I've read many books about musicians, both famous and obscure — far beyond the recommended lifetime quota for such books.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any of them to people who don’t share my obsessive-compulsive approach to American roots music. Because once you strip away the “who played with who, what label, which session, who produced, what instruments/amplifiers/accessories were used, how impaired were the players, which substances were abused”… there’s really not that much left to talk about.
Case in point — Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story, by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines. This one's an especially tough read for those who have only a passing interest in the world’s greatest harmonica player. It’s stuffed with details on virtually every session that featured Walter as a leader or sideman — not to mention countless gigs where he at least showed up to play (Walter was notorious for letting other harp players take over in the middle of his gigs so he could go somewhere else to drink or get high, or both). But once again, I’m hooked… and I can’t believe it took me this long to read about the single most innovative and influential bluesman that Chicago ever spawned.
I’ve played blues harp in bar bands for years. I learned by ear when I was a teenager, playing mostly bluegrass with my brothers and fumbling along to third-generation blues tunes covered by rock bands like The Allman Brothers Band and Derek and the Dominoes. The latter’s version of Walter’s “Key to the Highway” is perfect for harp neophytes — nearly 10 minutes of the same chord changes, a steady mid-tempo groove, and no flashy harp player to discourage you.
But like any self-respecting blues hound, I eventually decided it was time to sniff out the hard stuff, so I borrowed a Little Walter album that kept staring at me when I’d visit my sister — a two-record set that had this bizarre illustration on the cover of Walter in a tux, standing in front of what appears to be a shipwrecked bar.
But this record was the motherload for aspiring harp players. And if you felt the least bit insecure about your playing when you dropped the needle on this one, you’d surely toss your harmonicas out for good after hearing Walter’s unbeatable tone and technique.