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Saturday, July 18, 2009
Little Walter B.C. (before Checker)
Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs, b. 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana) was a monster. The bulk of his recorded output was for the Chicago based Chess Records' Checker subsidiary and should be one of the building blocks for any good record collection. No other blues instrumentalist so completely changed the sound of their instrument (with the arguable exception of T-Bone Walker), making the harmonica into both an effective lead and rhythm instrument, using amplification and echo, not to mention the chromatic harp to expand it's vocabulary in a dozen different directions. But the subject of Little Walter is too large and complex to take on here, besides I have little to add to the excellent and definitive biography of Little Walter-- Blues With A Feeling: The Little Walter Story (Routledge, 2002) by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines, a volume that anyone who cares about the subject should invest in. No, today's subject is one session, eight songs, recorded by Little Walter and guitarist/vocalists/drummer Baby Faced Leroy along with their boss Muddy Waters in January of 1950 for the Parkway label, four 78 rpm singles were issued, three on Parkway and one on Regent (later re-issued on Savoy), two each billed to Baby Face Leroy Trio and Little Walter Trio. Walter had already recorded once for the Ora Nelle label in 1947, and was a member of Muddy Waters' group (known around Chicago as Muddy Waters' Drunk-Ass Band), but Leonard Chess, who had found his first success with Muddy, recording him solo with just guitar and stand up bass on the hit Rollin' Stone b/w Feel Like Goin' Home, refused to record Muddy with his band in the studio, and chomping at the bit for some exposure of their own, Baby Face Leroy and Little Walter (who had arrived in Chicago together and played without Muddy on Maxwell Street most Sunday mornings, in violation of Musician Union rules) showed up at the door of the new Parkway label, run by record distributor Monroe Passis, with Muddy in tow, to record what would be one of the high water marks of Chicago blues. Given Parkway's numbering system it's a bit hard to figure out the order that these discs were issued, not that it matters. Parkway 104 might have been the first-- issued as Baby Faced Leroy Trio-- Boll Weevil b/w Red Headed Woman is a crude slice of country blues sung by Leroy who also keeps time on the bass drum. Walter is present on harmonica, Muddy on guitar, and there has been much speculation over the years if the second guitar heard is Jimmy Rogers, the guitarist in Muddy's working band, or Baby Face Leroy playing guitar along with the bass drum simultaneously. Either way, it's a fine record, much rougher around the edges than anything Chess would have issued. Parkway 501 also issued under Baby Face Leroy's name was not only the best of what was recorded that January afternoon, but in my estimation one of the two greatest electric blues sides of the fifties Chicago style (the other-- Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' At Midnight b/w How Many More Years was oddly enough recorded in Memphis for Sam Phillips and leased to Chess in '51). Rollin' and Tumblin' pt.1 b/w Rollin' and Tumblin' pt. 2 features Muddy's scraping slide guitar and Little Walter's percussive harp playing, riding over a relentless drum beat from Leroy's foot. The a-side, which is an adaptation of the tune recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern, find Leroy's vocal, part chant, part song, answered by Muddy's wordless humming as it builds like a voodoo ceremony. By pt. 2 the words have all but vanished and Leroy and Muddy are simply moanin' and wailin' away wordlessly as musical stew boils over into a mind numbing froth. Jungle music indeed. When word got back to Leonard Chess that Muddy had recorded this tune for another label, Chess got right on the case and had Muddy in the studio to re-record the song and kill the smaller label version. Unfortunately, Chess forgot to have Muddy bring Little Walter and Baby Face Leroy with him, and the re-recorded version is nowhere near as good as the Parkway original. If you were going to pare your record collection down to a dozen or so discs, this is one that would make the cut. Parkway 502 was billed to Little Walter Trio and the a-side-- Just Keep Lovin' Her a remake of the same tune that Walter had recorded for Chance in 1947 at his second session. This version is better than the Chance recording, an upbeat blues with Walter's vocal and harmonica just starting to show the authority he would wield so effortlessly in the next decade of recording. The b-side however-- Moonshine Blues I find more interesting for the first appearance on record of Little Walter's guitar playing. That's Walter playing lead, with a distorted, nasty edge to his sound. Muddy's guitar can be heard underneath, holding the proceedings together. Walter really was a hell of a guitar player (he thought himself much superior to Muddy, whose playing he considered crude and old fashioned according to Glover, Dirks and Gaines). There's a hint of Guitar Slim in his attack. The final two sides from that day, also issued under the moniker Little Walter Trio-- Muskadine Blues b/w Bad Acting Woman appeared on as Regent 3296, on the New Jersey label that acquired the masters to satisfy a debt. Regent would soon itself be acquired by Savoy, the jazz-gospel-R&B indie out of Newark, N.J. run by the ignoble Herman Lubinsky, the least liked record man of his day. Both sides of this platter are dominated by Little Walter's guitar playing. Muskadine Blues is the Robert Lockwood tune-- Take A Little Walk With Me, a tune many think to have been penned by Robert Johnson, one of two so called "lost tunes" that Johnson never got around to recording (the other was also eventually recorded and credited to Lockwood-- Little Boy Blue). Walter doesn't hold back much on the guitar, taking the solos in a crude, overboard fashion that sounds great over Muddy's slide playing. Bad Acting Woman seems to pick up exactly where Muskadine ends, and again it's a side so primitive it's unlikely that Chess would have issued it. In fact the entire session probably would have been shelved by Chess, which prided itself in well recorded, well played blues records. Many critics have written about these recordings, singling out Rollin' and Tumblin' as a masterpiece and writing off the other sides as mere curiosities, and many have criticized Walter's guitar playing as inept.Going back to Glover, Dirks and Gaines again, their opinion is that Walter's guitar playing is "functional if not particularly noteworthy...if nothing else, the session makes it obvious where his real talent lies" (i.e. playing the harmonica). I beg to differ, I think Little Walter was a unique and interesting guitarist, once again, it's hard to get away from the word crude, but in blues crude is good, no one listens to blues to hear slick (except idiots), and I think these sides (readily available on the Delmark CD The Blues World Of Little Walter which is rounded out by excellent early and obscure sides by J.B. Lenoir and Sunnyland Slim) are as worthy of a listen as anything he later recorded for Checker, and Little Walter's Checker output was of a very high standard indeed. But it's a different side of Little Walter, not the sharkskin suited musical visionary whose Checker recordings still sound futuristic and modern, but the rough and tumble kid who slept on pool tables and hustled for spare change on the streets of Chicago's Jewtown. It's the best look at early Little Walter we have, and it's the next best thing to having been there.