Listen to this track by primo blues harpist and bad, bad R&B badass Little Walter. It’s his signature #1 hit and key R&B statement “My Babe”, originally released as a single in 1955 on the Chess Records label, home of many, many R&B hits, and as featured on numerous blues compilations. Not too many of them put a woman on a pedestal like this and still retain its balls, of course.
This tune was one of the first Chess sides I’d ever heard, and what a revelation it was. Just the sound of it unlocked a whole corridor of musical tradition and allowed me new access to forms I’d always felt separated from. It was the Chess sound that activated blues-rock in the 60s, and hard rock in the 70s. Understanding where all of that came from allowed me to really appreciate where, say, Led Zeppelin had come from too.
Yet, this track is more than just an artifact of another time to influence modern rock music. It’s also a love song, a song of admiration to womankind that still resonates, which in the world of blues braggadocio is unexpected to say the least.Besides all that, Little Walter was a titan when it came to the harmonica, and along with Sonny Boy Williamson II, influenced multiple generations of blues harpists including Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, and Charlie Musselwhite, among many, many others. Basically, he brought the harp to the fore in an unprecedented way, making it equal to pianos, saxes, and guitars as instruments on which one could be proficient, and even virtuosic.
It was out of his abilities, and his creativity when it came to amplification, that the practice of miking a harmonica in order to be heard above other amplified instruments came to become standard. It was Little Walter who invented it. This is what allowed him to thrive as a musician as the electric blues scene began to develop by the mid-to-late 40s. Using the amplified technology for the harmonica, new possiblities for the instrument opened up, including various timbres available through distortion effects. Little Walter was, in a way, the Jimi Hendrix of the harp.
“My Babe” was a giant hit, one of the biggest and most recognizable of the Chess Records canon. It would be celebrated by various artists including Elvis Presley, Dale Hawkins, The Steve Miller Band, and Ben Harper, just to name a few. It would be re-released in 1961 in a new version and score on the pop charts as well as on the R&B charts. It would cross stylistic lines too, of course, showing that it transcends its own origin, and even its writer.
When it came to blues mythology, Little Walter was the proverbial ‘real deal’; musically skilled, and not just a little dangerous as a guy to mess with. By 1968, hard living, and a number of violent encounters in the tough scenes of Southside Chicago clubs would cut his life short at the young age of 37. Yet, as they say, his influence in the work of others even today continues to flourish.
For more information and more music, check out this Little Walter fan page.