What with Winter dragging on and on (even though I’m way out here in the sunny Southwest and I don’t have it as bad as you guys in Cleveland or Chicago), the flu kicking me ass backwards and with all of the pointless infighting going on around BC lately, I just can’t help but to feel a little bit down, ya know.
So, as is my wont, I broke out some loud & raucous Chicago Blues and a bit of that Kentucky liquid sunshine (medicinal purposes only, kids) the other night to help me fight off these doldrums.
Knowing that someone else’s pain is worse than your own (or sounds like it could be anyway) is always somehow refreshing. Fighting fire w/fire, blues w/the blues if you will.
So, after running through the usual suspects: Hound Dog Taylor, Wolf, (the musical equivalent of a cold cock punch), Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Son Seals, Jr. Wells and Muddy, I broke out my “Best Of Little Walter” 2 LP set.
Having not listened to this for several years, I was just blown back out of my seat by these sides. This s**t just flat out rocks! Little Walter is truly the most innovative harp player ever. He is as great on his instrument of choice (not a bad guitarist either by the way, check out his solo on Muddy Waters “Still A Fool”!) as Coltrane, Parker and Hendrix were at theirs.
Unfortunately, he was just as dysfunctional in his own personal life as they in theirs. As is the case with a lot of musical genius/savant types, Little Walter was a seriously flawed human being (who isn’t?) and by his being in the public eye as he was, it was illuminated just that much more so. The latter half of this book deals with this in depth, but I digress here.
After listening to Little Walter, I was finally inspired to read his bio and was not at all disappointed. Well-researched, informative and entertaining this is as much of a revealing look backwards into the formative years of the heyday of the electric/post WW2 Chicago Blues scene as it is into the life of Little Walter Jacobs himself.
In many ways this is the atypical blues story: Leaving behind the poverty and the racism of the Jim Crow south for the slightly more “enlightened” North, bluesman makes good only to lose it all again, blah, blah, blah. What isn’t so typical, though, is the meteoric rise and subsequent slow decline of a man much imitated, never duplicated and unrivaled at his instrument.
To this day, the ultimate test of a blues harpist’s ablilities is still as to how well he can play the tune “Juke”. Busting out of the Muddy Waters band in ’52 (although he recorded with him in the studio on & off over the next decade) to capitalize on his new found fame and fortune, Walter and his band The Aces racked up an impressive run of over a dozen top-ten hits including the monster smash hit “My Babe” in 1955.
Ill-equipped to handle fame and fortune, LW eventually watched his talents go stagnant, while he sank into a vortex of alcohol, hard-living and self-destruction. To dwell on this aspect may seem pointless to many, but it gives us an insight as to what had always driven the man on to such unforgettable greatness in the first place.
As is real life, this book is alternately sad, funny, terrifying, uplifting & also touching and poignant. Muddy Waters biography “I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Robert Gordon offers up some great stories on Little Walter as well and read in tandem with “Blues With A Feeling” gives as clear of an historical accounting of Chicago’s Electric Blues history and all it has inspired since, as you could hope for.