Hello. Come on in. The daddy writes about current events, literature, music and, once in a while, drops something on you from back in the day to make you pause and ponder, stop and stare, and begin to wonder. Who knows? You may start to pace the floor, shake your head from side to side, then fall down on bended knees in a praying position and cry, "Lawd, have mercy! What is this world coming to?" Check yourself! But this blog is NOT about the daddy. It's about you: your boos, your fam, your hood, your country...our hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. So let's make a pact: the daddy will put it on the track if you'll chase it down and hit him back. Together, we can definitely take it to another level. Shall we?"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blues With a Feeling, Part II

Success with the Mississippi Sax

Little Walter did some recordings for himself in 1947. But things began to take off for him when he joined the Muddy Waters band in 1948. Waters was no fool. He knew a good thing when he saw it and great talent when he heard it. So Waters featured Walter’s more modern sound in his band.

In 1952, Walter recorded a little tune for Chess called “Juke.” It shot quickly to the top as #1 on Billboard magazine R&B charts. Soon, other recordings would reach the top 10 (“Off the Wall,” “Roller Coaster,” and “Sad Hours”). Walter was on his way.

He soon left Muddy Waters band and recorded a series of hits, eclipsing the success of Waters. His songs were original (He co-wrote many of them with Chess staffer Willie Dixon), more up-tempo, jazzier; and sound more modern than the Muddy-Waters-influenced sound of the day.

Death from the cold concrete of Chicago

Yes, Walter was a success. But he was also in decline. Due to his bad temper and bad management skills, he had difficulty keeping his band together. He began to drink heavily and to use other drugs. He got into fights, the last one resulting in his death. Gesturing to indicate that Walter drank alcohol and took other drugs, Muddy told writer Patrick Day, “Little Walter was dead 10 years before his death.”

On the surface, he died on February 14, 1968 at the age of 37, as a result of wounds incurred in a fist fight during a break in a performance he was giving on the South side of Chicago (They said these wounds compounded other wounds he had received from other fights that helped to cause his death). On the surface, he died from a bad temper, an anger problem that caused him to drink too much, yell at band members and develop bad relations with women. But others said the problem was much more complex.

Some musicians said that Walter’s problems were tied to the decline in the sale of his music, the declining interest in blues music and the increased attention given to Rock and Roll, a blues derivative. They said that, to the extent that whites were interested in blues musicians, they sought out more “authentic” blues players—old men or women from the rural South to perform at festivals. Other musicians said this is nonsense. They said, yes, the music business was changing, but that was no excuse for his bad temper. Besides, they said, fellow Chicago bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy did just fine.

Perhaps there was another reason for Walter’s downfall: what he was, an artist. As an artist, deeply involved with the public, and as a black artist (singer, harmonica player, guitarist and songwriter), he had to be keenly aware of what Chicago was: a city where he and other blacks faced the same problems that he had experienced in the cities in the South where he had traveled (New Orleans, Helena, St. Louis, etc.) —cities where things were in some ways different but, ultimately, the same: cities where you work hard for little pay (if you can find a job), get beaten down by job and other forms of institutional discrimination; get assaulted by police, get exploited by absentee landlords who won’t fix a damn thing, get ripped off by grocery store owners who charge high prices for spoiled food, get attacked by thugs who live or hang around crime-ridden, gang-infested public housing, get mis-educated and made to feel inferior by public schools and get angered by the overall white attitude that black people are inferior and deserve what they get (poverty and racism).

A well traveled and highly aware Little Walter had to know that it was not just a black woman but white Chicago, indeed white America, that gave him them “blues with a feeling.”


Despite his untimely death, the huge footprints Walter left on the blues road cannot be overstated. His song “Juke” was selected as one of the top 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll. He was inducted into the R&B and Grammy Hall of Fame.

