Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Little Walter's Legions

When Little Walter's classic instrumental "Juke" shot to the top of the Billboard R&B charts in 1952, Checker/Chess Records must have seen it as a major success. A harmonica instrumental number one for ten weeks? This was a first. What Walter seemed to have accomplished, with a little help from the Chess studio, was to find a "big," amplified sound for a small harp that was now ready to compete with the full bodied sound of the much more expensive tenor or alto saxophones. Just take a look at the number one R&B hits the top sax players from that year were cranking out: tenor Jimmy Forrest's Night Train and alto ace Earl Bostic's Flamingo, both from 1952, both with R&B ensembles. The release of Juke changed this dynamic. Little Walter went on to claim more success with almost jazzy instrumentals like "Roller Coaster" and "Off the Wall," but "Juke" also started something that just keeps getting larger and larger. Apart from Walter's virtuosity on both blues and chromatic harps, I can only marvel at the trend he seemed to set in motion, a trend that just seems to continue to grow almost exponentially as I write this. And not to diminish other great players who may have influenced Little Walter to varying degrees - Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson II- but Little Walter really did forge a tone and a style that is even more popular now that it was in the 1950's.

The list of blues musicians Little Walter's harmonica style has influenced and inspired seems endless. Any precursory list among African American blusemen would have to include George "Harmonica" Smith, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, James Cotton and Jerry Boogie McCain. What is also fascinating is Walter's influence on white blusemen during the 1960's. Led by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Michael Bloomfield on guitar, the list grows rather long in a hurry: Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, and the Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, just to mention a few. Piazza's cover of Little Walter's Mellow Down Easy showcases his skills and excellent tone. In the early 1970's the J. Geils Band broadened popular awareness of Chicago blues harp with their 1971 album The Morning After.

More recently, the proliferation of blues harp ensembles rooted in the style that Little Walter pioneered has been remarkable. Kim Wilson's work with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and later as a soloist has been very strong, and while the list is far too long to start here, some of my personal favorites are Bharath and His Rhythm 4 for his huge tone and adherence to the Little Walter style, Mark Hummel for his versatility, and Bob Corritore. Also, David Barrett is an absolute whiz in the Little Walter style and also his position playing. Barrett really seems to take it about as far one can. Among younger players, check out Martin Lange, he has a great sense of timing. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of Little Walter imitators spring up almost daily, just check out youtube and Juke Little Walter,
that tune that started the craze back in 1952.


  1. People throw the word "transcends" around a lot. "Jeff beck "transcends" the guitar". Much of the time it's misused to describe people that can make horsey sounds or engine sounds with a musical instrument.
    What it really mean though, is a guy who can get to you somehow in a way that goes beyond the mechanical properties of the instrument. That is transcendent playing. An X-factor that comes across despite the the limitations of the instrument. Harmonica players must be transcendent to be memorable.
    Little Walter had that quality in surplus and you have covered a great batch of others that do as well. That being said, I will be presumptuous and add Wenner and Toots to the mix.

  2. No presumption at all, they should have been included. Probably should have mentioned Paul de Lay as well, but I was sticking to some personal favorites. There really are so many good players today. Kind of back to what LW jump-started and what today has become practically a new genre of blues.