Whether or not Little Walter was actually the first person to amplify the harmonica, as has been claimed, he was a pioneer in using the microphone to bring out the moaning, echoing, and hornlike sounds that are basic to modern blues harmonica. Walter Jacobs began playing the harmonica as a child in the South, and he attracted the attention of Muddy Waters, with whom he often recorded and toured in the late '50s. When the blues scene centralized in Chicago and went electric in the '50s, with Waters as one of its stars, Walter moved north. He joined Waters' band and started releasing his own records. The instrumental "Juke" was a #1 R&B hit in 1952, one of the biggest hits of any Delta-Chicago bluesman.
Throughout the 1950s Little Walter placed records in the R&B Top 10: "Sad Hours," "Blues With a Feeling," "Mean Old World," "You Better Watch Yourself," "You're So Fine," "Key to the Highway," and his other #1 record, "My Babe." He toured with the Aces, formerly Junior Wells' band, breaking out of the blues circuit to play Harlem's Apollo Theatre and other large venues. And though he never made the pop chart, his reputation and influence were widespread, especially in England, where a generation of harmonica players learned from his records and from his disciple Cyril Davies. Walter, who possessed a volcanic temper and a fondness for drink, died from head injuries suffered in a Chicago street fight.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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