Little Walter was a sterling example of a particular American archetype: the scrappy, scrawny little guy who’s always spoiling for a fight. His cousins are guys like Billy Martin and Paul “Go Take a Flying Fuck at a Rolling Doughnut” Lazzaro in Slaughterhouse-Five: men whose belief that the world was out to get them was an unshakeable truth and the only way to survive was to be ready to kick some ass at a moment’s notice. Lazzaro didn’t have much of a fictional career as a small-time punk with a big mouth, but both Billy Martin and Little Walter managed to claw their way to the top, only to self-destruct when they got there.
Suffering horribly from the long dark nights between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training, I read a fascinating book called Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, a narrative that interweaves politics, the New York City blackout, Son of Sam and the dysfunctional World Series champions, Billy Martin’s 1977 New York Yankees. While it was pretty clear from the book that Billy knew his baseball, it was also clear that he was a terribly insecure man who went out of his way to humiliate his players when they pissed him off, even (and especially) his star outfielder, Reggie Jackson. Billy would look for fights, and if he couldn’t find one, he’d create conflict by making shit up in his head so he could get his edge back. Security and comfort were alien to Billy Martin—he kept going back to Steinbrenner because humiliation and insecurity were his bosom pals. Billy Martin needed conflict and looming abasement to feel that all was right with the world.
I also read the superbly researched bio, Little Walter, Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story, by Glover, Dirks and Gaines. Little Walter was Billy Martin magnified to the nth degree. He died before he hit thirty-eight, with more scars on his face than a bantamweight stiff. It is said that he died as the result of a fight; it’s more accurate to say that he died from the cumulative effects of hundreds of fights, including one with alcoholism. Part of that fighting spirit came from a fierce individualism that manifested itself in his childhood; even his choice to play the harmonica was a big “fuck you” to all the friends and family who encouraged him to pick another instrument. He left Cajun Louisiana at the age of twelve, spending the war years as a busker and hobo, picking up tips from more seasoned harpists and trying to survive the onset of a Chicago winter by using tape to secure his thin jacket. Little Walter had to wind up on the South Side of Chicago, in part because that’s where the blues would undergo its most important transformation, but also because it was a place where violence was part of the fabric of everyday life, as described so tersely by Nick Gravenites: “I was born in Chicago, in nineteen and forty-one/Well, my father told me/Son, you better get a gun.'” Little Walter might have been the guy Willie Dixon had in mind in “I’m Ready” when he wrote, “I hope some screwball starts a fight.” You simply can’t imagine him anywhere else.
Despite all his self-inflicted troubles, Little Walter channeled that aggression in an effort to be the best harmonica player who ever blew the reeds, and I don’t know too many people who would disagree that he achieved that goal in his short lifetime. His competitive spirit also drove him to his greatest innovations: he decided to play the harmonica with a small microphone cupped in his hand because he didn’t want the guitars and the drums to drown him out. He took it a step further and drove the sound to the max through mikes and tube amps to create sounds that no one had ever heard before but that everyone after him would try to emulate. Little Walter could make a harmonica sound as clear as a cornet, as soft as a flute or as furious as a freight train. Combined with his intuitive feel for rhythm and dynamics, he became a blues powerhouse who achieved greater chart success than any other Chicago bluesman in the 1950’s. He was also one hell of a singer, not like the gruff and gritty voices of the classic blues guys, but a smoother, more melodic vocalist with belt-out power. Whether he was singing or blowing the harp, Little Walter put it all out there. This was a guy with no off-switch.
The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection (technically, it should be The Checkers 50th Anniversary Collection, since he recorded for the Chess subsidiary) is a marvelous introduction to one of the great innovators and most challenging personalities in music history. You’ll hear Little Walter in all his glory, wearing all his scars with pride and defiance. The songs he chose and the songs he wrote are filled with cheating, abusive women who constantly reject and ignore him, and there’s plenty of evidence here to convict him of being an abusive, violent, card-carrying misogynist. Given my card-carrying feminism, you may wonder why I’d be attracted to Little Walter’s music. My theory is that his music and his life touch two sensitive parts of my personality: one, I have a strong preference for real over fake; and two, I always find cock-strutting men an intriguing challenge. I don’t cringe when Robert Johnson sings, “I’m gonna beat my woman ’til I get satisfied,” because he’s expressing the dark side of his personality with perfect clarity; I appreciate the emotional expressiveness without judging it or dismissing it. I also know that if he tried to do that to me, he’d be dickless in ten seconds.
