Little Walter: Smooth and Fresh

Little Walter was too bright a star not to shine on the Chess recordings.  He played harp in new and innovative ways that play as prominent a role in Muddy Water’s records as Muddy’s vocals and guitar.  By training himself to play singular notes on the harmonica, in bright and innovative patterns, his style matched that of bop jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.  His melodic style is at once smooth and fluid as well as angular and unpredictable.   Walter always kept his lines fresh and very melodic, unlike the bombastic playing style of his predecessors.

He was uniquely pioneering in two more aspects of harmonica as well.  He began using the chromatic harp to jump scales and methods (most of which is beyond my musical knowledge).  No one had ever played so aptly on a chromatic harp.  Walter is also known for introducing distortion into his playing style.  This idea was right on the cutting edge and he purposefully added distortion to his microphone to bolster the gritty blues sound.  For these innovations, as well as his music, Little Walter has a fixed place in music history.

Willie Dixon, Little Walter and “My Babe”

In my last blog post about Willie Dixon, I explored how Dixon used the personality of Muddy Waters to create a persona about him to help boost his career as a blues musician.  Essentially, Dixon took what was already in Muddy Waters’ patterns of behavior and  as a starting point to give him an on-stage and on-record presence. However, with other performance, sometimes he had to experiment with his formulas a little. In fact, Dixon had to do almost the exact opposite with someone like Little Walter, whose personality was as photogenic. But, like most of my blog posts about the Blues, let’s start with how Cadillac Records portrays the singer through the lens of Hollywood and Walter’s “My Babe.”

The problem with Little Walter was simple: he was, in a word, brash. A friend of Walter’s, Luther Tucker, once said that he “loved to smoke grass, drink whiskey, chance [sic: supposedly “chase”] women, fight. . . . And he beat women, too. If a woman give him some lip, he’d fatten it up for her. And they’d just love it . . . it was amazing; they liked what he was doing” (Inaba 103) His personality in real life was not exactly as marketable as Muddy Water’s ‘mysterious bad black man’ persona, which attracted customers to his music. Dixon wanted Walter to attract people, not have them report the misanthropic harmonica player for black eyes and fat lips! So, Dixon started to create a persona for him, someone who could match Muddy Waters in charm but younger, slicker and a little less rough around the edges. He needed a clean look, and Dixon made him out to be “an ideal boyfriend who is truthful to his girl- friend: a ‘one-woman guy’ or ‘nice guy'” through some of his song choices and ideas (Inaba 103).

Dixon wrote Little Walter the song “My Babe” to create such a persona, and like Muddy Waters before him, Walter made it into a hit. Dixon knew that only Walter could have performed that song:

“I felt Little Walter had the feeling of this ‘My Babe’ song. He was the type of fellow who wanted to brag about some chicks, somebody he loved, something he was doing or getting away with. He fought it for two long years and I wasn’t going to give the song to nobody but him” (Inaba 111)

And as the best might say, the rest is history. A relatively short one, admittedly, as Little Walter died in 1968. He came into the lime-light bright as a shooting star, and ended as abruptly.

References:
– Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, May 2011. eBook.