco”, a brand of portable P.A. systems which were common then. At that time, the standard portable P.A. systems consisted of two separate speaker cabinets and a small stand-alone tube amp that could be attached together into a single, suitcase-like unit for portability. Among the companies that manufactured these systems were Stromberg-Carlson, Masco, Knight, Bell, Bogan and others, and each of these companies made various models, but many with the same basic two-speaker-cabinets-and-an-amp configuration. It’s likely that Little Walter used at least one of these brands at some point.
See the site for more details and an interview with Little Walter.

On the same site is an interesting insight into a Little Walter recording  session

The Little Walter session tapes

The “Juke” session. A 7″ reel, not in the original tape box, but a photocopy of the original session log is with the tape. There’s no ‘take one’ on this reel, but it is a full reel, suggesting that T1 was not removed from the reel, but that the tape was rewound immediately after T1 (probably a breakdown), and it was recorded over. The first thing at the beginning of this tape is T2, which is the issued master take of “Juke”, separated from the rest of the tape by white leader tape on both sides. Immediately before T3:

Jimmy Rogers: I’ll give you that boogie…

The take begins, with what sounds exactly like the issued alternate take, but instead of launching into the song after the repeated ‘stabbing’ intro, everyone just keeps on stabbing, apparently not knowing where to do the ‘stop’ where LW will then launch into the body of the song. They eventually falter, and everyone stops.

Elga: (Apologetically) I was off. [I assume this is Elga – it’s definitely not Muddy, Jimmy or LW.]

LW: (calmly) Ya see, if he’d a kicked it off right…we coulda made it, and I could given you the ‘bop bop bop bop bop ba BOP’ (describing the final hits before he launches into the body of the song.)

Muddy: When you give me the ‘bop bop bop BOP’…

Elga: Well, I’m watching your foot, when you start. Well, I’m gonna start with you this time, when YOU start.

[Walter seems to be in a good mood, speaking without any trace of irritation in his voice.]

The engineer (Putnam) calls Take 4 in the middle of the above discussion, and LW starts playing almost immediately, while Elga is still speaking, with no count in.

[My impression is that the first complete take, T2, must have been the best worked-out version – the one they were doing on the band stand – and that afterwards they decided to try and spice it up a little bit by adding in the new intro. It may have been felt that the new arrangement wasn’t tight enough or something, after trying it out a few times in the studio. At any rate, there are no further attempts at this after T4.]

After the take ends, a few seconds later you can hear what was on this reel before it was re-used for this Chess session – a commercial for “Lava” hand soap. A 1950s-style radio announcer can be heard for a few seconds saying “Lava soap gets out grease, grit from under the nails, and every other…” The next thing heard on the tape is the continuation of the LW session. Immediately before T1:

Len: (giving LW direction on how to do the song)…’Crazy About You Baby’, then WHAM!…

T1 starts with LW’s harp, heavily amplified sound, then is stopped from the control booth during the intro.

Len: You squeak on your intro on the harp, I don’t know why…

Putnam: Turn the volume down a little, I’ll pull it up in here.

Len: Turn your volume down.

LW (quietly): It’s turned down, Leonard.

Putnam: Take 2…

…and LW starts immediately, with no count in. T2 is the issued alt. – the harp is less amplified than T1.

The tape is stopped, then once again an old time radio commercial is heard bleeding through for a few seconds, this time for a live broadcast from Chicago’s Hotel Sherman on local radio station WMAQ.

When the tape starts again, LW can be heard snorting loudly, clearing his sinuses. Someone in the studio says something unintelligible in the background.

LW: Yeah! (laughing nervously…) Heh heh heh heh…

Putnam: Walter, you’re too loud…

Evans: It’s too loud, the amp.

Putnam: Take 4

LW starts again, this time playing strictly acoustic style – no amp at all, and noticeably faster than the earlier takes. Putnam almost immediately breaks in and stops the take.

Putnam: Use the hand mic…

LW: (Agreeably) No, you said it was too low, I mean, it’s… (tape stops)

Tape starts again.

Putnam: Take 5

LW starts again. It sounds exactly like the issued master take, but Putnam stops them again.

Putnam: I didn’t have a good balance…(pauses)…Take 6.

This take is leadered on the tape, and is the issued master, and the last thing on the tape.

