The man born Marion Walter Jacobs was a master of the harmonica. And he was tired of being shown up and drowned out by loud guitar slingers. So one day Little Walter snatched a microphone, cupped it to his harp, and blew the world away. Little Walter wasn’t the first person to amplify a Harmonica. But he was the first to stretch the boundaries of sound with distortion. And when I say the first, I mean the first to use distortion. Not just on the harp, but on any instrument. Just take that in for a moment. And the first recording of that amplified, distorted harp was on a 1951 Muddy Waters session for Chess.
But the artist who’d dare to distort wasn’t satisfied to stay a sideman. Little Walter was so damn good that the first take of his first song of his first solo recording session became one of the biggest r&b hits of all time. A 3 minute harp instrumental, that’s to this day, Chess Record’s best seller. That super hit’s called Juke. And it goes a little somethin’ like this.
Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs was born May 1, 1930 in Marksville, Louisiana. Arguably the greatest of all time, he’s best known for revolutionizing the harmonica–and being the first to intentionally use distortion to radically alter his sound.
Little Walter got his start in his home state, and quit school around age 12 to busk on the streets of the big southern cities. He cut his teeth performing with the best of the older generation, like Sonny Boy Williamson II and Honeyboy Edwards.
Little Walter moved to Chicago in 1945, where he got work as a session musician playing guitar and, of course, harmonica.
Soon he became frustrated by guitar slingers drowning out his sound, so he began to amplify his harp. The techniques he developed around this time were some of the most innovative of the century.
He started off as an accompanist, joining Muddy Waters band in 1948, and playing on most of his early seminal Chess recordings. By 1952, however, he’s stepped out as a band leader to record his own stuff. His first take of his first song of his first solo session became the mega-hit Juke. And history was made. Little Walter went on to chart 14 top ten hits between 1952 and 1958.
Unfortunately, Walter’s temper ultimately got the best of him. Anger and alcoholism led to a decline in fame and fortune, and he died after a fight outside a Chicago nightclub in February 1968. His grave remained unmarked until 1991.