Of course he was the greatest harmonica player that Muddy Water’s ever had in his band. But it should be remembered that he influenced all harmonica players. So when you hear the great harmonica players that once graced Muddy Water’s band (Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell and others), you’re hearing Little Walter. When you hear some of the better harmonica players like Charlie Musselwhite, William Clarke, Paul Butterfield or John Poppers (He’s with the group Blues Traveler), you’re hearing in sound and approach Little Walter. In fact, it could be argued that it was Little Walter who was chiefly responsible for what we now call the Chicago Blues sound, or the Chicago Blues. Such was his influence on modern blues.

A very good passage from “Blues with a Feeling,” perhaps the definitive biography of Little Walter, may have said it best: “Influenced as much by horn players as other harmonica players, as much by jazz as was by blues, Little Walter freed the harmonica of {its} customary, if self-imposed, restriction for the first time.”

Have you ever had them blues with a feeling, blues that kept following you around? Then pick up a Little Walter's CD. He understood. The blues followed him every night and every day.


sdg1844 said...

I always learn something new when I come here. I had the complete works of Robert Johnson on CD and loved it!

The mythology that sorrounds so many Blues Men is so fascinating. It seemed like art and life were the same. There was no separation btwn the "artist" and the "man".

They were living in some seriously dangerous times and The Blues never fails to tell the real deal.

MacDaddy said...

sdg: Thanks for the kind words. And you're right. The early bluesmen lived in perilous times. What's fascinating to me is the bluesmen: how the artist utilized his or her sensitivity to what's going on around him or her not only to create but also survive that environment? It was much more difficult in the fifties and early sixties, during Little Walter's time, than it is now. And it was probably even more perilous in the thirties, during Robert Johnson's time. And it was tough for blues women too. I've heard a number of stories about Big Mama Thornton. You know she was one of the first women to have her own band. What I heard was that she carried a razor all the time and was not afraid to pull it out and threaten to slice up a band member's face when he got fresh or didn't want to take directions.

Hey, miss you and your blog too. I thought Black Kool was the most artistic.

Anonymous said...

Hey, daddy, I borrowed my brother's CD of Little Walter. It says Chess 50. It has the song you keep talking about, blues with a feeling. Is this one of his best? Can you tell me anything else about it? said...

Hello there!!

I am SOOOO UPSET that you are not a finalist for the Black Web Log Awards!!



MacDaddy said...

anon: That's Chess' 50 year collection. That CD is great. I have it and listen to it often. They comprise some of Little Walter's biggest hits: Juke, the biggest hit, and Sad Hours come to mind. The song "Everything will be alright" was used by harmonica player Junior Wells as a kind of theme song and is played a lot in blues clubs. The song "Last night" was recorded by Son Seals on one of his live albums and is just great. Also, "I can't hold out much longer" has been recorded quite a bit and is still played in clubs today. It's a fantastic CD.

One more thing: please return the CD to your brother.

MacDaddy said...

Lisa: Thanks for the kind words. I don't know about these awards or what category my blog fits into. I don't just do political posts. I do cultural posts: music, literature as well. On the other hand, I have people who come to my blog like you...That's enough for me.

Keep up the good work over there at Blackwomenblowthetrumpet. Your post on the church mafia was one of your best. Luv u.

sdg1844 said...

Hey - I'll be back in September bloggin away. Just wanted to take some time off, relax and then check in. :-)

Nun in the Hood said...

Dear MacDaddy,
I thoroughly enjoyed your piece on LITTLE WALTER. Thanks for including the CD of his music; by the time I finished reading both pieces I really wanted to hear him first hand. I believe firmly what you said about artists....I have known a number of them who suffer just because they have insights and intuitions mega miles ahead of others....surely, living in white America was painful for Little Walter....I'm sure he saw through the inudendos and complexities to the REALITY of White Racism, and probably felt quite powerfless in the face of it. I wish he had had more support so that he didn't have to turn to drugs to medicate his pain...what a loss...Just think of the music we missed! By the way, on the CD that accompanies your book MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP, was the harmonica piece Little Walters'????