Born Walter Marion Jacobs, May 1, 1930, in Marksville, LA; died from a blood clot sustained in a street fight, February 15, 1968; son of Adams Jacobs and Beatrice Leveige.

The most commercially successful Chicago blues performer of the postwar era, harmonica stylist Little Walter Jacobs continues to attract a devoted legion of followers. His recordings as a solo artist and side musician with the bands of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers are among the finest performances of Chicago blues--sessions that continue to be studied and idolized by musical artists around the world. Fusing the style of his mentor John Lee Williamson with the jump blues of saxophonist Louis Jordan, Walter varied the harmonica, to quote Paul Oliver in his work The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, as a "capable but crude horn substitute." A country-bred musician with a modern sensibility for swing music, Walter created an amplified sound filled with dark, haunting tones and flowing melodic lines that became an integral element in the emergence of Chicago blues.

Born to Adams Jacobs and Beatrice Leveige on May 1, 1930, in Marksville, Louisiana, Marion Walter Jacobs was raised on a farm in Alexandria. Taking up the harmonica at age eight, he learned to play blues by listening to the recordings of John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson. After leaving home at age 13, the young musician played small night spots in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.

In 1947 Little Walter arrived in Chicago and supported himself by playing on street corners and in the Jewish market district of Maxwell Street. Performing for tips and handouts, Walter's repertoire included waltzes, polkas, and blues numbers. On Maxwell Street he performed with guitarists Johnny Young, Othum Brown, and Big Bill Broonzy, who became his informally adopted guardian. At this time he also took up playing guitar. Arkansas-born guitarist Moody Jones recalled in Chicago Blues how Walter displayed a deep interest in studying the instrument: "[Walter] played harmonica y'know but he used to follow me to try to play the guitar. Me and him be playing together, we'd go out to make some money and he wouldn't want to play the harmonica. He'd want to play what I was doing. So he finally learned."

Little Walter's burgeoning talent led to his recording debut for Ora Nelle--a small, obscure label located in Bernard and Red Abrams's Maxwell Street record shop --in 1947. Backed by Othum Brown on guitar, Walter cut the number "I Just Keep Loving Her," a blues boogie emulative of Williamson. The reverse side featured Walter playing behind Brown on his original composition "Ora Nelle Blues."

During this time, Little Walter's performances on Maxwell Street began to attract the attention of many musicians. A resident of the Maxwell district, guitarist Jimmy Rogers recalled his early association with the young harmonica great in Blues Guitar: "I met Little Walter ... down on Maxwell Street. He was about seventeen. So I took him down and introduced him to Muddy [Waters], and I told him he was a good harmonica player. In fact, Little Walter was about the best harmonica that was in Chicago--for the blues, at that time."

In 1948 Waters added Little Walter to his road band, which included Rogers on guitar, Big Crawford on bass, and Baby Face Leroy on drums. Departing from his guitar/bass Chess Records studio line-up, Waters recorded with Walter in a trio that produced the nationwide hit "Louisiana Blues" in 1951. Waters also joined Walter on the Parkway studio recordings of the Little Walter Trio and the Baby Face Trio. Guitarist Baby Face Leroy's cut of "Rolling and Tumbling," featuring Walter's harmonica and Waters's stinging slide work, has been considered by many critics and historians as one of the most powerful Chicago blues songs ever recorded. On subsequent sessions for Chess, wrote Jas Obrecht in Blues Guitar, "Waters and Walter further forged their instruments into a seamless voice or created stunning call-and-response dialogues."

This powerful musical exchange is featured on a number of Chess sides, including Little Walter's 1951 Top Ten rhythm-and-blues hit "Long Distance Call." Featured on second guitar on the recording of "Honey Bee," Walter played single-line figures with subtle, yet driving intensity. On "Just a Fool," he was paired on guitar with Jimmy Rogers to create a strong Mississippi Delta setting behind Waters's vocals.

Little Walter's contribution to Waters's band, observed blues researcher Alan Lomax in The Land Where the Blues Began, resulted in the transformation of "the blues combo from a country string band into a wind-plus-string orchestra." With the addition of drums and the piano of Otis Spann, Little Walter remained the primary soloist of the Waters band, his amplified harmonica producing haunting tones and long, drawn-out, horn-like bends. The powerful Waters-Rogers-Walter combination gained a formidable reputation. As Waters recalled in Blues Guitar, "Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and myself, we would go looking for bands that were playing. We called ourselves 'the headhunters,' 'cause we'd go in and if we get the chance we were gonna burn 'em."

