William “Billy Boy” Arnold (born September 16, 1935, Chicago, Illinois) is an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter.
Seemingly under rated, but still a considerable influence.
I ain’t got you
I wish you would
The Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, revived both “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You” in 1964, testifying to Arnold’s influence on the British blues explosion. “It really gave me a boost all the way around,” says Billy. “It was a great compliment.”
Sweet on you Baby
Every day,every night
Love me baby
Keep listening and learning -here is a lesson from Liam Ward
and that version by the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton:
Not since Paul Oliver have we had someone who has not only helped popularise the blues but has been willing to undertake research on the blues and its contextualised history – going back to its African roots.
Adam Gussow who is well known in terms of blues harp technique now shows his willingness to share his knowledge on a more academic (but still practical) level.
This is a real creative initiative from Adam -here how he describes his new initiative:
For the past six years, I’ve been offering free blues harmonica tutorials on YouTube. I’ve done my best to share the knowledge I’ve accrued in the course of my 38-year career as a blues performer. One thing I haven’t done–until now–is share the academic side of my life in the blues with a YouTube audience.
For the past decade, I have been teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on blues literature and culture at the University of Mississippi. Would it be possible, I wondered, to take everything I’d learned as an online harmonica instructor and use it to shape a series of improvised lectures on a range of blues subjects, offering a scholar’s-eye-view of what you might call “blues studies” without sacrificing the accessibility and humor of my working musician’s perspective?
“Blues Talk” is my attempt to do just that.
Beginning today, New Year’s Day 2013, I will upload to YouTube a pair of one-hour video lectures, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, every week for the next six weeks. The twelve units of Blues Talk, modeled on the twelve-bar blues, will address the following topics in the following order. (The release dates are noted; all videos go live at 12 AM CST):
Blues Talk 3: “bluesmen,” “folkloric melancholy,” and blues feelings (1/8/13)
Blues Talk 4: blues expressiveness and the blues ethos (1/10/13)
Blues Talk 5: W.C. Handy and the “birth” of the blues (1/15/13)
Blues Talk 6: Langston Hughes and early blues poetry (1/17/13)
Blues Talk 7: Zora Neale Hurston and southern blues culture (1/22/13)
Blues Talk 8: the devil and the blues, Part I (1/24/13)
Blues Talk 9: the devil and the blues, Part II (1/29/13)
Blues Talk 10: blues form, blues portraiture, blues power (1/31/13)
Blues Talk 11: the blues revival and the Black Arts movement (2/5/13)
Blues Talk 12: blues and the postmodern condition (2/7/13)
If you’re willing to join me for two hours a week, six weeks in a row, you will reach early February filled with a world of new ideas about the blues. Blues Talk won’t just deepen and complicate your sense of what the music is about, but it will familiarize you with the ideological lenses through which people make sense of the music and cultures of the blues, along with the scholarly debates that swirl around those things.
As a specialist in blues literature, not to mention a blues memoirist, musician, music teacher, and promoter, I bring a range of perspectives to bear. If you give me a chance, I’ll teach you to think critically about an African American art form–and American art form, and world music–that some would rather cloak in crossroads mythology and others would prefer to maintain as a sort of pastoral retreat, a “blues cruise” filled with booze, BBQ, and cool gear. Both ways of framing the blues tend to shortchange the sociohistorical realities of race, and that’s a mistake.
I talk bluntly about race in Blues Talk. I deconstruct mythologies and do my best to facilitate honest dialogue. Among other things, I’ll help you navigate the compelling claims of black cultural nationalism on the one hand and “no black, no white, just the blues” universalism on the other. I’ll help you understand why neither perspective is ultimately adequate to the task of telling the truest possible story of what the blues, always fiercely dialectical, is (or are) about.
Each Blues Talk episode will have its own page on ModernBluesHarmonica.com. Just below each video you’ll find a series of hyperlinked citations–books, articles, poems, videos–for source materials that I’ve referred to in that episode. I’ll also offer you a selection of my own course materials and syllabi, all for free. My hope is that the videos will encourage you to explore the diverse array of primary and secondary sources that I’ve drawn on, broadening and deepening your own education in the blues.
