I’m not an especially fervent advocate of blues harmonica, but I do love the greats—both the Sonny Boy Williamsons, Big Walter Horton, much of Charlie Musselwhite‘s innovative output. But for me no one compares to Little Walter (aka Louisiana native Marion Walter Jacobs), who arrived in Chicago as a teenager in 1945 and quickly immersed himself in the city’s bustling scene, helping to establish the sound of urban blues that would soon become one of the most important influences on rock ‘n’ roll. By 1947 he had become a member of Muddy Waters’s group, but it wasn’t till 1950 that Leonard Chess recorded Waters with that full band.
Waters returned the favor in 1952, backing Little Walter on the paradigm-smashing instrumental “Juke,” which became a number one Billboard R&B hit. It demonstrated the harmonica whiz’s technical invention, as he blew long, saxophone-like phrases that underscored the melody’s swing-band origins. Walter revolutionized the way a microphone could alter the timbre of his instrument, deliberately using a degree of distortion that was still years away for electric guitar players. He had a successful career at Chess, though his fiery temper led to frequent scuffles and minor run-ins with the law. He died in 1968 at age 37, but he’d been struggling with alcohol and bad decisions since 1959. Those first seven years at Chess produced a remarkable wealth of recordings, though, and I’m still glad I laid out the cash seven years ago for the five-CD set The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967), which is now out of print.
For today’s 12 O’Clock Track, I’m sharing one of my all-time fave Little Walter tracks, “Mellow Down Easy”—a classic cut from late 1954 with bassist Willie Dixon, drummer Fred Below, and guitarists Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker. During this era, the blues occasionally toyed with a quasi-Cuban groove—kind of a rumba shuffle—in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of mambo and other Caribbean imports. But as novel as that rhythm may sound, it’s not as vital to the song as its lilting guitar curlicues, Walter’s hornlike harmonica, and his rudely soulful singing—which clears out for a driving swing section where he unleashes several furious choruses on his harp.
Paul Lewis, Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition/Schumann: Fantasie op. 17 (Harmonia Mundi)
Zur Schönen Aussicht, Willkommen Zuhause (Why Play Jazz)
Matt Mayhall, Tropes (Skirl)
Rob Haskins, Marc Chan: My Wounded Head 3 (Mode)
Annette Peacock & Paul Bley, Dual Unity (Bamboo/Freedom)