Behind The Beat
5:00 am
Tue April 1, 2014

Here's The Man To Thank For The Sound Of The Harmonica As We Know It

The song “Juke” by Little Walter Jacobs might not sound revolutionary to modern ears, but when it first came out in 1951, nobody had ever had heard harmonica played like this — ever. It really has an aggressive, in-your-face sound.

To really grasp the change that Little Walter made, we have to put the sound in your mind of what harmonica sounded like before Little Walter. Take, for instance, the 1941 Jazz Gillum track called “Is That A Monkey You Got?”

Little Walter’s innovation was that he put the harmonica and the microphone together in his cupped hands. Earlier players like Sonny Boy Williamson were holding that harmonica in their cupped hands, but Little Walter held the harmonica right on top of the microphone, blew really loudly and played through amps that were turned up so that they were over-driving.

He was kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica, using technology in ways it was never meant to be used.

“Juke” was Little Walter’s first hit record; he was a 22-year-old kid from central Louisiana who came up to Chicago and had been playing with Muddy Waters Band for about a year.

Little Walter left Muddy’s band as soon as “Juke” became a hit, and later came back to record with Muddy Waters. He played on most of Muddy’s iconic records, like “Hoochie Coochie Man” from 1954.

And because the Muddy Waters songs that Walter recorded on are so well-known, he’s thought of by many as Muddy Waters’ harmonica player rather than a band-leader in his own right.

In fact, Little Walter had more chart success — more hits — than Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, with 14 top-ten hits in all between 1952 and 1958. Here’s one of them from 1955, “My Babe."

Unfortunately “My Babe” was Little Walter’s last number-one hit. He’d been living pretty fast; he was an alcoholic with a terrible temper, and that was all beginning to show up in his work. He died in 1968 at age 37.

By 1968, blues and rock fans didn’t think anything of hearing amplified harmonica, but Little Walter did it first. So to this day, anybody who plays a harmonica through an amp owes a debt to Little Walter.

So you’re talking about guys like Junior Wells, and Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield. In fact, let’s go out with some Paul Butterfield, “Just To Be With You” from 1965, blowing some Little Walter-style harmonica.

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