I have also created a Blues Talk forum where, after registering (again, for free), you may, if you wish, find others with whom to share knowledge and debate the issues that I raise. I heartily encourage viewers, including my fellow scholars, not just to dialogue on the forum and broaden our collective knowledge base, but to upload response videos. My call means little, frankly, without your response. I encourage it.
I have worked on several blog posts on ‘great blues harp players’…which have tended to be those players who have since died.So I thought I would explore those who are still living and could be developing into one of those greats …but what criteria to use?
Our harp guru, Adam Gussow, stated his criteria for great blues harp players..so let me re-state:
ORIGINALITY. I call this the three-second test. If you turned on the radio and heard this player, could you tell within three seconds that it was them–assuming you knew their music to begin with? Lurking within what harp players call “tone” is the absolutely individuated voice, if you’re lucky enough to develop one.
INFLUENCE. Are the players in question central to the tradition of blues harmonica as it has emerged over the past 100+ years? Are they foundational in some way? Do they help modernize, consolidate, or conserve the tradition? Have they spawned imitators, including very good players who never escape their orbit? If you leave them off the list, has an injustice plainly been done? (John Lee Williamson changed the way everybody who came after him played harp. Billy Branch and Sugar Blue are, in very different ways, both the inheritors and modernizers of the Chicago blues harmonica tradition.)
TECHNICAL MASTERY. Does this player make music at a speed or with a complexity that sets him or her above the rest? (Little Walter in “Back Track” and “Roller Coaster,” James Cotton in “Creeper Creeps Again,” and Paul Butterfield in “Goin’ to Main Street” set a standard here, and Sonny Terry wins admission on the basis of pretty much any thing he’s every recorded. Sugar Blue raises the bar yet again. And please don’t forget DeFord Bailey.) Or, alternately, does this player have an extraordinary ability to hit the deep blues pitches, especially the so-called “blue third” that I discuss in many of my videos? (Junior Wells exhibits this sort of mastery.)
SOULFULNESS. In some ways, this criterion should lead things off. We’re talking about blues harmonica, after all, not basket weaving. We’re talking about an extraordinarily expressive instrument. The thing it seeks to express is a range of passions and moods, many of them very powerful and a few of them downright ugly. Does this player attack his or her instrument with ferocity that makes you shiver, or jump? Or with a late-night hoodoo-spookiness that makes you feel your own loneliness? Or with some magical combination of all those things that makes you cry? (Howlin’ Wolf makes the Top-10 list for obvious reasons; so does Rice Miller, a.k.a. “Sonny Boy Williamson II.” Rev. Dan Smith, who may be less familiar to you, is the definition of soulful)
RECORDED EVIDENCE. In order to earn a spot on one of the lists below, a player (or the partisans of a player) must be able to convince with the help of recorded evidence. Buddy Bolden was the greatest trumpet player ever to come out of New Orleans, many say, but he never made a recording. Obviously the best and most influential players can’t be fully summarized by 10 minutes’ worth of vinylized or digitized performances, and some players–John Lee Williamson in particular–don’t benefit from this exercise. Still, it has its virtues as a teaching tool and a way of guiding the conversation.
I think technical mastery is a good starting point, but without soul or feeling the harp player would not be my sort of player and without creative and innovative playing -which often comes out of technical mastery plus ‘feel’ for the song, then they also would not appear in my list.
So let’s start and see if you agree with some on my list. I will mainly let them play and see what you think. Of course there is a great spawning ground for harp players in the States, but I have to include some European players as they are also influential.
In some ways we are in a transition -some of those who played with the likes of Muddy Waters are now getting on ,such as the great James Cotton, so while placing them still towards the top of any list we can start to introduce some of the younger players who maintain the tradition, while exploring styles and crossovers for themselves.
Let’s be traditional and begin with those who experienced their formative years with Muddy Waters who always ensured he had a good harp player.
James Cotton (called Cotton by his friends) was born on the first day of July,1935, in Tunica, Mississippi. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in the cotton fields working beside their mother, Hattie, and father, Mose. On Sundays Mose was the preacher in the area’s Baptist church. Cotton’s earliest memories include his mother playing chicken and train sounds on her harmonica and for a few years he thought those were the only two sounds the little instrument made. His Christmas present one year was a harmonica, it cost 15 cents, and it wasn’t long before he mastered the chicken and the train. King Biscuit Time, a 15-minute radio show, began broadcasting live on KFFA, a station just across the Mississippi River in Helena, Arkansas. The star of the show was the harmonica legend, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller).
