Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Ray Norcia, others – Remembering Little Walter (2013)

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The standard-bearing harp influence of Walter Jacobs — he established the vocabulary still used by nearly every amplified modern player — is well documented. This guest-packed concert tribute reminds you of his composing prowess, too.

After all, Little Walter would write some 14 Top 10 R&B solo hits in the 1950s, well after his muscular, jazz-influenced style changed the direction of Muddy Waters’ music forever. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 secured Jacobs’ place in the pantheon, though an early death in the late 1960s at just 38 has necessarily meant many never had a chance to witness his often volcanic performances.

That legacy lives on in the blues, and on Remembering Little Walter, through the work of Charlie Musselwhite and Billy Boy Arnold, two modern-day successors who knew Jacobs personally.

Arnold, one of the last surviving great post-war Chicago bluesmen, easily inhabits “You’re So Fine,” recalling the combustible sensuality — and also the winking humor — that originally made this track a No. 2 R&B smash for Little Walter in 1954. Arnold’s update of “Can’t Hold On Much Longer,” which he describes from the stage as a personal favorite, is as urbane as it is heartbreakingly sad. Musselwhite, whose Vanguard debut arrived toward the very end of Jacobs’ life, offers a gripping, anguished take on “Just a Feeling” and then take a juking turn with “One of these Mornings.” The Memphis transplant recorded memorable studio versions of both on 2006’s Delta Hardware, but brings new energy to them here.

Truthfully, though, Little Walters influence would be woven into this set, regardless. That Arnold, Musselwhite and the rest are playing music so closely associated with Jacobs is what gives Remembering it’s punchy resonance.

Producer Mark Hummel, a talented harmonica player in his own right, kicks things off with a tasty version of “I Got To Go,” as the crowd gets revved up at Anthology in San Diego, then returns for a darkly apocalyptic “Blue Light.” The able backing group is rounded out by guitarist Nathan James, bassist RW Grigsby and drummer June Core; Little Charlie Baty also adds guitar on this Blind Pig release, due on May 7, 2013.

James Harman, a witty harp player who appeared on ZZ Top’s most recent album, handles “It’s Too Late Brother” with aplomb, but really finds his groove on “Crazy Mixed Up World” — unleashing a series of blistering, locomotive asides. Former Roomful of Blues frontman Sugar Ray Norcia, the most accomplished vocalist of these harp guys, offers a simmering instrumental take on “Mean Old World” — which went to No. 6 on the R&B list in 1952 for Jacobs — before catching a slickly insouciant groove on “Up the Line,” adding just the right attitude.

Harmon, Hummel, Arnold, Norcia, Musselwhite and Baty (in that order) then join in for a thunderous closing take on 1955’s “My Babe,” one of two Little Walter tracks to hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts — though composing credits went to Willie Dixon. (“My Babe” was so popular at the time that it nearly cracked the Billboard Pop 100.) Dixon also wrote “Crazy Mixed Up World,” while Al Duncan” composed “It’s Too Late Brother.”

The biggest major Jacobs hit missing from Remembering Little Walter is 1952’s “Juke.” (Said to be the only harmonica-focused instrumental to ever top the Billboard R&B list, it’s been honored by both the Rock and Roll Hall and Fame and the Grammys.) The classic “Sad Hours” charted at the same time, reaching No. 2. Those minor complaints are quickly forgotten, however, as this hard-driving, illuminating set unfolds. Remembering Little Walter, and this is high praise, more than lives up to its name.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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