Little Walter earned some measure of fame as the harp player for Muddy Waters. However, his ambition was always to lead his own band, so three years into his work with Muddy, Leonard Chess finally squeezed in some recording time for him at the beginning of a Muddy Waters session. The band did two takes of a song called “Juke,” a tune that Little Walter had modified from an earlier blues piece; the recording released on August 1952 is take one. “Juke” became a huge R&B hit, becoming the first and only harmonica instrumental to hit #1 on the Billboard R&B, where it remained for eight weeks.
When you hear “Juke” the first time, it may not knock your socks off, in large part because nearly every riff Little Walter uses here has been recycled by those who followed in his footsteps. A simple boogie-woogie swinging shuffle number in 4/4 except for two brief shifts to 3/4 and 2/4, “Juke” demonstrates Little Walter’s exceptional feel for the blues, his command of dynamics and his ability to transform the sound of the harmonica in a way no one thought possible. There are verses where the harmonica sounds like a sax; there are passages where the harp drives the rhythm more effectively than bass and drums. Little Walter was a powerful presence on Muddy Waters’ recordings, and that power comes through loud and clear on this maiden solo effort.
The harmonica in “Sad Hours” is drenched in primitive reverb, likely created by setting up a microphone to capture the sound through a loudspeaker. Since reverb has the effect of pushing the sound to the back of the mix, the remarkable feature of “Sad Hours” is how Little Walter still manages to dominate the track. “Sad Hours” is characterized by long draws and bends on the harp that reflect the aching of a lonely soul, but in the last verse, Little Walter shifts into reverse and plays a single note in short, quick dotted-eighths, building the tension to the climax. It feels like a hard cock pulling back from a deep fuck and peppering the clitoris with rapid ecstasy-triggering bursts before driving it home and releasing the full load.
Little Walter may have had his troubles with women, but I’m absolutely certain he could fuck like a pro.
“Off the Wall” is an all-out bash where Little Walter frequently shaves a teeny bit off the notes at the end of a run to create the tension. He also sprinkles in a few lighter runs that resemble the sound of a piccolo before taking off full blast. “Roller Coaster” is a version of a Bo Diddley number that became another instrumental top ten hit. This one’s more earthy and gritty, with a straightforward, hand-clapping beat perfectly designed for Little Walter to show his improvisational skills.
What’s surprising about this collection is that there are only four instrumentals. All of Little Walter’s singles featured a vocal on one side and a harmonica instrumental on the other. Some might find the neglect of the instrumentals a downside; I love Little Walter’s voice, so I’m good with it. The vocals also paint a clearer picture of the man’s uncontrollable drives and motivations.
Little Walter wrote many of his own songs, and selected others from some of the best in the business, like Willie Dixon and Big Bill Broonzy. Blues is often a self-confessional form of expression, and Little Walter’s real-life troubles are the subject of many of the songs here: even those contributed by other songwriters capture moods that seem to be part of his core personality. On his first vocal, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer,” he attributes his drinking problem to romantic rejection:
Now there ain’t but the one thing momma
That makes your daddy drink.
When you say that you don’t love me,
Well lord I begin to think.
The verse is hardly original; it’s pretty much lifted directly from Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (“Ain’t but the one thing/Makes Mister Johnson drink/I’s worried ’bout how you treat me, baby/I begin to think.”) Lack of originality aside, what matters is that Little Walter identified with the sentiment. Like all alcoholics, he’s looking to blame his problem on someone else, and those evil-hearted women in Little Walter’s universe are always a convenient object for recrimination, abuse, whatever.
Two of his covers, Willie Dixon’s “Too Late” and Stan Lewis’ “Boom, Boom Out Goes the Lights” feature my two favorite Little Walter vocals, and both are misogynistic in the extreme. What makes them work for me is the attitude he brings to both; an honest, no-bullshit attitude of enough is enough. Whether that was wishful thinking or how he really interacted with women who crossed him is a matter of conjecture, but I love the way he feels those lyrics. In “Too Late” he says goodbye to a cheatin’, abusive woman, snapping off the “too late” with perfect end-of-discussion finality. He always makes me laugh when he delivers the stinger line, “You ain’t good looking’ and I can’t stand your cookin’—I’m gone!”
