“Tribute To Marion Walter Jacobs”
Blues And Soul Records Quarterly – Japan (Winter 2000)
by Bob Corritore
Little Walter Jacobs’ harmonica playing set a new standard for what was possible on that instrument. He gave the harmonica a swinging, electric sound, showed great innovations in the clarity and execution, would dynamically go from a whisper to an explosive scream, create beautiful syncopated lines and brilliant counterpoint and invent a whole new way of playing on the more difficult chromatic harmonica. His spontaneous, inventive riffing will never be matched. He was, quite frankly the instrument’s greatest genius. As a harmonica player I marvel at his undeniable greatness.
I first came to know about Little Walter at age 13 when I bought my first blues record “The Best Of Muddy Waters” which features Walter’s brilliant accompanying work. After all these years it is still my favorite record. From there it was Little Walter’s “Hate To See You Go” and Jimmy Rogers’ “Chicago Bound.” Then I bought anything with Little Walter on it that I could get my hands on. As I became old enough to get into Chicago blues bars, I would get to see many of the artists that knew Walter or had played with him: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Dave and Louis Myers, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Carey Bell, Junior Wells, James Cotton, John Brim , Floyd Jones, Jimmie Lee Robinson and more. I became friends with many of these artists and Little Walter was talked about frequently.
Everyone held Walter in the highest regard musically though some were critical of his fast life ways. Robert Jr. refered to him as a “champion,” Louis Myers once said “how could anybody who played so beautifully be anything but a beautiful person” and Dave Myers said that Walter had “a real feeling for the music”. I also became aware of the lesser known harp players who idolized Walter such as Little Willie Anderson, Big Leon Brooks, Lester Davenport, Little Mack Simmons and Good Rockin’ Charles. I ended up recording two of them (Anderson and Brooks) and being friends with all of them. Little Willie was perhaps the most adoring fan of Walter having been a valet and sometime sub for Walter. It has been said that Willie was a spitting image of the man, dressing like him and incorporating Walter’s mannerisms into his own. Odie Payne once told me that when Walter got shot in the leg, Willie began limping too. Willie had a brash dynamic style similar to the later work of Walter’s. He would jump and bend and rock to the music as if it had possessed his body. Former LW sidemen such as Fred Below, Freddy Robinson and Jimmie Lee Robinson all really enjoyed playing with Willie because it allowed them to play in that Walter bag. These great players were my connection with the legacy that is the cornerstone of my playing.
It is interesting to note some of the brilliant qualities of Little Walter. First off he was a great singer with a voice that could create hits. His singing allowed him to be the band leader which in turn led to his ongoing development as a harmonica player. I sense that Walter needed the vehicle of his own songs to be fully realized. As a band leader he could experiment with tempos, grooves and song structures that he would perhaps never been able to play as a sideman. As a singer/frontman Walter also was given the ability to feature his harmonica on instrumentals. With a career launched by the success of his instrumental “Juke” he was given the go ahead to bless us with a string of great instrumental hits each with it’s own unique magic.
Let’s go back to his work as a sideman. His harmonica could weave in and out of guitar lines and the vocals. Always riffing and off the cuff, Walter never played a song or solo the same way twice. If you listen to all the false starts and alternate takes of “Woman Wanted,” you hear Walter playing differently on each take, rarely if ever repeating an idea. One wonders about all the awesome playing that never got recorded. Could you imagine for instance if Muddy had done a second take of “I’m Ready.” Chess records realized this greatness and insisted on having LW back Muddy and Jimmy Rogers on recording sessions even after his leaving to go off on his own. Walter developed a sophisticated phrasing that at times seem to play against the beat of the song creating tension and then release. He would softly caress his notes one minute and then attack you with them the next. He would use different harmonica positions (i.e.: if the band is in the key of A he might play either a A,D or G marine band to get different pitches and runs of notes). At times he would switch back and forth in the same song. On the uptempo numbers he could make the harp swing like a saxophone. He used amplification to create sounds never heard before such as a vibrato effect achieved by rapidly fluttering his tongue back and forth. Everything that he did techniquely was done with great purpose. It all had soul. He never delivered anything less than pure emotional impact.
I have spent my entire adult life enjoying the artistry on Little Walter and I still find his music fresh and invigorating. I hope that I reflect my love of his playing in my own harmonica work. In my humble opinion there has never been and never will be a greater harmonica player than Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs.