Dept. of Oversight Correction: Little Walter

posted by Tom Moon on March 04, 2009 at 6:30 pm
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An overdue shoutout to Little Walter, harmonica genius.....

The blues titles featured in 1000 Recordings chart a basic evolutionary outline of the form’s guitar styles, and offer more than a few spinechilling examples of blues singing. But at least one key blues instrument is under-represented – the harmonica. In particular, there’s no collection spotlighting the scalding-hot singles Little Walter made in the 1950s.

Depending on your perspective, that’s either “Epic Fail,” or simple oversight, or something in between. The other day, I found myself talking with blues guitar legend Buddy Guy, and in his gracious way, he made the case that Marion Walter Jacobs (1930-1968) revolutionized the mouth harp. “He did things nobody ever heard from the harmonica before.”

Listening to a decent anthology on Little Walter – the single disc His Best: Chess 50th Anniversary Collection, issued in 1997 – it’s impossible to disagree with Guy. (Or, for that matter, several of this site’s correspondents, who have written passionately about Little Walter.)

Playing with a dexterity and technical command that far surpassed his peers, Little Walter pushed the harmonica into the modern blues age, and made it sound every bit as intense as the electric guitar. On his own singles and as part of Muddy Waters' recording band, he updated the instrument’s rhythmic codes and expanded the reach of its single note lines; his winding, intricate solos (see “Mean Old World” or “My Babe”) scamper with an agility that recalls the work of Jimmy Smith and other daredevil jazz organists – at times it’s hard to believe these ideas are actually coming from a harmonica. Following one of Little Walter's journeys is like swerving down twisty roads in a supercharged sports car: You’re aware that there’s serious skill involved, but the ride is so absorbing you simply can’t dwell on the details.

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#1 from Jeff Williams, San Antonio, TX - 03/07/2009 2:40

Could you do a post on Rolling Stones and a further recommendations guide like the post you did on Neil?

Thanks much, Tom. This is a great forum.

#2 from Mark Cleverley - 03/07/2009 8:56

What, no Jacques Brel? Otherwise a fabulous book, and I will probably buy it for a couple of friends - but I’ll have to write an erratum in it for Brel…

#3 from Sue, Minneapolis, MN - 03/11/2009 10:01

I just bought the book and I love it!  I can’t imagine how difficult it was to cut everything down into a list of 1,000 with all of those genres!  I’ve been using it to expose myself to artists/recordings that I have not run accross yet.  Please tell me that you are working on follow-up editions that are genre specific.  ...or maybe 1,000 songwriters or 1,000 performers to explore, etc.?  Thanks for helping to expand my love of music.

#4 from Tom Moon - 03/13/2009 6:36

hi and thanks for the kind words all..

Jeff, I am working on a similar five-steps-into-the-catalog thing for the Rolling Stones, Wes Montgomery and several other artists….watch this space!

Mark: re Brel: what can I say other than I couldn’t include everything. I was late to Brel in my own listening, and didn’t have a handle on his vast output. what’s the one killer record?

Sue: No such followup is in the works at this time. Apart from drilling deeply into individual genres, what would be a useful approach? I’m intrigued by the Live Performers notion…

thanks again, and happy exploring!


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