Blues harmonica master Billy Branch took on a seemingly impossible task when he decided to go into the studio to honor a true giant of the instrument, a project that came to fruition last month with the release of Roots and Branches: The Songs of Little Walter on the Alligator label.
Of all the musicians in the golden era of Chicago blues, Little Walter is among the most enigmatic. Like Jimi Hendrix on guitar, his immense talent on harp literally revolutionized the instrument. He left such an indelible imprint that, in the five decades since his untimely death at age 37, virtually none of the world-class musicians who’ve followed have been able to do little more than copy his charts note-for-note rather than using them as a benchmark and taking them to another level.
“To be honest, at first, I was hesitant to do the project,” Billy said recently. “What happened was that, over the last few years, my wife Rosa and I developed a pretty close relationship with Walter’s daughter, Marion.
“Marion wanted to see this project. She wanted me to do a tribute to her dad. We discussed it with my wife, and we kinda went back and forth. At first, I thought: There have been so many tribute to Little Walter albums.
“And I’ve never wanted to be the guy who’s doin’ the same thing that everybody else is.”
Anyone who’s familiar with Branch’s work knows that it’s true.
Now recognized as the undisputed king of harmonica in the Chicago blues community, Billy was born in the Windy City, grew up in Los Angeles, where he started playing harp at age 10 and grew up listening to R&B, classic rock and folk music. He returned to the Midwest in 1969 to enroll in the University of Illinois-Chicago.
His introduction to the blues came that summer when he attended a festival in Grant Park organized by Willie Dixon and featuring him in performance with an all-star lineup that included Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and others, including a young Koko Taylor, whose version of Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle was in constant rotation on all of the city’s radio stations at the time.
That afternoon proved to be a life-changer for Branch. Soon, he was spending his days in class and his nights getting schooling himself in the blues at many of the clubs that dotted the South Side at the time, including Teresa’s and the Checkerboard Lounge.
The blues has always been an artform handed down from one generation to another, and that was true for Billy, too. It didn’t take long before two elder statesmen, piano player Jimmy Walker and guitarist Homesick James – as well as a host of others, took him under their wings.
Always a hard mistress to master, the blues is best learned on the street, not out of a book, and Branch began establishing himself at what are commonly known as “headcutting” competitions. Probably a tradition as old as the music itself, it’s akin to a winner-take-all duet in which two musicians face off head-to-head, trading licks until one walks away the winner.
The battles were as much fun as they were challenging and brutal, especially when you consider that the city’s roster of harmonica players at the time included Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Carey Bell and dozens of others.
“I got lessons from ‘em all,” Billy recalls. “But they weren’t like sittin’ down. It was from gettin’ my head cut in them damn clubs! That’s how I got my lessons, includin’ from Big Walter. Those were the trial-by-fire lessons.
“‘C’mon up here on stage with me…’
“I didn’t have enough sense then to say no! They cut my head so much, I should have hired ‘em to be my barbers!”
Branch’s big break came in 1975 at the Green Bunny Club, a long-forgotten tavern on the South Side, where he butted heads with Little Mack Simmons, a harp player, bar and record label owner whose work appeared on Chess, Wolf, Electro-Fi and his own Simmons and PM imprints.
Billy cut Little Mack at this own game that night, and soon began sitting in at clubs whenever he could – drawing the attention of other musicians with his rock-solid old-school chops in the process. His first venture into a recording studio came the same year, when he laid down two tracks on Bring Me Another Half a Pint, an album released on George Paulus’ Barrelhouse Records with a cover illustrated by Robert Crumb.
Around the same time, Dixon enlisted Branch to replace the departing Carey Bell as harp player in his Chicago Blues All-Stars, a relationship that endured until Billy yielded the spot to Sugar Blue in 1981 to concentrate on his own group, Sons of Blues, which debuted on Alligator’s Living Chicago Blues Vol. 3 in 1978.
The early SOBs roster included both Willie’s son, Freddie, and Carey’s son, Lurrie, and several other top talents – including J.W. Williams, Carl Weathersby – emerged from the band’s ranks. Four decades later, they remain major proponents of the Chicago sound.
Together, Branch and the SOBs have released more than a dozen albums. But the Little Walter project was the biggest challenge yet.
Both a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame inductee and a Grammy Hall of Fame Award winner for the song “Juke” as well as other honors, Marion Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, La., on May 1, 1930 and left home at age 12, gradually moving from New Orleans to Memphis, Helena, Ark., and St. Louis, where he busked on the street and developed skills on harp and guitar under the tutelage of Sonny Boy Williamson II, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Sunnyland Slim.
He settled in Chicago at age 15 and split his time on both instruments before revolutionizing the work of harmonica in ways best compared to the breakthroughs Louis Armstrong made as a soloist on trumpet before him or Hendrix did on guitar after Little Walter’s death.
In fact, many music historians credit Walter with inventing and perfecting the use of electronic distortion. Both Sonny Boy II and Snooky Pryor are credited with urbanizing the sound of the harp because they held it up to the microphone when they played. But Walter took it a major step farther.
Walter played in a traditional, unamplified manner when he made his first recordings in the Windy City – both as a leader for Ora-Nelle and then as a member of the Muddy Waters Band in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, appearing on most of Muddy’s major work in that era.
But frustrated by being drowned out by guitar players, he began cupping the mic in his hands and plugging it directly into either the sound system or his amp to get more oomph a little later.
Before long, he realized that not only was he able to compete with them on an even scale, but he was also able to push the amp beyond its perceived limitations as he explored distortion as he created sounds not previously produced by any instrument.
