Everyday folks have carried harmonicas in their pockets since civil war days to blow a quick melody. In the South, blues musicians would entertain people with sounds like trains, hounds and roosters. In Chicago, these mouth “harp” players began to imitate jazz horn blowers. The harmonica became known as the “Mississippi saxophone.” Many fine harp players dominated the West Side in the 20th century; in this blog story we mention just two.
Walter (Little Walter) Jacobs: 1930-1968
Born in Marksville, LA , Walter Jacobs traveled the south, moved to Chicago in 1945, and began playing on Maxwell Street. He learned harmonica from Big Walter Horton, among others, and made his first recordings for the neighborhood record label, Bernard Abrams’ Ora Nelle Records. With his sweeping jazz-like solos and intentional overdriving of amplifiers, Little Walter revolutionized the art of electric harmonica. Only a teenager, he joined the Muddy Waters band, had a solo hit with the instrumental “Juke,” then quit to form his own band. Even as one of the international touring blues recording artists of the day, Walter continued to ply Maxwell Street, playing guitar instead of harmonica to avoid conflict with the musicians’ union. He died tragically of alcohol abuse. Harp blowers ever since have kept his wonderful licks alive. http://blues.about.com/od/artistprofile1/p/LittleWalter.htm
By the way, Little Walter may have drunk too much and got into fights—but there’s no evidence he shot anybody. I don’t know why they put that scene in the movie Cadillac Records.
Willie (Little Willie) Anderson, 1920-1991
Born in 1920 in West Memphis, AR, Willie Anderson learned blues harmonica by hearing Sonny Boy Williamson I, and following guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Robert Jr. Lockwood. He came to Chicago in 1930 and began playing professionally with mandolinist Johnny Young. He found a new mentor in the younger Little Walter, who he faithfully imitated. In 1979 he was recorded by Bob Corritore, a white harmonica player and documenter of blues, on Corritore’s Blues on Blues label. Corritore’s photos of Anderson and other musicians of that era are here: http://bobcorritore.com/photos/chicago-blues-1970s-to-early-eighties-part-2-2/ Corritore now lives in Arizona.
During the 1980s Anderson showed up often to play on Maxwell Street and at the Delta Fish Market. Lester “Mad Dog” Davenport (1932-2009), another singer and harmonica was among his musical buddies.
Today, West Side harmonica players like singer Cyrus Hayes carry on the tradition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU5klsy1Vfs