Tag Archives: Chicago blues

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

Little Walter – His Best, The Chess 50th Anniversary Collection – Classic Music Review

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Master of the harmonica, major influence and one hell of a fighter. Click to buy.

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.

The Instrumentals

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.

The Vocals

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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