The next reel up was a 10” reel. There were no session log sheets with it, but attached to the box was a sheet of paper that had these words written on it:


Only 19 – M. Waters 8979

Close To You – M. Waters 8980

Walkin’ Thru The Park – Muddy Waters 9140

Key To The Highway – vocal – Little Walter 8981

Inst. – Juke – In two Inst. 8982

“ “ 9141

(pulled 12/10/76 to Walter Vol. 2)

The tape starts with the leadered master to 19 Years Old – no count in. No other takes or talking. This is followed by…

Engineer (doesn’t sound like Putnam): OK, we’re rolling on take 2.

LW: Say man, take it [or “dig it”], why don’t you play with your brushes, get a better sound…

? (musician, to LW): Why don’t you let him drive it?

Muddy: Let him drive it…

LW: I want ‘em to hear me…

Muddy: Let’s make it.

LW: Go.

Muddy then counts the song in, and they play “Close To You”, with the drummer (Clay?) using sticks instead of brushes. This is the only take on the tape, and has leader tape after it separating it from the next song.

[LW was apparently complaining that the drummer was playing too loud and was drowning him out.]

Next cut begins with LW in the middle of describing the rhythm of his intro to “Walkin’ Thru The Park” to the band.

LW: (snapping fingers on accents): Bamp, Bam de Bamp!

Len: Alright, take two, watch it.

LW: (into harp mic) Alright…(then continues demonstrating his intro to the band, blowing it on harp, but off mic.)

? (probably Clay): That’s a Latin American intro…I don’t know…(pause)…one, two, one two three…

(band begins and plays complete master take)

After the leader tape at the end of this take, the next thing heard is…

Len: Take two to Key To The Highway, is that what you’re playing?

LW (loudly, emphatically into harp mic): Yeah! We’re takin’ it to it!

? (Spann or Clay?): One, two, one two three…

(band begins and plays complete master take)

After the leader tape at the end, we hear:

Len (with irritation in his voice): Awright, take 10 on the instrumental…don’t fuck with the mic, man, let’s go!

LW (into heavily reverbed harp mic): OK Len.

And the band then plays the master take of “Rock Bottom”. This take has a pretty bad edit/splice near the end, which isn’t in the issued master, so it must have broken at some later date. After the leader tape:

Len (sounding agitated, almost yelling): Let’s go! Take 9! Walter!

(LW, Muddy, and others in studio are all talking at once, unintelligible through the HEAVY echo.)

Muddy: Do that…

LW: Yeah. Aw…No. I mean, when you do THAT, I’m back around with…(verbalizes a harp lick)…

?: (laughing, apparently at LW)

Muddy: I mean, when you do THAT, I’ll be HERE (plays guitar lick)

LW (sounding irritated): (Unintelligible) is back over there, and I lay in the hole…

Len (clearly impatient): Walter, let’s go, take 9!

LW: OK…count it off, (unintelligible – sounds like “Matty”, or maybe “Smitty”)

Drummer taps off the count, and the band plays the take that was issued as the Alt. Version, which is faded out in the studio as they continue to play.

After this take, there is a fragment of some pre-take harp and guitar noodling from an earlier attempt at “Rock Bottom”, followed by a fragment of the middle of an earlier take of it, followed by a few seconds of Muddy and Walter working out their guitar and harp parts between takes, during which we hear:

Len: Hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it. Walter, you wanna (unintelligible, maybe “get…???”, or “break for supper”), or are you ready to go?

Then another fragment of another take in progress. Then a count in to yet another un-numbered take, during which someone in the studio cautions LW:

? (musician): Don’t say shit!

LW: (cracks up laughing)

The drummer then taps out the time to begin another take, but at the end of his tapping, apparently distracted by LW’s laughing, no one plays a note. After a pause…

LW: (Blows a lick on a HEAVILY reverbed harp mic)…all right man…let me know when you’re ready. (Sounds relaxed and in a good mood.)

Len: Take seven.

LW (snapping fingers in time): One, two, one two three…

The band starts a slower, lazier sounding version of “Rock Bottom”. Before the first twelve bars are through, Leonard breaks in.

Len: Pick the tempo up a little bit.

LW: Pick up on it?

Before the take number can be announced, someone in the band counts off a faster version, and the band launches into it. About one verse in, this take is cut off, apparently recorded over beginning at that point. A few seconds later we hear a little bit of unintelligible off mic discussion, and noodling on harp and guitar, followed by Walter apparently answering someone who can’t be heard on tape…

LW: Yes, I already know.

Len: Joe…Joe…

Another un-slated take is then tapped in by the drummer, but it’s followed by leader tape, then the tape ends.

and there’s more on the same site

His death

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.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; no external injuries were noted on the death certificate. His body was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL on February 22, 1968