Little Walter

The tune entitled “Juke” was recorded in Chicago in May of 1952. It is a harmonica instrumental. The harmonica player is Marion Walter Jacobs, a/k/a Little Walter. The tune was produced in the Studio by Bill Putnam, who has been described as “The Father of Modern Recording”. Putnam was the first producer/audio engineer in the U.S. to produce artificial reverberation in the recording studio by designing and using echo chambers. Later in the 1950s, Sam Phillips at Sun studio in Memphis tried to reproduce Putnam’s sound but was only partially successful. Phillips sent to Putnam in August 1955 the Sun master tape of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” and “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” with these instructions: “ Give me a hot level on both a 78 and a 45 with as much presence peak and bass as possible!”

Walter Jacobs was to amplified harmonica what Charlie Parker was to the alto saxophone and Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar. Nobody ever played the harmonica like Walter Jacobs. This record represents the first music ever recorded by Walter Jacobs in the studio. In fact, the record released on Checker in 1952 is from the first take. There was only one other take of the tune recorded on the recording date in 1952, and it was not released until 1992.

Here is what Walter did that nobody else had ever done before: He took a small hand held microphone, plugged it in to a guitar amplifier, turned up the volume to the point of distortion, and held the mike directly under the harmonica while he played inside one of Putnam’s echo chambers. He got new original musical sounds out of the little harp that nobody ever got before. And again, his improvisation drew on everything he heard growing up in Louisiana before leaving for Chicago. What Walter plays here is not the blues, or even R&B; it’s not jazz or country. It is up-tempo boogie with phrases drawn from all those genres, played fast, in perfect time, similar to what we have been listening to, now with new electric sound effects. A very historic and ground breaking record.

Upon its release on Checker records, this record quickly entered the charts and ascended to the Number One position, where it remained for 8 weeks. It remained in the charts for 20 weeks. No other harmonica instrumental has ever achieved the number one position, before or since. The record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. Walter was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, the first and only harmonica player to be so honored.

Sound engineer and record producer Bill Putnam died in Riverside, CA in 1989. He received a posthumous Special Merit/Technical Grammy award in the year 2008.

Walter Jacobs died in Chicago at age 37 in the year 1968.
Rock on!

Juke – Little Walter & His Night Cats-Checker 758 (1952)

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