Blues has always been a passion of mine.
Not only to listen to, but to play as well. While scavenging through books to find a topic for our third dispatch, I came across a picture of Little Walter. The caption underneath the photo said that the photographer did not know who he was, and sent the picture of the blues artist to an R&B magazine with the title: “Undefined singer on Maxwell street.” This photo was taken in 1963, and thus began my research.
I had known that Little Walter had played with Muddy Waters, so I was confused as to why this photo was taken so late in the game of early blues. Turns out that by 1963, Little Walter was already a star. He released his first recordings in 1947. He was in a band with Muddy Waters by 1948, and was signed by Chess Records in 1950. His song “Juke” was top of the charts for eight weeks in 1951, which was the biggest hit Chess Records had ever released. On top of this, his songs “Off the Wall” sat in eighth, “Roller Coaster” in sixth, and “Sad Hours” sat in second, right behind “Juke.” He held a towering fourteen top hits from 1952 until 1958. This man was a legend.
During the late 1950’s, after a being in a couple bands that didn’t stick together, Little Walter started to hire musicians on the fly to play with him at concerts. The artists included none other than, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rogers, Rocky Fuller, Memphis Minne, Bo Diddley, Shel Silverstein, and even Otis Rush. With all of these stars, how was Little Walter unrecognized by the photographer? I was perplexed. The photographer must have known very little about the blues. Little Walter was even going on a European tour in 1964. A concert from this tour is, incidentally, the only known footage of Little Walter ever playing live.
Like many big artists, Little Walter had his demons. He was an alcoholic and was known for causing fights that would often end violently. This would lead, tragically, to his inevitable death at the age of thirty-seven following a fight. He didn’t sustain terrible injuries from the fight alone, but the injuries only made his previous wounds from earlier altercations and tough living worse. He died in his sleep that night at his girlfriend’s apartment. The doctor claimed he died of a clot in his heart.
Little Walter received all of his awards after his death. He was put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 for his tunes on the harmonica. His legacy lives on through the soul of his music. His daughter even founded the Little Walter Foundation in Chicago to keep his voice and legacy alive. Little Walter set the stage for many blues and rock musicians. He makes me proud to be a Chicago musician. (Theo Lipari/CoS Student)