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Who Was Little Walter?

By Shane Meagher

Little Walter remains one of the most enigmatic figures in Chicago blues. He was never issued a birth certificate, so there will always be some question as to his date of birth, and the circumstances surrounding his tragic death in February 1968 are cloaked in mystery; we know he received a blow to the head, but that’s all we know. Some say he was hit with an iron bar while gambling in an alley, others say that he was hit with a harmonica by a fellow player he had insulted. Whatever the truth, his death was a huge loss to blues music. Throughout the 1950s, he recorded some of the most pioneering and innovative blues harmonica ever committed to tape. He backed Muddy Waters on some of his earliest recordings, and undoubtedly enthralled listeners with his unique approach to the instrument. In July 1951, he did something unthinkable: he showed up to one of Muddy’s recording sessions with an amplifier, and “Country Boy” became the first song to feature amplified harmonica. Chicago blues would never be the same again.

When reflecting on Walter’s accomplishments, many people focus on his adventurous use of the many sounds an amp could offer, and, indeed, this alone would have earned him his place in the annals of blues history, but to limit his accomplishments to this one innovation would be a great injustice. He helped to free the harmonica from its role as a primarily rhythm instrument, bringing it to the foreground in a way that only a few before him had dared. In the instrumentals he recorded (“Juke”, “Sad Hours”, “Roller Coaster”, “Thunderbird” and so many others), he took the harmonica in exciting new directions, with fresh and original musical ideas that were both virtuosic and extremely ear catching at the same time. On top of all that, he was a talented singer in his heyday; just listen to songs like “My Babe” or “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” for proof positive of this! Sadly, the 1960s were not kind to Walter, and he only recorded sporadically in what turned out to be his final years, due as much to his own fast living as to a decline in interest in his music.

Today, however, he is rightly regarded as one of the pivotal figures in blues music. In 2008, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his music continues to be enjoyed by countless people all over the world. So, if you would like to know who Little Walter was, and why he was so important to the blues, all you need to do is track down an album of his music (1958’s “The Best of Little Walter” is a good place to start), sit back, and let yourself be mesmerized by his remarkable talents, the way so many of us have been throughout the years.