Holy Blues! Robert Johnson pictured and Little Walter filmed
It was reported on Friday that this photograph reputedly picturing the great bluesmen Robert Johnson (left) and Johnny Shines was donated by the Johnson estate to Getty Images. It’s only the third published photo of Johnson, the most mythical figure in blues, and as the London Guardian reported, it took eight years from its discovery in 2004 for it to become authenticated by Lois Gibson, a forensics expert with the Houston Police Department. For additional background, read this fascinating article by Frank DiGiacomo that Vanity Fair published in 2008 about Johnson, who was murdered in 1938, and the picture’s purchase by New York guitar dealer Steven “Zeke” Schein. The only clue the picture contained on E-Bay was “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar BB King???” Schein knew it wasn’t B.B., but the guitar player’s long fingers gave him a hunch that it might be Johnson.
I came upon another lode of blues grail on Friday when I spotted the only two instances we have of Little Walter singing on film. Somehow it escaped my attention when it first appeared a few years ago, but that was the case for several of the other Little Walter fanatics among my friends, so maybe it’s new to you too. Notwithstanding his seminal influence on modern blues harmonica playing, it was long a source of frustration that there was nothing to see of Little Walter in action. But over the past decade, excerpts from American Folk Blues Festival tours began appearing on DVD, and later volumes in the series finally gave us a glimpse of Walter as he backed Koko Taylor on “Wang Dang Doodle” and Hound Dog Taylor on “Wild About You Baby.”
Marion Walter Jacobs, who was born in Marksville, Lousiana in 1930, is arguably the most creative musician in blues history. By cupping the harmonica over a microphone and developing a linear melodic conception that had more in common with jazz saxophone playing than with the unamplified, staccato effects of pre-WWII blues harp, Walter became a leading figure in the transformation of blues from a country to an urban idiom. His stunningly innovative use of amplification, reverb, echo and other sound techniques influenced both blues and rock musicians in the fifties and sixties, and he remains an awe-inspiring model for blues harp players to the present day.
Little Walter made his early mark as a teenager working with Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers in the late ‘40’s and early 50’s, and in 1952, his instrumental “Juke” became a breakthrough number one R&B hit. Its success motivated him to leave Muddy and begin fronting a trio known as The Aces, which he renamed The Jukes; the group included guitarists Louis and Dave Myers, and drummer Fred Below. On the strength of “Juke’s” chart success, Walter became the first Chicago bluesman to headline the Apollo Theater, which he did for a week beginning October 24, 1952. Duke Hampton’s big band and H-Bomb Ferguson’s jump blues outfit were also on the bill, but Walter’s four-piece unit astonished the crowd with what the Apollo emcee called “ a new style of music.”
New York’s black weekly, The Amsterdam News, was impressed too. “When one listens to ‘Juke’ he is struck by the unique sound, for never before has an expert harmonica been blended with more standard instruments…and never before has this particular combination of tones been heard…This is a driving, fast-moving, exciting combination.”
Walter enjoyed success throughout the Fifties with a total of eight top-ten R&B hits, and altogether made about 100 masters and 25 alternate takes for Chess Records between 1952 and ’67. He continued to play on most of Muddy's sessions in the '50's, and made an indelible impression on dates with Johnny Shines, Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Otis Rush, Memphis Minnie, and others. But alcoholism and a pugnacity fired by his short temper began taking their toll on his health, his bookings, and the quality of his playing by the early 60’s. For the last several years of his life, Walter scuffled from one low-paying gig to another on Chicago’s South Side and did a limited amount of touring. But he went overseas with the American Folk Blues Fest in 1964, and then again in '67.
The fest was named for an aggregation of blues and gospel greats who began making annual tours of Europe in 1962. Willie Dixon put the packages together by arrangement with Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau, who booked the fest in Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Europe. The fest boasted a veritable who’s who of blues masters, ranging from Delta blues legends Son House, Skip James and Bukka White to Chicago kingpins Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy, to a potpourri that included to T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Matt Murphy, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Jacobs is the subject of an impressively researched and richly detailed biography by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines entitled Blues With a Feeling. It includes an account of Walter’s 1967 tour, and notes that, sadly consistent with the bad luck and missed opportunities that befell him in the Sixties, he wasn’t able to use his standard amplifier and microphone set-up on the tour. His sidemen were less than ideal too, particularly Hound Dog Taylor, who lacked the sophisticated chordal technique of Louis Myers, Robert Jr, Lockwood, and Luther Tucker, guitarists who’d backed Walter on his Chess sessions.
Nonethless, Walter's brilliant playing and bold expressiveness still cut through on these clips. Here's “Mean Old World,” the classic blues which he’d first recorded in 1953.
Here he plays “My Babe," which was a staple of all his AFBF appearances. The performance is interrupted by an emcee announcing the personnel, which in addition to Hound Dog Taylor includes Dillard Crume on bass, and Odie Payne on drums.
Little Walter returned to Chicago following the tour and gigged around town with drummer Sam Lay at South Side venues and at Big John’s, the Olde Town club that had launched Paul Butterfield a few years earlier. On February 14, 1968, Walter was severely beaten in a fight, but rather than seek medical attention, he returned to an apartment, perhaps too intoxicated to take account of his grave condition. He died the following day at the age of 37.
An additional film clip exists of Walter from the AFBF tour in which he plays “Little Walter’s Jump,” the type of inventive instrumental that he made about two dozen of in his Chess Records heyday.