In “Boom, Boom Out Goes the Lights,” he shows a much darker side, adopting the ethos of a world where beating a woman or taking her life is a culturally acceptable option if she messes around with another man:
No kiddin’, I’m ready to fight,
I’ve been lookin’ for my baby all night
If I get her in my sight,
Boom boom! Out go the lights.
His backing band, The Jukes (originally The Aces), plays this one with an almost casual feel, as if to say, “Oh well, that’s the way the ball bounces.” It provides the ironic contrast to Little Walter’s angry vocal, punctuated with two drum shots on the words, “boom, boom.” This is literally and figuratively a killer performance that gives me the chills.
Most of the other tunes reinforce Little Walter’s world-view that because he can’t trust a woman, he’s all alone in this world and the only way to get through it is to keep fucking and fighting. In “Mean Old World,” an adaptation of a T-Bone Walker hit recorded by many others (including Eric Clapton), Walter expresses deep feelings of abandonment through both his anguished vocal and the brilliant extended vibrato on the harp. In “Tell Me Mama,” he confronts his woman by asking, “When I come in, who went out that back door?” in a voice that sounds like he’s reliving a pretty common scene. The same theme of abandonment is covered again in the classic “Blues with a Feeling,” where he makes the harmonica scream and cry with stunning effect, and in “Last Night,” a tune later covered by Paul Butterfield. Even in the apparent love nest celebration of “You’re So Fine,” he inserts the discordant line, “Goin’ crazy ’cause you love somebody else.” Love, jealousy and frustration were all the same experience in Little Walter’s universe, but what’s amazing is that all these performances are unusually compelling, even if the message rarely changes.
The one song that is an exception to the rule is “My Babe,” written especially for him by Willie Dixon. Here the woman is a source of endless satisfaction who also keeps him in line, as any good woman should. What he receives in addition to her strength and self-confidence are the gifts of trust, love and affection:
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 love me, my babe
Oh yes, I know she love me, my babe
Oh yes, I know she love me,
She don’t do nothin’ but kiss and hug me
My babe, true little baby, my babe
Little Walter’s vocal on this song is seriously hot, sophisticated and not a little bit boastful. It’s as if he’s allowed himself to dream of his perfect world, and for a few moments he finds that world through music.
There’s not a stinker track on this record, one that holds as much fascination for me as The Best of Muddy Waters. My only regret is that Little Walter did not live to a ripe old age so he could have witnessed the extent of his enormous influence on blues, rock and R&B. I hate to say it, but I don’t regret the life he lived, because I think if you removed the aggressive side of his personality, you would have also removed the drive that made him the best harp player of his time. That’s a very selfish sentiment, and I don’t mean to make light of the circumstances of life as a black man in the America of the 1940’s and 50’s. Little Walter was dealt a shitty hand, and given the odds against him, he had to fight to become the best. It’s just sad he had to become a martyr for the cause.
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Although I love blues I don’t much like harmonica as a rule, which is a bit of a contradiction but there you go. But I make a big exception for Little Walter – specifically his slow, mournful numbers. I’m glad you mentioned both “Mean Old World” and “Sad Hours” as I think these are close to perfect blues recordings. He makes the harmonica sound like a saxophone, but somehow better. The Aces are perfect too with their timeless, languid riffs – it’s hard to believe this was recorded so long ago. It also baffles me that you never seem to hear stuff like this from blues artists today – Walter’s influence remains great, but no-one seems to have picked up on this aspect of his sound, preferring instead the raspier, rougher approach to harmonica that he delivers on his faster tracks.
Great observation. I was listening to the Bo Diddley Chess compilation the other day in preparation for an upcoming review and heard Little Walter playing on “Diddley Daddy.” It sounds like he’s playing in the next room, but when he gets to the solo he sounds more like the horns in a big band than a harp player. He squeezed everything out of that instrument.
Great review about a great artist. I’d only dispute the “best harp player” estimation. Larry Adler, for instance, was no slouch either:
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