After landing a hit with the Waters band's stage theme song for Chess in 1952, Little Walter left the group. Originally an untitled boogie instrumental, the number was released as "Juke." The reverse side featured "Crazy About You Baby," an original song based on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Crazy About You Gal." During a tour of Louisiana the band discovered that "Juke" had hit the charts. In an interview in Blues Review, Rogers remembered that he was sitting in a club when "here comes this song, so we gets up and runs to the jukebox 'fore the record is out. So we're looking to find what's the number, and we found it and it said 'Juke.' And we kept looking at it; it said 'Little Walter and his Jukes.' We said, 'Who's them Jukes, man?' Wasn't no Jukes."

Little Walter became so excited upon hearing "Juke" that he left the group and rushed back to Chicago. Returning to the city, he discovered that the Four Aces' harmonica player, Junior Wells, had left that outfit to fill his spot with the Muddy Waters band; thus, he immediately welcomed the opportunity to join the Aces, a group that included Louis and Dave Myers on guitars and Freddie Below on drums.

Dave Myers explained in Blues Access, "We gave him the framework. The work he needed was our type of work to be able to express himself at his level of playing. We was all fast and flexible, and we was all in the process of learning much different types of music and different expressions of music." At the helm of the band, Walter brought to it a vibrant sense of energy and creativity. "Walter was simply a person you could always learn something from," recalled drummer Below in the liner notes to Little Walter. "He was always calling rehearsals for us to go over tunes or tighten up our old ones. It was like Walter was running a school where you could really learn something you interested in."

At Chess studios, the band--now billed as Little Walter and His Jukes and Little Walter and His Nightcats--recorded a string of hits, many of which outsold those of the Muddy Waters band, including the 1952 recording "Mean Old World," and the 1953 releases "Blues with a Feeling" and the instrumental classic "Off the Wall." When Louis Myers left the band in 1954, he was replaced by guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood, whose brilliant jazz-style fills were featured on numbers like "Thunderbird," "Shake Dancer," and the haunting slow blues "Blue Lights."

Although Little Walter remained on the rhythm and blues charts throughout 1954, it wasn't until 1955 that he had his biggest hit, with Willie Dixon's "My Babe"--a song adapted from the gospel number "This Train." Despite Walter's initial dislike for the tune, Dixon, as he wrote in his autobiography, was determined to persuade him to record it: "I felt Little Walter had the feeling for this 'My Babe' song. He was the type of fellow who wanted to brag about some chick, 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. [But] the minute he did it, Boom! she went right to the top of the charts."

But as Little Walter hit the charts with "My Babe," his career faced several setbacks. Soon afterward, Dave Myers left the band, followed by drummer Below. Excessive drinking and an erratic lifestyle greatly affected Walter's ability as a bandleader. "He was behaving like a cowboy much of the time," wrote Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, "and would roar up to a clubdate in his black Cadillac with a squeal of the brakes that sent everyone rushing to the door to stare."

Though Little Walter's studio performances of the late 1950s continued to produce first-rate material, his rough lifestyle began to take its toll. By the 1960s he bore facial scars from drunken altercations. As Muddy Waters told Paul Oliver during the 1960s in Conversation With the Blues, "He's real tough, Little Walter, and he's had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!" Walter's street-hardened behavior resulted in his death, at his home, on February 15, 1968, from a blood clot sustained during a street fight. He was 37.

Upon his death, Little Walter left a recording career unparalleled in the history of postwar Chicago Blues. His musicianship has influenced nearly every modern blues harmonica player. In the liner notes to Confessin' the Blues, Pete Welding wrote: "Honor Little Walter, who gave us so much and, who like most bluesmen, received so little." But as a man who lived through his instrument, Walter knew no other source of reward than the mastery of his art and the freedom to create music of original expression.

by John Cohassey

Little Walter's Career

Began playing harmonica at age eight; left home at age 13 to play nightspots in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri; arrived in Chicago, 1947, and performed as a street musician until joining the Muddy Waters band, 1948; left Waters after scoring first hit record, 1952; joined the Four Aces and recorded a string of hits under own name, including "My Babe," 1955; continued to record and perform, late 1950s; toured Europe, early 1960s.

