Saturday, April 3, 2010

April 3: Little Walter, "My Babe"

Artist: Little Walter
Song: "My Babe"
Album: My Babe (single)
Year: 1955

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While nearly anyone can rattle off a list of influential guitar players or singer, the fact of the matter is, there are a number of other instruments which shaped the face of modern music, yet few people can even name one of the important individuals on these other instruments.  From things as widely played as bass guitar to other instruments like xylophone and accordion, one simply does not have music developing without many of these lesser known music masters.  Among these instruments and players is the man who is without question the finest and most important harmonica of the second half of the last century: Little Walter.  Within a few years of appearing on the music scene, Little Walter found himself as the studio harp-man at Chess Records, and he can be heard on some of the label's most memorable songs, including many of those from artists ranging from Jimmy Rodgers to Bo Diddley.  Though Walter is perhaps best known for his years playing alongside Muddy Waters, it is clearly his solo work where his truly talents were able to shine brightest, and he scored more than a dozen top ten singles after departing from Waters' band.  From the legendary "Juke" to "Key To The Highway," many of the songs of Little Walter have been covered over the years, and he was named as an influence by not only other blues players, but by many of the blues-based rock bands that emerged at the end of the 1960's.  With a sound and style like no other harmonica player in history, there is simply no mistaking Little Walter, and there are few finer examples of his genius than in his chart-topping 1955 single, "My Babe."

In a similar fashion to a number of other artists at the time, "My Babe" straddles the lines between a number of genres, and has an unquestionably pop sound it it, making it not as surprising that the song went all the way to the top of the charts.  Though he penned some of the greatest songs in history, the fact of the matter is, "My Babe" represents the ONLY number one hit for the great Willie Dixon, and this song was written specifically for Little Walter to record.  Yet if one inspects the musical arrangement, it quickly becomes clear that there was perhaps another reason for the songs' success, as it bears a striking resemblance to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 1939 recording, "This Train (Is Bound For Glory)."  In his later years, Dixon would reveal that this was, in fact, the "source" for the song, but the alterations of the lyrics and music hide it enough that it is unquestionably a completely "new" song.  With Walter's harmonica well in front of the mix, the song is about as simple as an arrangement can get, with an almost jazzy feel from the band.  Backed by a single snare drum, bass, and guitar, "My Babe" once again proves that there can be just as much power and brilliance in a stripped down arrangement as there can be in the most complex songs.  With the band playing a standard blues progression in a bit of a quicker time, it is the stunning harmonica solos and vocal work of Little Walter that turn "My Babe" into a classic, and the song leaves no question as to why he remains such a legend to this day.

When it comes to completely distinctive sounds, there are few artists that can rival Little Walter, and as soon as he begins playing on any song, there is no mistaking his tone or approach.  Bringing a more upbeat, blues-based sound, songs like "My Babe" have a fantastic swing to them, and this is no doubt the reason why the song found great commercial success.  At some points in the song, Walter is almost dueting with himself, as he plays a harmonica line, then responds to it with a line of vocals, and this is yet another way in which Little Walter was like no other musician in history.  Though the backing musicians are playing an almost mellow, non-aggressive progression, when Little Walter drops in with his harmonica, it is bright and hard, and the contrast between the two sounds highlights the amazing musical talent of Walter.  Furthermore, Little Walter clearly possesses one of the most truly "perfect" voices in history, as he is so laid back on the vocals that it is almost like he is simply speaking on the track.  Yet if this was his speaking voice, one can argue that it would have been impossible to have a conversation with such a person, as his voice is so soulful and beautiful that to "write it off" as a speaking voice is almost an injustice to his sound.  As blues-based as the singing and music are, it is within the lyrics that the song takes a more pop approach, as while they are presented in standard blues formation, the words themselves are in a far more positive light that a majority of the blues genre.  Singing the virtues of his woman, Dixon gave Walter words of a man who had no interest in another love as "...everything she do, she do so pleasingly..." and this more positive spin surely played a large part in the songs' crossover success.

Falling in the category of artists whom most recognize by name but few have actually heard, the fact of the matter is, Little Walter stands as one of the most important figures in the formation of the modern musical sounds.  From blues to rock to pop, traces of his influence can be seen across the genres, yet his name is tragically left off many "most important" lists.  Without question, there were few genres more impacted by the music of Little Walter than that of the R&B style, and his fourteen top ten hits serve as a testament not only to his dominance in that genre in that era, but also to his clearly unquestionable talent in both harmonica as well as singing.  Listening to any of these classic songs, one can quickly hear why he fit so well with the sound and style of Muddy Waters, and yet if one listens to Little Walter's recordings with Waters, one can similarly hear the ways in which his position in that band held him back.  Somewhat following the path of when Ray Charles reworked the spiritual "Jesus Is All the World to Me" into his iconic hit, "I Got A Woman," Willie Dixon was able to work the same magic in the creation of "My Babe."  Truth be told, "My Babe" was released while "I Got A Woman" was still on the charts, yet it was the Little Walter tune that found greater success, spending nearly five entire months at the top of the charts.  Combining a smooth, laid back backing band with the more upbeat, almost aggressive sound of his harmonica, Little Walter's 1955 hit, "My Babe" not only perfectly captures a time in music history, but also stands as an ideal example of just how brilliant a musician lived in Little Walter.

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