Little Walter - The Complete Chess Masters 1950-1967 (2009)

Little Walter - The Complete Chess Masters 1950-1967 (2009)
by Rev. Keith A. Gordon

For a while, blues harp master Little Walter was Chess Records' biggest and best-selling stars - bigger than Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf combined. From 1952 through 1958, Walter ran off a string of fourteen Top Ten R&B chart hits, and even his recordings from the late 1950s display a dazzling presence, a willingness to take chances, and an uncanny skill as both an instrumentalist and vocalist.

The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) collects better than ten-dozen tracks recorded by Walter, including a wealth of alternate takes and nine previously unreleased performances. Across the five CDs included with the set, Little Walter is accompanied by a veritable "who's who" of Chicago blues royalty, including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and Buddy Guy, as well as lesser-known but no less talented musicians like Louis and David Myers, Fred Below, and Luther Tucker.
Little Walter's "Juke"

The first disc here includes some of Walter's earliest big hits, including the career-making hit "Juke," from 1952. A fluid, swinging instrumental with an easily-recognizable central riff and some tasty six-string fills courtesy of Jimmy Rogers, the song would spend an incredible 20 weeks on the R&B charts, and hold the number one position in a chokehold for six of those weeks.

"Juke" was backed with the languid "Can't Hold Out Much Longer," a sizzling slab of Southern-fried soul that features some Walter's best Sonny Boy I influences, the young harpist taking the master's country blues sound and bringing it into the big city with both recurring riffs and slow-burning solo blasts. Alternate versions of both songs are included here, and both take the original songs in excitingly different directions.
Fast Boogie Blues

When "Juke" hit the top of the charts, Little Walter ditched Waters mid-tour and, scooping up Junior Wells' band the Aces, launched his solo career in earnest. Recording with the new band, which included guitarists Louis and David Myers, and drummer Fred Below, sessions from late-1952 and early-1953 resulted in another big hit with "Sad Hours." Paired with T-Bone Walker's "Mean Old World," the steady shuffling "Sad Hours" offers the first use of Walter's unique "warble" method that created a multi-dimensional sound for the instrument.

There are a few pleasant surprises among the mix of R&B hits and numerous alternate takes found on the first disc. "Fast Boogie" is exactly that, a raucous slapstick affair that includes some fine jazzy drums and Walter's blistering harpwork. The set includes three varying takes of the song, two previously unreleased, and somewhere down the line "Fast Boogie" became "Off The Wall," Walter's third Top Ten instrumental. The odd little bird that is "Crazy Legs" is a departure, with some strong bongo-sounding drums high in the mix and Walter's fast-paced blowing draped in echo as the guitars shimmy and shake.
Little Walter's Blues With A Feeling

The second disc kicks off with two versions of what would become one of Little Walter's signature songs (and a blues standard), "Blues With A Feeling." With Chess Records finally letting him put his soulful vocals up front alongside his instrumental prowess, the song was the perfect framing of mood and performance, drenched in emotion and bristling with energy.

When Louis Myers left Little Walter's employ due to alleged financial shenanigans, guitarist Robert Junior Lockwood was brought in for "Rocker." Another barn-burning instrumental, "Rocker" not only features Lockwood's edgy playing style, but it also further pushes the boundaries of blues harp with Walter bringing a number of interesting new musical ideas to the table. Another Willie Dixon number, the R&B styled "My Babe," would top the charts, Walter's vocals bolstered by a fine walking bassline and flying notes from his harp.
Bo Diddley's Roller Coaster

Little Walter's recording of Bo Diddley's houserockin' instrumental "Roller Coaster," with Diddley himself providing some rattling fretwork alongside Walter's frantic harp, represented something of a changing of the guards. By 1955, the commercial market was beginning to thin out for blues music as rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues took over the charts. "Roller Coaster" would be the last of Walter's instrumental hits, while another Dixon song, "Who," would end Walter's string of vocal hits. A strolling R&B tune with a modicum of bluesy harp and some finely-crafted six-string work by Lockwood and Luther Tucker, "Who" was a blatant attempt to hit the pop market, and it found partial success.