Little Walter's Awards

Won Blues Unlimited Reader's Poll as best blues harmonica player, 1973.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Books

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 2 years ago

I am suprised to know that someone so amous and a great musician, was born in the same hometown as me. who would have thought that.

almost 4 years ago

I have the movie cadillac record's,and I had never heard of little walter's either,but when I seen his picture on line,I fell in love with little walter,columbus short did a great job portraying little walter.little walter's died so young.I wish I lived in that era,and knew him.he could play for me anytime. Val

about 4 years ago

I'm just seeing Cadillac Records for the first time. I will have to watch again without distraction. I became so intriqued with the characters in the movie that before the movie ended I was on-line reading thier bios. I think that added to the emotions that welled up in me while I watched, however, I missed some of the dialogue. It is a great movie and thanks to those who brought us this film.

over 4 years ago

I just saw Cadillac Records and the entire line up was wonderful. I had heard of Etta and Muddy, but not Howlin' Wolf or Little Walter. The movie has given me a connection to their music and I thank Cadillac Records for that. The story was very moving, although they took dramatic license with the story... I am anxious to down load much of Little Walter's music as well as Etta's, Muddy's and Wolf's! My grandmother, Mary Jean Shurtz wrote music in the 1950 and THERE STANDS THE GLASS is one of hers. It was the Country Music Song of the Year in 1953 She also was ripped off and screwed over by the industry such as it was in 1950's. Let's hope it is better now! And God rest Little Walter and give him peace. I bet he is rockin' the great beyond with his harp right now! My Grandma would have LOVED him!

almost 5 years ago

I love this movie.i watch it every week and my wife is tired of me watching it because i have it on so much. i love how it depicts how black artists contributed to the great sound of music that we have today. lil walter would destroy these artists of today if still alive. "My Babe" is one of the hottest songs that i have ever heard to this day. RIP lil walter.

almost 5 years ago

I watch this movie at least 1 time a week, if i had my choice, i would and had watched this movie 2 to 3 times a day. the story was good and interesting. I like stories that are true. Every one that was singing was great!

almost 5 years ago

I have seen Cadillac Records it's an awesome movie! Really takes you to the 50's era! All of the actors & actresses did wonderful. Little Walter played by Columbus Short he really brought Walter back to life! Columbus was awsome! Great Job!

almost 5 years ago

i have the movie also and just like everybody else i fell in love with lil walter through columbus and his spirit did come alive through him i hope columbus reads this and know how talented he is love you columbus RIP lil walter

almost 5 years ago

I too saw Cadillac records and became obsessed as well with my grandmother ,who was a live when theses lengend were in their prime. she is as crazy bout this movie as i am..i was blown away by the whole cast. but Columbus took my breath away..why does he not have an oscar!??

almost 5 years ago

After seeing the movie Cadillac Records I became obsessed in finding more information about Little Walter and the rest of the characters in Cadillac Records. I was especially obsessed with Walter because his harmonica playing intrigued me. I wish I had had an opportunity to see him live. Columbus Short did a damn good job in protraying this character!!! Even though I did not know the REAL Little Walter, to me his spirit came alive in Columbus Short's protrayal of him. Little Walter left us to soon. I believe he had so much more to give. All the actors did a wonderful job of taking us back to that time. Jeffery Wright also did an excellent job as Muddy as he always does with all his characters. Thank You for this movie because it has truly made me VERY proud of these early pioneers of Blues. I just hate I never got to see any of them....RIP Walter, Muddy, Howlin Wolf and all the others....

over 5 years ago

I have this movie at home and I love it! I watch it almost everyday! I love all the characters- especially that sexy Columbus Short who played Little Walter. He is my favorite! What a great movie and the real Little Walter would be proud of Columbus for such a great role and performance! What a wonderful talent! Beyonce was on fire in here! I love her too! I love all the songs in there by Muddy, Walter, Chuck Berry, and Beyonce. My favorite songs are My Babe, I'm A Man, and I Would Rather Go Blind! The best movie ever!

