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Here's The Man To Thank For The Sound Of The Harmonica As We Know It

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The song “Juke” by Little Walter Jacobs might not sound revolutionary to modern ears, but when it first came out in 1951, nobody had ever had heard harmonica played like this — ever. It really has an aggressive, in-your-face sound.

"Juke" by Little Walter Jacobs

To really grasp the change that Little Walter made, we have to put the sound in your mind of what harmonica sounded like before Little Walter. Take, for instance, the 1941 Jazz Gillum track called “Is That A Monkey You Got?”

Jazz Gillum's “Is That A Monkey You Got?”

Little Walter’s innovation was that he put the harmonica and the microphone together in his cupped hands. Earlier players like Sonny Boy Williamson were holding that harmonica in their cupped hands, but Little Walter held the harmonica right on top of the microphone, blew really loudly and played through amps that were turned up so that they were over-driving.

He was kind of like the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica, using technology in ways it was never meant to be used.

“Juke” was Little Walter’s first hit record; he was a 22-year-old kid from central Louisiana who came up to Chicago and had been playing with Muddy Waters Band for about a year.

Little Walter left Muddy’s band as soon as “Juke” became a hit, and later came back to record with Muddy Waters. He played on most of Muddy’s iconic records, like “Hoochie Coochie Man” from 1954.

Muddy Waters' “Hoochie Coochie Man”

And because the Muddy Waters songs that Walter recorded on are so well-known, he’s thought of by many as Muddy Waters’ harmonica player rather than a band-leader in his own right.

In fact, Little Walter had more chart success — more hits — than Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, with 14 top-ten hits in all between 1952 and 1958. Here’s one of them from 1955, “My Babe."

Little Walter Jacobs' "My Babe"

Unfortunately “My Babe” was Little Walter’s last number-one hit. He’d been living pretty fast; he was an alcoholic with a terrible temper, and that was all beginning to show up in his work. He died in 1968 at age 37.

By 1968, blues and rock fans didn’t think anything of hearing amplified harmonica, but Little Walter did it first. So to this day, anybody who plays a harmonica through an amp owes a debt to Little Walter.

So you’re talking about guys like Junior Wells, and Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield. In fact, let’s go out with some Paul Butterfield, “Just To Be With You” from 1965, blowing some Little Walter-style harmonica.

Paul Butterfield's "Just To Be With You"

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.
Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.