Little Walter – King of the Blues Harp!
Little Walter, is an American blues harp player whose innovative approach of playing the harp, still impacts future generations. Now mind you, there are other harp players out there, but he knew how to manipulate the harp to his musical needs. Furthermore, he figures out how to make the instrument reach its optimal potential. How the hell does he do it? He amplifies it! Needless to say, he made so much noise when playing the harmonica, that people, including musicians would gravitate to him just to check out how he’s making that harmonica moan for mercy!
Hailing from Louisiana, he quits school at age 12 and starts doing odd jobs and busking around in different cities to make ends meet. Along the way he hangs out with Sonny Boy Williamson 2, Honeyboy Edwards and Sunnyland Slim in Helena, Arkansas. Shortly after he’s heading to Memphis and St. Louis. But Walter knows that Chicago is where he needs to be and at age sixteen, he’s on his way. No surprise to anyone, he finds work quite easily with the likes of Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy.
Although playing different gigs with others, he was often seen hanging out on Maxwell street strip playing guitar and the harmonica places where he would receive the most attention. It’s during this time, he decides to use a microphone plugged into a guitar amp to make his harmonica heard over the loud guitars permeating from the clubs. While playing the harp, he could push the amps to extreme levels allowing him to get the perfect sound effects and tone. Luck is also on his side as he receives a chance to record his first record in 1946.
Which leads to touring and recording with Muddy Waters in 1948. Besides recording with Muddy Waters, he also shows up on other musicians’ recordings. With his powerful harmonica playing with other artists, and in 1952, he begins to record under his own name. In 1955 ‘My Babe’ tops the R&B charts along with many other hits. Simply put, Little Walter was the Jimi Hendrix of the Harmonica at the time. A triple threat as well considering that he could play guitar, also was a great singer and of course a ferocious harp player.
Listen to any Canned Heat song, Clapton blues song, or pretty much any song from the 60s and you’ll hear Little Walter’s influence. These early recordings along with ‘Key To The Highway’ represent the cream of Little Walter’s output that has influenced blues musicians for the last half century. Little Walter and Muddy Walters dominated the Chicago Blues scene back in the 1950’s. Below is a video performance is from the American Folk Blues Festival in 1967. One of his last performances before passing in 1968.
Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
Little Walter was inducted to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. “Sideman” category, making him the first and only artist ever to be inducted specifically for his work as a harmonica player. Also, his song “Juke” is the only harmonica instrumental to ever top the Billboard R&B charts at #1. Ben Harper Inducts and Accepts the award for Little Walter at the 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
One thing is for sure, he made a simple harmonica into a major instrument when it came to playing the blues. While making the blues audiences sit up and take notice of how something so small can stand out in a band. To this day, there are many Blues artists that incorporate this instrument into their music and live performances. Lastly, Little Walter scored fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958, including a second #1, “My Babe” in 1955.
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