The young Cotton pressed his little ear to the old radio speaker. He recognized the harmonica sound AND discovered something – the harp did more! Realizing this, a profound change came over him, and since that moment, Cotton and his harp have been inseparable – the love affair had begun. Soon he was able to play Sonny Boy’s theme song from the radio show and, as he grew so did his repertoire of Sonny Boy’s other songs. Mississippi summers are ghastly, the heat is unrelenting. He was too young to actually work in the cotton fields, so little Cotton would bring water to those who did. When it was time for him to take a break from his job, he would sit in the shadow of the plantation foreman’s horse and play his harp. His music became a source of joy for his first audience. James Cotton’s star began to shine brightly at a very early age.
By his ninth year both of his parents had passed away and Cotton was taken to Sonny Boy Williamson by his uncle. When they met, the young fellow wasted no time – he began playing Sonny Boy’s theme song on his treasured harp. Cotton remembers that first meeting well and says, “I walked up and played it for him. And I played it note for note. And he looked at that. He had to pay attention.” The two harp players were like father and son from then on. “I just watched the things he’d do, because I wanted to be just like him. Anything he played, I played it,” he remembers. (Jacklyn Hairston)
After that illustrious start, he never looked back, working with Muddy Waters for 12 years before cutting out on his own -his awards and many recordings provide the evidence for a great and influential harp player.
Got my Mojo Working -with Muddy Waters
Dealing with the Devil -1995 -nice acoustic track
James Cotton and Sax Gordon 1992
Cotton won a Grammy Award in 1996 for the Traditional Blues Album “Deep in the Blues”
Wilson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951, but he grew up in Goleta, California, where he sometimes went by the stage name of “Goleta Slim.” He started with the blues in the late 1960s and was tutored by people likeMuddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, Albert Collins, George “Harmonica” Smith, Luther Tucker and Pee Wee Crayton and was influenced by harmonica players like Little Walter, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester.
He now plays with the fabulous Thunderbirds
Not a bad accolade to be called by Muddy Waters – “The greatest harmonica player since Little Walter”
Blue began his career as a street musician and made his first recordings in 1975 with legendary blues figuresBrownie McGhee and Roosevelt Sykes . The following year, he contributed to recordings by Victoria Spivey and Johnny Shines before pulling up stakes and moving to Paris on the advice of pioneer blues pianist Memphis Slim .
sugar blue,muddy,BB and Taj
Hoochie Coochie Man -Switzerland 1995
SB and Willie Dixon
Interview with Romanian Television
SB and Sunnyland Slim
He won a Grammy in 1985 for his work on the Atlantic album, Blues Explosion, recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Was born in 1947 . He has been playing with his band The Mighty Flyers since 1980 which he formed with his pianist wifeHoney Piazza.Their boogie sound combines the styles of jump blues, West Coast blues and Chicago blues. A great chromatic player.
When I was a teenager in Swansea I heard the record ‘East -West’ by the Butterfield Blues Band – a very creative fusion of sounds with solid blues notes from the harp of Paul Butterfield and the guitars of Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield. Paul Butterfield remains firmly in my top ten of great harp players.
Growing up in Chicago and mixing with the likes of Muddy Waters,Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Otis Rush, Butterfield was ushered into the magic world of the blues while also having some classical music background (on flute) and more than a passing interest in Jazz.
Lets start with driftin blues from 1967
And how did he get that sound….hard work and a touch of genius…
Butterfield practiced long hours by himself — just playing all the time. His brother Peter writes, “He listened to records, and he went places, but he also spent an awful lot of time, by himself, playing. He’d play outdoors. There’s a place called The Point in Hyde Park, a promontory of land that sticks out into Lake Michigan, and I can remember him out there for hours playing. He was just playing all the time … It was a very solitary effort. It was all internal, like he had a particular sound he wanted to get and he just worked to get it. “
Like most Chicago-style amplified harmonica players, Butterfield played the instrument like a horn — a trumpet. Although he sometimes used a chromatic harmonica, Butterfield mostly played the standard Hohner Marine Band in the standard cross position.Remember, he was left-handed and held the harp in his left hand, but in the standard position with the low notes facing to the left. Butterfield played and endorsed (as noted in the liner notes for his first album) Hohner harmonicas, in particular the diatonic ten-hole ‘Marine Band’ model. His primary playing style was in the second position, also known as cross-harp, but he also was adept in the third position, notably on the track East-West from the album of the same name, and the track ‘Highway 28’ from the “Better Days” album.
