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Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues
By Glenn Weiser

Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story
By Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines Routledge, 315 pages, $24.95

Along with jazz saxman Charlie Parker and rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, postwar blues-harmonica great Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs ranks as a groundbreaking American instrumentalist. His playing graced most of Muddy Waters’ classic 1950s sides, and under his own name he also waxed some of the greatest recordings in blues. Innovative in his use of distorted amplified tone and jazzy phrasing, Jacobs was, like Parker and Hendrix, widely imitated, musically unrivaled, and dead at a young age. It may seem surprising that no book about him appeared before the well-researched Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story, but Little Walter’s life is one of a meteoric rise followed by a long, painful decline and fall. Of any blues biography you could pick up, this has to be the most tragic.

Many details of Walter’s earlier years were already available, although the book is not without fresh information on the subject. He was born to Creole parents in Louisiana in 1930, and began playing harmonica at age 8. By the time he was 12 he was on his own, performing waltzes, polkas and popular songs on the sidewalks of New Orleans for tips. A year later, the youngster learned blues harmonica in Memphis, absorbing the influences of virtuosos John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Rice Miller and Big Walter Horton. Shortly thereafter, he began to listen to the “jump” sound of saxophonist Louis Jordan, setting the stage for a synthesis of swing and electric blues that was not to crystallize until the early 1950s.

By the mid-’40s, Chicago had become a mecca for blues musicians, so Little Walter moved there looking for work. Performing on legendary Maxwell Street, he eventually came to the notice of Muddy Waters. Waters and Walter, along with Muddy’s backing guitarist, Jimmy Rogers, began working the clubs of the South Side. To be heard in the noisy taverns, Waters and Rogers adopted electric guitars, and Little Walter blew through cheap microphones and amplifiers. Waters, backed by stand-up bass only, recorded his first hits on Leonard Chess’ Aristocrat label in 1948, and Walter was added in the mix in 1950.

The next five years saw Little Walter rise to stardom. He stayed on as Waters’ sideman until 1952, when his first single, the honking, saxlike instrumental “Juke,” hit the top of the R&B charts, something even Muddy hadn’t been able to do. It is at this point that the book becomes based almost entirely on the authors’ original research. Flush with success, Walter left Muddy, took over fellow harmonica player Junior Wells’ band and struck out under his own name, although he continued to record with Muddy afterwards. The living was easy for the next few years: Walter had more than a dozen Top 10 R&B hits, played prestigious venues like New York’s Apollo Theater, and literally drove around with a sack full of money in the trunk of his Cadillac. The book reveals that he loved chess, was a Mason, and—although he never recorded it—could play down-home blues well on the acoustic guitar.

In 1955, rock & roll swept the nation and eclipsed the popularity of blues in its hometown of Chicago. Seeing his record sales dwindle, an embittered Walter entered a long decline in the late ’50s marked by heavy drinking, an inability to keep a band together, and violent encounters both with the law and other blacks. Jacobs ultimately died, at age 37, from a head injury sustained in a 1968 street fight.

This slow, inexorable slide to doom takes up the last half of the book, and both it and Walter’s personal failings are chronicled in unsparing detail. All this, unfortunately, makes for grim reading. And it is here, in the later chapters, that the book’s principal weakness becomes evident: We are forced to watch as a musical genius goes down the tubes, but little is said to answer the question of whether or not he ever tried to pull himself out of his tailspin, or if the people around him attempted to help him. All we learn is that he was aware of his plight, as evinced by passing references to his “going down,” as he put it. Besides that shortcoming, there are also a few errors of fact: The harmonica was more than 100 years old when Walter picked it up, not less, as the authors state; and blues is usually played in a key a fifth above the key of the harmonica, rather than a fourth above. But none of these flaws is fatal.

All in all, Blues With a Feeling is a major addition to our knowledge of American music, and a must-read for any blues or harmonica fan.

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