over 5 years ago

i think lil walter was a very talented and handsome young harp player i seen the movie and i was just amaze on how gifted he was back in the day im from the chi town and i will love to have met him back then. may u rest in peace WMJ

over 5 years ago

The movie, "Cadillac Records" was quite simply, magnificent. Jeffery Wright and Columbus Short were peerless. Truly, they both should have received academy awards. I've never seen Beyonce any better, the role was made for her. Congratulations to the cast: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

over 5 years ago

Hi,I am jada and i am 8 years and i like your movie i think Beyonce and Etta James are sister and i thick Chuck Berry is my twin i will tell u how we are the same we duck walk on stage and i did once and we sing the same song i now them maybeiln riding my automoildeand we play gutairi like playing gutariri. i love all the song on Cadillac Records i really think all the singers are cute the fines one is muddy waters the best one song i like is at last and maybeiln,for the day, my babe,riding in my atuomoldo,minght night train they are all the singers in Cadillac Records the best singers are all of then i got to say one more thing i love all of u who played in Cadillac Records. love your number #1 fan jada

over 5 years ago

I loved this movie. BEYONCE WAS OFF THE CHART. "That woman can sing..." I also wish I could go back in time to experience the music and its electric vibes. I applaud the film industry for recognizing this beautiful masterpiece! Thank You.

over 5 years ago

I haven't been "moved" by a movie in such a manner in a very long time. Powerful, riveting, gripping, compelling, all of these adjectives still can't fully express the impact the powerful portrayal ("movie" doesn't give it justice)had on me. The need to find out more about them all overwhelmed me! Definitely a story that needed to be told!! If this movie doesn't win "Best" in every category at the Oscar's, there's a.. What? Not even nominated!?

over 5 years ago

I always wonder how much of the movie is true and how much is fictional. I think Beyonce has a great voice, but it's not an Etta James voice, I could not picture Beyonce as Etta James, everyone one else was great.

over 5 years ago

I watched the movie Cadillac Records with my sister and felt so nostalgic as if i was right there. i'm sure i heard all of that music when i was a child. i long for the music but not the times they had to live through. the Blues was truly appropriate for that era. they were telling their story. I found a very nice young photo of little walter a couple of weeks ago but cannot find it anywhere now. it hurts to look at the older photo where he was so badly scarred. can someone please email me that fine young photo of him. iwould really appreciate it. Vangy

over 5 years ago

I rented Cadillac Records and last night watched it twice with a rewind several times to Beyonce singing that last song to Adrien Brody. I LOVED THE MOVIE! Beyonce blew it away and that last scene with her and Adrian Brody is sooooo powerful. It is the best movie I have seen in years. I had never heard of Little Walter, but his life and death was so sad and tragic. He was only 37 and looked 67 when he died. I truly hope more movies like this are made.

over 5 years ago

I rented the movie CADILLAC RECORDS and I LOVED IT! It felt as if I was right there with Little Walter and Muddy and Etta and that fine Adrien Brody! I looked over at my hubby and said "oh, I wished I could've been back then just for 1 week - 1 week I tell ya!" As mentioned earlier, I could tell that Lil Walter was going to come to a terrible end - and that's soo sad. Now when I think of the kids today in and out of the music industry, they just don't realize what SOMEBODY had to go thru so they could get to! Lordy mercy...

over 5 years ago

Just saw the movie "Cadillac Records". Left before the end. It was obvious that Little Walter was going to come to a bad end, and I couldn't bear to see it. With a black President now in the White House, some people talk about a "post-racial" era. But the bitterness of opportunities denied, just compensation withheld, dreams deferred won't die until everyone who lived through it has died.

almost 6 years ago

Why Oh Why did Little Walter have to leave us so soon... I just missed him by about 20 years... They say that there are some of Us that have to go ahead the rest to get things ready... And hearing about who he ran with he needed a head start... Born in 1959 everytime I hear any of his recordings it feels like the first time... I always get that tingle in my spine...for I know for a fact if I could have had the opportunity to have his eyes laid on me Little Walter would have been Mine...for the Rest of His Time....Now Really , a man that could blow a harp like that;) Love You Always Walter and Forever ....Cece