Seldom venturing higher than the sixth hole on the harmonica, Butterfield nevertheless managed to create a variety of original sounds and melodic runs. His live tonal stylings were accomplished using a Shure 545 Unidyne III hand-held microphone connected to one or more Fender amplifiers, often then additionally boosted through the venue’s public address (PA) system. This allowed Butterfield to achieve the same extremes of volume as the various notable sidemen in his band.
Butterfield also at times played a mixture of acoustic and amplified style by playing into a microphone mounted on a stand, allowing him to perform on the harmonica using both hands to get a muted, Wah-wah effect, as well as various vibratos. This was usually done on a quieter, slower tune.
He tended to play single notes rather than bursts of chords. His harp playing is always intense, understated, concise, and serious — only Big Walter Horton has a better sense of note selection.
While listening to one of Adam Gussow’s insightful harp lessons based on a Carey Bell recording, I was reminded of a talent that is not so well known. I thought I would bring together some examples of his playing.
From the American Folk Blues Festival 1983 with Louisiana Red and Jimmy Rogers on guitars:
Originally influenced by jazz players , so much so, that he would have liked to have learned to play the saxophone. Due to financial limitations he had to accept the ‘Mississippi saxophone’ or blues harp.
In 1956 Bell moved up to Chicago to try his luck and soon was drawn to the likes of Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. He was also influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson II. To make ends meet Bell developed his talent on bass guitar .
Bell played harmonica (harp) and bass for other blues musicians during the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s before embarking on a solo career. Besides his own albums, he recorded as an accompanist or duo artist with Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Taylor, Louisiana Red and Jimmy Dawkins. He even played with Muddy Waters , Willie Dixon,Howlin Wolf and Earl Hooker.
….and here he is playing bass
Here is a recording from 1964 on Maxwell Street with Bell playing with Robert Nighthawk (Cruisin in a cadillac)
Another from the American Folk Blues Festival of 1983 accompanying Louisiana Red (guitar/vocals) and with his friend and godfather Lovie Lee on piano.
And here is a great clip which shows Bell’s virtuosity and feeling on the harp -Easy to Love you. This is from the 1982 American Folk Blues Festival and recorded in Germany. He is accompanied on guitar by his son Lurrie Bell and notice the chromatic harmonica and the range of his playing.
Here is another great blues from 1981 – ‘A man and his blues’ -with Hubert Sumlin and Lurrie Bell on guitars. Again Carey gets a wide range of sounds out of his harmonica. Great interplay between guitar and harp.
Carey Bell and the sons of blues -American Folk Blues Festival (1982 Germany) – apart from the sensitive and joyous harp playing check his relationship with guitar playing son Lurrie Bell.
When you feel confident with Carey’s style why not work on some harp of your own with a great lesson from the wonderful teacher, Adam Gussow:
Apart from bending notes ,wah wah must be the next key ‘effect’ that belongs in the blues harp player’s basic toolbox. Many players can produce a wah wah effect but do not have the control to provide the variety of sounds that more advanced players can achieve. Adam Gussow, once again, provides those specific hints to give any learner the power to produce a really professional sound, with practice.
Just sit back and listen to the lesson. Following the lesson we can sample those players who have mastered the different wah wah effects , such as Sonny Boy Williamson II , Big Walter Horton and Sonny Terry . Lastly, pick up your harp, go back to Adam’s lesson and practice.
One of the best exponents of the wah wah effect on harp was Sonny Boy Williamson – particularly the first type illustrated by Adam:
With Sonny Boy II and ‘Your funeral and my trial’ have a look at his hand positions whn making his different wah wah sounds
Check out Big Walter Horton in the next video s he shows you many ways of holding the harp and what difference it makes to the sound , particularly wah wah.