He set the entire music world on its ear in 1952, however, with the release of the instrumental, “Juke.” Recorded in one take for Chess’ Checker imprint with backing from Muddy, Jimmy Rogers and drummer Elga Edmunds, it’s a standard 12-bar blues in 4/4 time that changes intermittently to 3/4 and 2/4 with Walter creating revolutionary tones as he played in second position.
The tune was such a novelty that it soared to the No. 1 position on Billboard’s R&B charts, where it remained for eight weeks. It’s both the only harmonica instrumental ever to achieve the honor and a song that ranked higher than any tune Waters would ever record. At the time, it was Chess’ most successful record ever.
As Branch says today: “He effectively used feedback and distortion to achieve that sound that was so novel at the time that, purportedly, when ‘Juke’ hit the airwaves, the jazz musicians were gatherin’ around the jukebox and debatin’ what instrument was bein’ played because it was completely unrecognizable as a harmonica.
“It sounded nothing like a harmonica. It doesn’t quite sound like a saxophone. But it sounds like a horn – but what kinda horn?
“I’ve heard debate over the years whether or not Walter was the very first cat to utilize the standard method of takin’ a microphone and overdrivin’ it through an amp. But I’ll tell you what: If he wasn’t the first one, he certainly was the guy that perfected that technique.
“And he’s certainly the guy who pioneered that technique.”
Juke solidified Walter’s spot in the Chess roster for the next decade, during which 14 of his tunes hit the Top 10. His “My Babe” hit the top spot while “Sad Hours,” another instrumental, climbed to No. 2. After leaving Muddy, he worked with a succession of top bandmates, beginning with The Aces – brothers Louis and Dave Myers and drummer Fred Below, the father of what came to be known as the Chicago beat.
His backing musicians included Robert Jr. Lockwood, Luther Tucker and Odie Payne Jr. after the Aces’ departure, and a young Ray Charles even backed him on one tour.
Despite his success, however, like many of his contemporaries, Little Walter enjoyed his liquor, and he had a fiery temper. Still only in his late 20s, his career began to decline dramatically in the late ‘50s. As a sideman, he recorded with Memphis Minnie, John Brim, Johnny Shines, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, Robert Nighthawk and even poet Shel Silverstein, and worked less and less under his own name, frequently putting bands together from musicians available at the spur of the moment.
Despite the success of other bluesmen in Europe during the 1960s, Walter only crossed The Pond twice. He died at the home of his girlfriend on Feb. 15, 1968, apparently from injuries suffered during a brawl between sets at a club in Chicago the night before.
Sadly, unlike the great majority of his peers, there’s very little legacy of his performance captured on film.
“In comparison, there’s a lot of footage of Sonny Boy,” Branch says, “but very little of Walter. Just recently, in the past decade, these little snippets of Little Walter from the American Folk Blues Festival have been poppin’ up.
“It’s kinda mysterious that there is so little. Little Walter’s the acknowledged king of blues harmonica. You’d think that everybody would have been tryin’ to film him.”
In the five decades that have passed since his death, Walter’s fairly short catalog has been covered by most of the harmonica players who’ve followed in his path. Anyone with a trained ear can recognize one of his tunes within the first notes.
Unlike the contributions of other reed players, however – either because of reverence to the master or the simple belief that his work was so perfect that it’s beyond improvement, few, if any, advancements have been made from what Walter recorded in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Check out the many albums recorded as a tribute and you’ll quickly discover that the great majority of the players – the top musicians on the planet – still place Little Walter tunes note-for-note.
“Most of the guys today are still using Little Walter’s technique today,” Branch says. “In my estimation, he’s the most emulated and copied harmonica player of any genre.
“In my travels recently…to China, to South America…in the Andes Mountain range, I’m doin’ Blues in the Schools and these youngsters are tryin’ to play like Little Walter. And then, in China, they got a harmonica club – and they’re tryin’ to play like…Little Walter.
“In the span of my career, I’ve seen it all over the world. You’ve got people who play like others, but I’ve never seen so many people wantin’ to play like Little Walter.”
When Walter’s daughter, Marion Diaz, approached Billy and his wife, Rosa, with the idea of a tribute CD, however, Branch was initially reluctant to jump on the idea – and for good reason.
“I’ve never wanted to be the guy who’s doin’ the same thing that everybody else is,” he says. “I don’t aspire to havin a Little Walter sound on every song durin’ the night. But we talked it over, and Rosa said: ‘Look, it’s comin’ up at the 50th anniversary of his passing, and Marion wants YOU to do it.
“’And also, she’s willing – and wants – to tell some stories about her father on there.’
“So we started on it. And as we rehearsed with our band, some of these time-worn classics of Walter’s started taking on new life – the arrangements started changin’. Then it became even more interesting. As we got engaged in the process, it started taking on an identity of its own. That’s when it became fun.”
The album features the current lineup of Sons of Blues: Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums with a guest appearance on guitar by Shoji Naito, a longtime member of the Eddy Clearwater Band.
“I felt that my band more than rose to the occasion and did a superb job when it came to echoing the traditional feeling and styles on certain numbers and then being able to adapt them in a more contemporary vein,” Billy insists.
From the opening cuts of “Nobody But You” to the closing bars of “Blues With A Feeling,” the essence of Little Walter comes through loud and clear, but Branch does something rarely, if ever, achieved with the material: By incorporating soul, rock and funk elements, he releases the 14 classic numbers on the disc from the time capsule in which they’ve been held captive, breathes new life into them in a manner that will both surprise and delight even the most steadfast blues purist.
Making the album an even greater delight is the final cut, a 2:43 monolog from Marion chockful of delightful, warm and intimate memories of her long-lost father that’s guaranteed to put Little Walter in a light he’s never been in before.
Billy chuckles at the thought. “Yeah,” he says. “He was a nice guy after all!”
Visit Billy’s website at http://www.billybranch.com.