Harmonica players gather to record tribute to “Little Walter” Jacobs

Blind Pig Records announced plans to record a live tribute record to the great Louisiana harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs, featuring some of the finest harmonica players on the current blues scene — Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Mark Hummel, James Harman, and Sugar Ray Norcia. The show will take place Thursday, December 6 at Anthology in San Diego, California and the recording will be called Remembering Little Walter.

Little Walter Jacobs.

Little Walter Jacobs spent his childhood in Marksville, Louisiana. Jacobs quit school at age 12 and hit the road, playing street music on guitar and harmonica throughout the deep south until moving to Chicago in 1945, where he quickly asserted himself as the king of blues harmonica after electrifying his sound. Playing harmonica through a microphone to produce a sound that could rival electric guitars and using unique distortion effects, Jacobs became the father of modern harmonica playing.

Jacobs joined Muddy Waters’ band in ’48 and was using the amplified harmonica on Waters’ recordings beginning in ’51. In 1952 Walter recorded the iconic “Juke,” the only harmonica instrumental ever to be a No. 1 hit record. In 1955 Jacobs topped the R&B chart again with “My Babe.”

The idea for the Little Walter tribute recording grew out of a number of highly successful West Coast concerts in early 2012 that were part of an ongoing series of “Blues Harmonica Blowout” shows organized by Hummel, who will produce the recording. “Walter changed all the rules and raised the bar so high that nobody has yet surpassed him either in innovation or technical prowess,” says Hummel. “Walter’s original sides have become the holy grail all other harpers are still trying to aspire to.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Charlie Musselwhite and Billy Boy Arnold, who both knew and were friends with Little Walter. In fact, both used Walter’s backing musicians (Louis and Dave Myers, Fred Below, and Luther Tucker) in their own bands in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“If you listen to Walter’s earliest recordings you can see that he came from a down-home country style much like John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson,” Musselwhite explains. “And then, probably with the urban influence of Chicago horn players, started phrasing like a saxophone. This phrasing combined with his creativity and amplification really took harmonica playing to a whole new level that hadn’t been heard before. For me personally, besides Walter’s being an influence, he was even more of an inspiration; an inspiration and invitation to experiment, take chances, see where it’ll take you and to always follow your heart.

“Walter was always real nice to me. He’d give me a ride home after the gig or sometimes he’d walk with me to the bus stop and wait until the bus came. He was always acting like he was looking out for me; like he was going to be there if somebody started some nonsense with me.”

Growing up in Chicago, Billy Boy Arnold recognized Walter as the King of Blues Harmonica.

“When I heard Little Walter’s harmonica playing on the recordings with Muddy Waters and others, I knew that Little Walter was the new Harmonica King,” says Arnold. “I bought every record that Muddy Waters made with Little Walter’s harp playing on it. He was miles ahead of all the other harp players on the scene. No one could touch him. He was creative, innovative, and spontaneous. Little Walter is still the top and most influential harp player that ever played.”