Between 1956 and '58, Little Walter recorded a number of tracks with a band that consisted of guitarists Lockwood and Tucker, Willie Dixon on bass, and either Fred Below or Odie Payne on drums. Although the material stands up with some of Walter's best early-1950s work, none of it proved to be a commercial success. Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry were Chess Records' latest stars, and otherwise red-hot songs like the spry instrumental "Flying Saucer" or the hard-driving, Berry-styled rocker "It Ain't Right" were virtually ignored by record buyers.

Amidst an abundance of alternate takes found on the third disc (six versions of "Temperature"? really?), songs like the slow-blues number "Little Girl" and the swinging, jazz-styled "Nobody But You," with a highly-stylized performance from the band, are gems lost beneath a stupefying tracklist. The shambling "I Got To Go," with Walter's locomotive riffing and an up-tempo soundtrack, is another lost treasure.

ey To The Highway

With the blues suffering a commercial downturn, Leonard Chess thought it wise to bring Walter back into the studio with his former boss, Muddy Waters. The two recorded a number of sides together, their first collaboration in six years, and the results were stellar. A cover of the Big Bill Broonzy standard "Key To The Highway" was provided an inspired vocal performance by Walter, and some serpentine slide-guitar from Waters, while the single's B-side, the stinging "Rock Bottom," is a brilliant echoing instrumental that pairs twangy guitar with Walter's saxophone-styled harp musings.

In January 1959, Little Walter would record with guitarist Tucker and pianist Otis Spann, producing a number of strong sides, although only one - the smoldering "Everthing's Gonna Be Alright" - would inch midway up the R&B chart. Benefiting from Spann's rollicking piano-bashing, the song features one of Walter's most emotional harp performances, the lonesome desperation of his solos matched by his mournful vocals. The song would be Walter's last taste of chart success, ending an incredible seven-year run.
Turn The Amp Up For "Back Track"

There are plenty of other songs on disc four to recommend aside from the hits. The addition of pianist Spann brought an entirely different texture to Walter's playing and singing, allowing him to take greater freedoms as a counterpoint to Spann's own inspired performances. "One Of These Mornings" is basically a showcase for Spann's flying fingers, his brilliant pianowork juxtaposed against the solar flares of Walter's harp. The Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song "Mean Old Frisco" is an up-tempo R&B rave-up with a contagious rhythm and foot-stomping harpwork.

Throughout the 1959 sessions, Leonard Chess had Walter's harp recorded sans amplification, a situation that evidently chafed the notoriously prickly bluesman. By the time that "Back Track," which kicks off the fifth disc here, was recorded Chess had relented and let Walter plug back in. The resulting performance is pure white heat, the band struggling to keep up as Little Walter just flies off the tracks with an effervescent performance full of breathless runs and dynamite-strength blasts of notes.
Little Walter's Blue And Lonesome

Other songs from 1959 showed that, while Walter's skills with the harmonica remained unsurpassed, his once-expressive voice was slowly being eroded by alcohol, his health affected by too many barroom brawls, usually instigated by the quick-tempered artist. In some instances, his diminished vocal capabilities worked to his advantage, as in the tear-jerking "Blue And Lonesome." Backed by Freddie Robinson's hypnotic fretwork, Walter's low-register vocals define sadness and depression, his blistering harp a reflection of his inner turmoil.

Little Walter's commercial fortunes continued to decline from 1960 until his death in 1968, and the sessions he was offered became few and far between. Still, there are some treasures to be plucked from Walter's increasingly obscure recordings here. Willie Dixon's "As Long As I Have You" is a precursor to the British blues-rock that would rise up during the 1960s, the song full of switchblade guitar and rough-hewn vocals. From one of Walter's last sessions, in 1967, a final shot of "Juke" with Buddy Guy and Otis Spann would cement Little Walter's legacy as the greatest.
The Reverend's Bottom Line

Yeah, you’ve probably figured out that five discs, featuring better than two-dozen tracks apiece, is a heck of a lot of material to wade through, and you'd be right. Although The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967) might only appeal to the most rabid of fans, it is also an important historical document. The set provides a portrait of a musical genius in the prime...and decline...of his talent, and it's a worthwhile addition to the library of any serious blues collector. (Hip-O Select, limited edition box set, released March 10, 2009)
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