Boss Harmonica: The Life of Little Walter (Boston Phoenix, book review)

Sent: Thursday, January 09, 2003 8:15 PM
Subject: Boss Harmonica: The Life of Little Walter (Boston Phoenix, book

Boss harmonica: The life of Little Walter
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"Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story"
By Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines. Routledge, 326 pages, $24.95.
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Little Walter Jacobs was a serviceable singer, but when he lifted a
harmonica to his mouth, the sound he made cut the noise of crowded clubs
with the authority of an angel's trumpet. Or maybe saxophone. His earliest
blues hits - recordings like his signature instrumental, " Juke " ; the
rocking " Mellow Down Easy " ; the Willie Dixon-penned " My Babe " ; and
the heartbroken " Last Night " - left both horn and harmonica
instrumentalists of the early 1950s wondering just what the hell he was
playing. Often his harp was mistaken for a sax, because a harmonica had
never produced a tone like his before, full of bold and gently sculpted
notes, bent with the delicacy and sweetness of thin strands of licorice.

Little Walter wasn't the first to play harmonica through an amplifier. He
was simply the best, from his first recordings with Muddy Waters' band in
1950 until his dissipation and untimely death at age 37 on February 15,
1968. Today only a very few torchbearers can reach the same incendiary
peaks on the instrument - most notably Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite, and
Jerry Portnoy.

It's in describing Little Walter's music and putting it in the context of
his times that the often stiffly written new biography Blues with a Feeling
succeeds best. Which is no surprise given the background of its three
authors. Tony Glover has been a professional harmonica player since 1962.
Part of the influential folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray & Glover, he's also
the author of one of the most popular guides to playing blues harp. Ward
Gaines is likewise a musician and blues researcher, and Scott Dirks has
been a blues journalist, radio host, record producer, and musician for 20

One of the best passages in Blues with a Feeling provides a thoughtful,
informed analysis of Little Walter's approach. " Influenced as much by horn
players as by other harmonica players, and as much by jazz as he was by
blues, Little Walter freed the harmonica of [its] customary, if self-
imposed, restrictions for the first time, " the authors write. They go on
to describe his behind-the-beat phrasing, which made his harp swing like
his inspiration Coleman Hawkins's sax, and his knack for starting his
phrases off the beat for maximum impact.

They explain that his Charlie Parker-like gift for improvisation allowed
him to unreel melody after melody in his solos and switch time signatures
in the middle of a phrase, or even the middle of a note. And they cite his
knack for veering off into unpredictable directions that seemed hell-bent
for atonal destinations until he'd pivot back into the tune his band were
playing to find a perfect resolution.

But the authors fail to capture the spark of Walter's actual life. They
provide detailed information about his birth (possibly under a tree, with
his mother in disgrace) and convoluted early family relations, but after he
begins his journey to blues fame, this biography becomes a series of
recording sessions alternating with beatings. Although he was a womanizer,
Walter often kept to himself and seemed withdrawn in groups. That plus his
spending sprees and his hard, seemingly relentless drinking might indicate
severe manic depression. Yet the notion goes unexplored here. Too often the
pages of "Blues with a Feeling" read like a glorified set of notes to Chess
Records sessions, detailing who was present and how many takes were
attempted and which songs were played in the studio. That's all of interest
to the hardcore blues fan, but it does nothing for those of us who would
like a glimpse into the soul of a man who could leap from the percolating
beat of " Tell Me Mama " and the loving joy of the shuffle " You're So
Fine " to the rock-bottom blues of " Mean Old World " and " Sad Hours. "

In the end, one of those beatings - perhaps exacerbating an injury caused
by an earlier thrashing from the police, from whom proud Walter would take
no racial jive, or from a jealous husband or an argumentative gambler or
musician - caused him to die in his sleep, probably from a blood clot. By
then, his popularity and skills were in severe decline, in the wake of
changing musical tastes and his alcoholism. He left behind not only his
great recordings but the mystery of his motivations, his compulsions, and
the hidden heart that was the source of his sound - all still waiting for
other authors and scholars to explore. - T.D.

Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003 Boston Phoenix

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