"Keeping the Blues Alive Award" Achievement for Blues on the Internet Presented by The Blues Foundation
With the vast amount of vintage Chicago Blues available on the CD market today and many offering lengthy liner notes by solid journalists, it's considerably easy to think every detail of an icon like Little Walter has been uncovered and written about. Is it possible, more than thirty years after his death, fifty-plus years since his arrival on the Chicago scene, and over seventy years since his birth, to dig up new and interesting facts on the most influential harmonica player that ever lived? There's no question that Marion Walter Jacobs has been written about extensively; his name manages to surface in nearly all books on the subject of blues, there are countless compact discs on shelves everywhere with prime examples of what he was capable of musically, and the blues journals here and abroad seem to have reviewed close to everything he ever appeared on. The major concern is whether or not there was enough to fill the pages of a book.
Enter Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines, three professional harmonica players owing more than a debt of gratitude to Jacobs, who met courtesy of the internet and its ability to allow us to communicate with the rest of the world in a heartbeat. Glover, who has written about Little Walter before, was compiling information for a comprehensive discography on the artist, and noticed blues-scholar and writer, Scott Dirks' participation in a popular on-line blues chat group, while Ward Gaines was researching the artist at about the same time. Glover contacted Dirks, and Gaines got in touch with Glover, making the trio complete and the three went to work interviewing, scratching out notes, and collaborating for "Blues With A Feeling: The Little Walter Story." The finished product of 314 pages, including index, although delayed more than a year from its original publication date, is pretty much a hands-down success, much like Robert Gordon's recent outing, "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." As Gordon did with his Muddy Waters book, Glover, Dirks, and Gaines set out to unearth new information on Jacobs before the passage of time could wash away more memories of him. By interviewing family and close friends, of which precious few remain, we are afforded a much better look at his life now than ever before.
The correlation points between Waters and Jacobs are many, as Muddy, Little Walter, and a few others were responsible for changing the course of music history from inside the borders of Chicago, Illinois, in the late 1940's and into the early 1950's, and on occasion with Muddy and others, Jacobs would lay down examples of his sometimes crude but thoroughly refreshing guitar prowess. The disturbing factors are that while both Waters and Walter seemed to have countless women at their beck-and-call, which often caused more than enough friction in their lives, Muddy understood his importance and focused on his music, where Jacobs unfortunately centered himself around an exceedingly fast and furious lifestyle which ultimately led to his demise in 1968, a few months shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. Was it Muddy's relatively stable young life that helped him keep his focus, and on the flip side of the coin, was it Little Walter's unstable early years that seemed to lead him down a path of self-destructive behavior?
What the compiled research of the three authors here offers is a fine-tuned and quite complete look at a young, and sometimes understandably troubled man. Born in Marksville, LA, in May of 1930, Walter's father, Adam Jacobs, wound up in Angola for murder while Marion was still a baby and his mother, Beatrice Leviege, lost touch with her son when he went to live with his stepfather's family in New Orleans. On his own at a very young age, Walter made his way around by singing, dancing, and playing in the streets of small but growing southern towns, running into many who would later join him in Chicago, a city he moved to in 1946. Jacobs was pounding the pavement searching out his musical fortunes and wound up in St. Louis, Memphis, Helena, and many other southern towns and cities, running into Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and others. Making his way to Maxwell Street, Walter began, as many had before him, by playing the corners and introducing himself to those already on the scene. The book mentions that Walter was perhaps watching a lot of John Lee Williamson and Snooky Pryor, two of the bigger names playing harp around town. Snooky was sitting in with John Lee Williamson, and Williamson suggested a hasty exit for his guest after Pryor upstaged the veteran during a show at the Purple Cat , a popular Chicago nightspot. While still shy of his twentieth birthday, Jacobs was making some rather big waves around the Windy City and It was in the Maxwell Street neighborhood where he and many others would cut initial recordings for shoestring labels like Ora-Nelle, Planet, and Old Swingmaster. While Walter's early tracks are hearty performances, his unamplified harmonica playing would only hint at where his creativity would take him in a few short years.
By heading up the amplified movement, these men, while similar yet so very different, rang in the loudness of the city by turning their small amplifier knobs completely to the right, giving the music its raw, distorted electric freshness, and shaking Chicago's blues from its sometimes repetitive Bluebird era. Muddy Waters became an enormous powerhouse who influenced countless musicians in many genres while Little Walter went on to write the book on playing amplified blues harmonica. Jacobs wasn't the first bluesman to plug his harp in and play, but his wildly creative imagination and desire to emulate the jump and jazz saxophone players of the day allowed him to take the tiny instrument from the band's back row, move it front and center, and turn it into a featured instrument. Capable of beautifully long swooping phrases, short, dynamic bursts, and an ear for musical hooks that demanded attention, Jacobs exerted his influence and soon found many following his lead through the purchase of amplifiers and microphones.
