I love Saturdays. In the basement of our house we were getting ready for another band rehearsal later in the afternoon, and there was no place I would rather be. However there were a few things that needed my attention in the morning. It was essential to watch my television shows; Programs like Underdog, The Flintstones, Spiderman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and then American Bandstand. After all, I was only seven.
My brother and I would have some alphagetti for lunch. He would indulge in a piece of chocolate cake and a slice of processed cheese, which made me wince with disgust. After helping setup for practice, I would pay close attention to what needed to be done and try to learn better for the next time.
BROTHER: Whatever you do, don’t fart around with the gear. I’m serious …
ME: Don’t worry. I wouldn’t think of messing with everyone’s stuff.
BROTHER: Well the last time I left you alone you bit my guitar. I still have to look at those buck tooth marks every time I play.
ME: That was years ago … Besides it adds some character.
BROTHER: That type of character I can do without.
My brother had to leave for a while to get something that can only be left to the imagination. My parents were at work and my sisters were nowhere to be seen. No one thought much of leaving a kid alone for a few hours back then. Besides I could be trusted. So while he was doing what he had to do, I was left alone to gawk at all the gear. I would never think of actually sitting down by the drum kit … Well… maybe just a few snaps on the snare….
It sounded good to pound away at the drums. I would imagine I was Gene Krupa, and I continued to hammer away while pretending to play "Drum Boogie." How terrible I must have sounded, but boy it sure felt great … okay … Better see how that bass sounded. I sat down on the chair, plugged into the amp and turned it on. I plucked away at a few of the strings and decided to stop when a bit of plaster came off the ceiling and landed on the floor…. Hmmm… maybe I should clean that up.
I looked for my harmonica that I received last Hanukah and got lost in thought for a moment … I went to our Admiral Console player and found a 45 already placed on the turntable. It was a Checker Records single called "Key to the Highway" by Little Walter. I placed the stylus on the vinyl making a little bit of a pop as it slid into its groove. I grabbed the harmonica and stood close to the mike and played along. Who was this Little Walter I thought? He was amazing. I would amuse myself by playing along getting lost in my imagination. This guy was unlike any harp player I heard. He breathed life into an instrument that I only knew as a toy.
Sometimes I wanted to play for real, but they were only fleeting moments like the one I just had. Truthfully I wasn’t interested in being a musician. I wanted to do something different. I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to do, but I knew it had to involve music.
I finished up my little session and by the time I tidied up, the boys came barrelling down the stairs raring to go.
DRUMMER: (sitting down on stool) What’s this white crap on my kit?
BASS PLAYER: (concerning) Hey kid … Where’s your sister?
ME: I don’t think she’ll bug you … She’s not home.
BASS PLAYER: (relieved) That’s good… I don’t think that chick likes me.
I briefly asked the guys about Little Walter and they told me a little bit about him. They mentioned that he just recently died in a street fight in Chicago. What a terrible outcome to such a talented musician. He was only 37. My brother and his friends were working on a few of his tunes. One of those songs was "Key to the Highway," which Walter did a version of, and the reason why it was sitting on the turntable.
The other song was called "Off The Wall." It was the first song on their list to go through. The rehearsal went on for almost 2 hours, and I listened with enthusiastic interest.
Born May 1, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana, Walter Marion Jacobs known as Little Walter taught himself harmonica at the age of 8. After quitting school at 12, Jacobs left Louisiana and travelled wherever his mood took him. He would work at all types of jobs and busk on the streets of New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. Little Walter would later honed his skills with great bluesman like Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy, who originally wrote "Key to the Highway."
In 1948 Little Walter hooked up with Muddy Waters, and while playing in the Chicago clubs he helped define electric blues. Walter played the amplified harmonica by holding a small microphone in his cupped hands, and achieved a saxophone like sound that expressed his highly creative improvisations. Walter's ground-breaking playing and distinguishing sound contributed deeply to Muddy’s recordings of the early 1950's.
The tunes my brother’s band was rehearsing at that time were more from Little Walter’s solo career which began in 1952. Walter formed a group called The Jukes with David and Louis Myers on guitars and Fred Below on drums. This trio were known as the Aces and had been working previously with Junior Wells.
A loud F sharp came from the upstairs bedroom. My sister came storming down the stairs right in the middle of one of the tunes. She sneered directly at the bass player and yanked the cord from his amp and the outlet almost came off the wall. They continued without missing a beat even though the whole bottom end disappeared. As my sister briskly went back upstairs you could suddenly hear from a distance The Monkees "Last Train to Clarksville" blend into the missing bottom end. This always signified the end of practice for the day.
BASS PLAYER: Not sure about you guys, but I feel profoundly aroused …
From 1952 to 1968 Little Walter recorded about 100 titles of which about half were issued on record as of the early 1970's. Previously unreleased material has made its way to CD's, and is a great tribute. For a brief time frame in 1964 Little Walter did a tour of England with The Rolling Stones. The years during and after these times were not glorious and would eventually end in his tragic death.
Little Walter inspired so many musicians and his influence can be felt from Clapton to Butterfield and to so many other great musicians. I feel very fortunate to have such rich memories, and Little Walter will always be one of those special musicians that helped stimulate my love of music.
It has been almost 40 years since we lost Little Walter. Do you have a memory or favourite Little Walter song? Can you recall a harp player that amplified his sound prior? Feel free to add your comments.