Marion 'Little Walter' Jacobs was born in 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana. He was raised in nearby Alexandria and started playing harmonica as a child. Marion left school aged 12 and worked the sidewalks and bars of New Orleans more often than not playing his own compositions. He took odd jobs busking from New Orleans to St. Louis and along the way he came under the influence of Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and Big Walter Horton. He was soon listening to the records of jump saxophonist, Louis Jordan and would play the solos note for note on his harmonica.
He liked John Lee Williamson (Sonnyboy Williamson I), and incorporated the same style into his early blues. Circa 1947, he moved to Chicago with David Honeyboy Edwards and they became fixtures on Maxwell Street.
By now Marion was a consummate guitarist and harmonica player and soon got work as a session musician in the Windy City. His first recording was on the small Ora Nelle label with Othum Brown. The B side ‘I just keep loving her,’ was written by Little Walter.
In 1948 he had joined Jimmy Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster in Muddy Waters backing band, informally known as the Headhunters. The name came from the bands habit of slipping into Chicago clubs and upstaging the main acts i.e. ‘head cutting.’ Little Walter recorded with Muddy Waters on the Parkway label, then later, for Chess.
In the studio he was determined not to have his harmonica drowned out by electric guitarists so he cupped a small microphone in his hands with his harmonica. The sounds were fed through the public address or guitar amplifier and he would deliberately push the amplifiers beyond their intended technical limitations. As he began to explore radical new timbres and sonic effects the results were fantastic. In 1952 he recorded the instrumental "Juke," under his own name and it became a huge hit.
Soon after he left Muddy Waters band (although he still recorded with them in the studio), to form his own group. Between 1952 and 1958 Little Walter had 14 Top Ten hits including the rockingly good "My Babe".
Many of his hits were blues originals either he or Willie Dixon had written or adopted and updated to give them a more modern and up-tempo feel. Little Walter defined the sound known as the Chicago Blues Harp and was arguably the best blues harp player produced by the post war Chicago blues movement.
He became a well-known harmonica sideman appearing on the records of many of the Blues greats including Jimmy Rogers, Memphis Minnie, Johnny Shines, Otis Rush and Bo Diddley among many others.
Fortunes changed with the rise of Rock’n’Roll and it took until the next decade and the British Invasion before interest was again shown in blues music. Little Walter toured Europe with the Rolling Stones in 1964 and 1967 by which time his heavy drinking and substance abuse had taken a serious toll on his health. Little Walter was well known for bouts of belligerence resulting frequently in fights and by this time he had trouble keeping the band together. His health deteriorated and in 1968, aged 37 Little Walter died following a street fight in Chicago. He was a true virtuoso of the blues harmonica and admired and loved by many of his contemporaries.
Little Walter Foundation
Worth a listen
Sad hours (1952) instrumental
Mean old world (1953)
Tell me Mama (1953)
Off the wall (1953) instrumental
Blues with feeling (1953)
You’re so fine (1954)
You better watch yourself (1954)
Last Night (1954)
Roller Coaster (1955) instrumental
My Babe (1955)
Teenage Beat (1956)
Key to Heaven (1956)
Everythings gonna be alright (1959)
Little Walter with Muddy Waters
Long distance call (1951)