But at 314 pages, not everything is new and recently uncovered information. It was with Muddy's band that Little Walter cut "Juke" for the Checker label in the first half of 1952, an instrumental so powerful and popular, it shot Jacobs to the forefront of blues recording. This track was the very first to fully display the possibilities of amplified harmonica and Jacobs' unerring sense of both timing and phrasing brought new life to an instrument many considered a toy or necessary tool for the job. Granted, Snooky Pryor and other transplants from the South may well have been using amplification earlier, but no one had yet explored the full tonal range of harp until Walter came along. Hooking up with Baby Face Leroy Foster, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers, who he'd met in Helena in 1946, Jacobs became part of a band known as the Headhunters who were stalking Chicago taverns and leveling the competition with a new, raucous style of blues. Once Jacobs began recording with Muddy for the Chess label, his work was being heard loud and clear across the country, and his sides with Waters are indeed numerous, but by breaking down nearly every session Walter took part in, the book seems to lumber along at times, while at others, when research sheds lots of new light on its subject, the pages seem flow smoothly as a biography should. Walter's importance put him in some heady company as he recorded with Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Louisiana Red, Floyd Jones, Memphis Minnie, and others, and in the case of Walter's 1953 version of "Tell Me Mama," there's one small glitch. The authors credit the title to Washboard Sam, who cut "Back Door" in May of 1937, however, it was actually recorded earlier by Casey Bill Weldon, who cut it as "Back Door Blues" in September of 1936, which seems to be the origination of the song.
Another point that could be disturbing to some are the lengthy discussions of Walter's own recording sessions, in that most of the outtakes, fumbled starts, and alternate takes are now unavailable to the public. Charly Records, a former UK concern now located on some remote island, issued a 4-disc boxed set devoted to Little Walter throttled with 95 tracks, containing all the existing material which covered the years 1952-1963. The fly in the ointment is that MCA's selfish ownership of the Chess/Checker catalog brought lawsuits on any company issuing material without proper licensing. Following MCA's successful suit of Charly, the remaining box sets were ordered shipped back to London to be destroyed. These conditions would certainly be understandable if MCA were devoting time and monetary investments to issue this wellspring of recordings themselves, but they have continually ignored repeated requests and what we are left with are the two-disc "Essential Little Walter" and a few odds and ends reissues from the Chess Vintage catalog. Using this blow-by-blow method will raise definite concerns now that these outtakes are resting in a vault somewhere, again collecting dust.
A few other issues warrant brief investigation, with the first being the present apparent obscurity of this well-crafted look at Marion Walter Jacobs. While delays are a part of life we all deal with, this book seems hidden from public view for what are, as yet, unexplained reasons. Slated for release in 2001, as previously mentioned, publication seems to have finally happened, in rather small doses, but the biography is not, at the time, a stocked item in any bookseller's retail outlet and the actual publishing date is currently listed as November of 2002. After initial holdups, it is understood that the authors were hoping for a limited run which was to be made available at the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival. There is very little press on the book, and while internet retailers are offering the item, again delays after confirmation of orders seem par-for-the-course. This labor-of-love is far too important to languish in secrecy, and here's hoping it manages the rightful presence it deserves. Interestingly, where scant information is available, it is listed as being 368 pages in length, when in truth it is a good deal shorter. These small quibbles aside, "Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story," is laid out chronologically over fourteen chapters allowing the reader a solid opportunity to track Walter's life from beginning to an all-too-quick end.
The devoted research of Glover, Dirks, and Gaines lays the tattered and bent-corner cards on the table for all to see by sketching out Walter's rise to astronomic heights and the reckless behavior that would ultimately drag him deeper into an abyss of alcoholic haze. It is heartening to look at the number of people who were there to pick him up and dust him off whenever he fell, but just as often as one sees hope for change, the habits which seemed avoidable ultimately brought his meteoric ascension to a grinding halt. There are a few dozen photographs, many of them rare and highly intriguing, plus a healthy distribution of certificates and newspaper advertisements scattered smartly throughout the book. The discography runs for a full ten pages, listing all known recordings by this master of blues harmonica, his session mates, dates, and locations, and the discrepancies of which harp players assisted Muddy Waters on his recordings seem finally laid to rest as the breakdown of techniques offer substantial credence to when and where Little Walter was aboard. One of the mysteries left unsolved is the actual truth regarding Walter's death, which will perhaps never be known for fact since the versions that surround the story differ. Was it the brother of one of Walter's many female counterparts who landed a crushing blow during a fight which ruptured an old injury, or was it due to a street brawl over gambling where an iron pipe landed squarely, as some still think? Whatever the cause, after a relatively short life filled with rambling, carousing, excessive drinking, womanizing, and God-given talents, Marion Walter Jacobs died in his sleep on February 15th, 1968. What he left behind is a catalog brimming with his seemingly effortless examples of what harmonica was meant to sound like. Kudos to Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines for seeing the importance of Little Walter's life story and offering it in a wonderful book peppered with memorable quotes and timeless writing.
Special thanks to Ricardo Reccioni for productive information.
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