Me And Little Walter Jacobs

Marion Walter Jacobs

Marion Walter Jacobs

Today is February 15.

Forty one years ago today, Little Walter died, the victim of a street fight. Known throughout most of his professional career as Little Walter, or Walter Jacobs– Walter was in fact his middle name. He was born Marion Walter Jacobs.

Also on this day, forty one years ago, I was born at Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit. Named after my grandfather, my name, David Walter King. I was born the same day Little Walter was killed, and we both shared the same middle name. Although this may mean little if nothing to anyone else, I always thought this neat. In my younger day, it served me as a talking point, particularly if I was kicking it with other musicians and I had had a number of drinks in me, or a little too much to smoke. If challenged, I could always produce my driver’s license to prove this claim.

Although I have been an admirer of and an active player of the harmonica since my teens, I am not comparing myself here to Little Walter. This is far as I carry this comparison.

Having come from a musical background, there was one thing I could never quite understand:

(I know that by asking this question I am opening my self to criticism–I have so much as been called “wrong headed” by one Mark Skollar, Chicago, for simply inferring that Little Walter was “arguably” one of the better blues harmonicists. I guess I got what I deserved disputing the reputation of someone Skollar had come to see as a “Blues god.” So be it, I am going to ask any way. )

Bill Dahl concludes a bio he wrote on Little Walter which appears on All, “…it’s unlikely that a blues harpist exists on the face of this earth who doesn’t worship Little Walter. ” Worship? Was Dahl overstating a personal opinion? Can anyone tell me why, as I have read elsewhere, Little Walter is deemed “inarguably” a musical “genius” ? Is this an overstatement, or a consensus of opinion shared by others in the Blues? Although Skollar was vehement in his protest of my statement, he didn’t pursuade me otherwise. Walter is accepted as being one of the better Blues harpists of that period, but the best?

Unlike his Blues contemporaries Big Walter Horton or George “Harmonica” Smith, or for that matter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, whom sources acknowledge as Walter’s mentor, Walter is held in seemingly higher esteem than other Blues harpists. Is it the body of work for which he is credited that earned him the recognition as “inarguably a musical genius”? Is it the number of tracks he recorded, either as a sideman for Muddy Waters, or as the leader of his own band, for which he earned his acclaim? It was said that the reason Horton didn’t attain the same degree of success was because he was essentially shy and didn’t promote himself as Walter did.

In as much as I am familiar with Little Walter’s work, did he ever record what was then considered a “pop” song or “standard”, much as Big Walter Horton recorded “La Cucharacha,” or Dorsey’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” or George “Harmonica” Smith recorded Gershwin’s, “Summertime,” or “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”? Noted for his blues riffs, did Little Walter ever play what could be considered a melody line?

Regarding his riffs, has anyone ever counted the number of measures he filled, either as background or solos, with his “two-hole headshake”? (Thanks John Gindick for calling this embellishment or musical device what it is. In classical music it is known as a trill.) Can anyone tell me, on how many of his songs, did Little Walter open with the ascending arpegio with which he opened Juke? I can think of three distinct songs which he opens this way. Considering these two things, it always impressed me as though he had a somewhat limited trick-bag–certainly not the hallmark of genius.

If compared to other harmonicists of the era, such as Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans, or the Harmonicats, how does he compare?

I am not putting this out here looking for an argument, I would prefer an informed, intelligent discussion on the matter. Can you tell me why Little Walter merits this recognition?

Dave King
Cross Harp Chronicles

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Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 2:22 AM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. i loved your song my babe i melted when i heard it omg(oh my god)

  2. Hi I read your story. I do think he can be called a musical genius of his instrument. The man created by himself a new style.

    Harmonica players like Sonny Boy Williamson I&II, Snooky Pryor for example were not even close to LW’s sophisticated style. He combined octaves, tongue blocking, trills in a unique way.

    His solo licks are often very fluid and fit perfectly together. These are certainly not just loose licks. Listen to tracks like Fast Boogie. That’s where his genius shines through. He plays in a very jazz way, because he listened a lot to sax players.

    Of course he could play pop songs. There is a gig recorded of him doing watermelon man. I read in a book that he could play the sax of bill doggets’ “big boy” after listening it a few times on the juke box. That’s being highly skilled! He could also play “lester leaps in” .Things like these were not recorded because chess didn’t like him to do other stuff than blues.

    I don’t think at all Little Walter had a limited lick bag. Try playing his stuff, the correct way, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

    And yes Big Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith were also great harp players. I agree, it’s too bad only Little Walter is so well known. More people should also dig into Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter, George “harmonica” smith, James Cotton, Jr. Wells.

    Just an opinion…

    BTW Cool you got the same middle name as LW and you were born on the day he died! 😉

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