Little Walter Biography

Singer(1930–1968)
Little Walter was a blues singer and harmonica virtuoso, one of the most influential harmonica improvisers of the late 20th century.

Synopsis

Born in Louisiana in 1930, Little Walter played in Muddy Waters's band, and after his 1952 harmonica solo "Juke" became popular, he successfully led his own bands, becoming one of the major figures in postwar Chicago blues. Influenced by guitarists as well as by senior harmonica players, he brought a singular variety of phrasing to the blues harmonica. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

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Early Years

Marion Walter Jacobs, later known as Little Walter, was born in the rural town of Marksville, Louisiana, on May 1, 1930. A musical talent at an early age, he set out north at only 12 years old to seek a new life in New Orleans. After subsequent stops in Tennessee (Memphis) and Missouri (St. Louis), he set down some roots in Chicago in the mid-1940s. There he began playing harmonica, his signature instrument, on the Maxwell Street strip, soon falling in with local musicians.

The Recording Artist

Little Walter made his first recording, "I Just Keep Loving You," in 1947 for a local label, Ora Nelle, and hooked up with Muddy Waters the next year. In 1950, the two recorded Waters' classic "Louisiana Blues," and they followed it with "She Moves Me," featuring Walter's first use of an amplified harmonica. Walter and Waters joined up with Jimmy Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster to form the Headhunters. The group played around Chicago and became one of the hottest blues bands in the city, and Walter became Waters' go-to studio harmonica player.

At the end of a Waters recording session in 1950, Walter recorded a new track of his own, called "Juke," and the record became a hit, launching him to a level of fame he hadn't previously known. Over the next several years, Walter sent 14 songs to the Top 10 on the R&B charts, including "Sad Hours," "Mean Old World," "You Better Watch Yourself" and "My Babe." Despite the vocal display on Walter's records, his singing is generally overlooked, as the shadow cast by his harmonica was huge.

Later Years

As the 1950s came to an end, so did Little Walter's streak of hits. "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" (1959) was his last hit, as Chicago blues had all but disappeared from the mainstream. The 1960s weren't kind to Little Walter, as he fell into alcoholism and inactivity, his skills suffering along with his health. In 1968, Walter's renowned temper would prove to be his final undoing, when he was involved in a street fight and later died, at age 37, from the resulting head injuries.

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