This is Sonny Terry’s Hooting the blues -check out the variety of sounds he gets with his hand movements (see type three in Adam’s classification)
Sonny Terry helped Paul Lamb get started -takee a look at how the student progressed:
Some great wah wah in the middle and a little more teaching from Paul Lamb….
lYou might like to look at how other teachers approach the wah wah sound (but not as good as Adam for me)
Watch and listen to another teacher -Ronnie Shellist
Listen to others,watch others and just practice so that you develop ‘muscle memory’ and eventually you can get your own sound.
Progressing in blues harp playing,demands much practice, if that is not stating the obvious. Yet it also demands ‘learning from masters’ who can provide insights into technique that still can only be played through much practice. I have mentioned many times our hero teacher –Adam Gussow. What he provides are insights into playing that can be approached from any level and allow anyone to progress at their own pace, yet gives ‘short cuts’ to understanding the techniques without years of working it out. He is a teacher who does not come with his ego of ‘star player’ he is just a genuine and generous teacher.
First check out if you are moving towards an advanced learner
You’ve mastered all the basics and quite a bit more than that. You’re able to bend holes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 draw; you may even realize that Little Walter bends the 5 draw down a ¼-tone on “Juke.” You can probably bend holes 8 and 9 blow on the low harps (G, A) and may even be able to bend the 10 blow. You know how to warble; how to chug; how to glissando. You know how to tongue-block and have no trouble using that technique in your improvisations. Improvising over 12-bar changes seems natural to you, and you do pretty well when confronted with other related blues, country, and gospel progressions—songs such as “Key to the Highway,” “I Got a Woman,” “This Little Light of Mine.” You’ve almost surely played at jam sessions; you may even be playing in a band. Still, you know your repertoire is lacking in some areas and you’re looking to broaden it. As a player, you have real strengths but you’ve also got weaknesses. When soloing, you tend always to rely on the same two or three power-moves or comfort zones. And you tend to play too much; you’re not very good at leaving space. You’ve got a pretty good sense of which notes work over which chords—playing cross-harp, at least—but you know your playing would strengthen if you had a little more harmonic knowledge. (When jazz guys talk about “thirteenth chords,” you can’t instantly name the intervals that make up that chord.) You’ve heard of overblowing, you may even be able to overblow a note or two, but you haven’t worked this technique into your playing. You’re much more comfortable playing 2nd position (cross harp) than you are playing 1st and 3rd position. Above all, you know there are some tonal, harmonic, and rhythmic subtleties that distinguish the playing of truly advanced players from what you’re doing. And you want what they’ve got.
“Shuffling It Up”: a first-position shuffle blues played mostly in the middle octave with tongue-blocked chords and a couple of upper-octave blow bends thrown in. This is an original composition that finds inspiration in the playing of Deford Bailey, Freeman Stowers, and other recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. Not the same old first-position blues! INTERMEDIATE / ADVANCED INTERMEDIATE.
“Grooving Shuffle”: Every blues harmonica player needs a range of ways of “carrying” the 12-bar changes on the instrument. This song is specifically designed to produce a big sound in a solo context. It teaches you how to mingle single notes and chords in a call-and-response arrangement that takes you through the first 8 bars, then how to throw in some fancy footwork on the V/IV/I changes.
“Pack Fair and Square”: a two-chorus transcription/adaptation of Magic Dick’s fast & furious solo, from the J. Geils Band Live Full House album. This is a rock-blues groove, and lightning-fast. I’ve slowed it down to make it manageable. For INTERMEDIATE and ADVANCED INTERMEDIATE players.
“Got My Mojo Working”: The holy grail for many harp players. A song that you absolutely, positively need to know. This is a two-part lesson organized around a two-page tab sheet. First page is my adaptation of the “head” or intro that always kicks the song off; second page is a transcription of the first 12 bars of Kim Wilson’s solo on Jimmy Rodgers’s LUDELLA album–a kick-ass harp throwdown, decoded and reassembled. The head is within reach for INTERMEDIATE as well as ADVANCED INTERMEDIATE players; the solo is extremely challenging at full speed.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another un-slated take is then tapped in by the drummer, but it’s followed by leader tape, then the tape ends.
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