It is no exaggeration to call Little Walter the Jimi Hendrix of the electric harp: he redefined what the instrument was and what it could do, pushing the instrument so far into the future that his music still sounds modern decades after it was recorded. Little Walter wasn't the first musician to amplify the harmonica but he arguably was the first to make the harp sound electric, twisting twitching, vibrant runs out of his instrument; nearly stealing the show from Muddy Waters on his earliest Chess recordings; and so impressing Leonard Chess that he made Muddy keep Walter as his harpist even after Waters broke up his band. Chess also made Walter into his studio's house harpist and started to release Little Walter solo records with the instrumental "Juke" in 1952. "Juke" became a smash hit and turned Little Walter into a star, making him a steady presence on the '50s R&B charts. Like Chicago blues itself, Little Walter suffered a downturn of fortunes in the '60s, his career first eclipsed by the rise of rock & roll, but his decline was assisted in no small measure by the reckless alcoholic behavior that led to his early death in 1968. However, Hip-O Select's tremendous five-disc set The Complete Chess Masters proves that Little Walter remained capable of surprises until the end – and that he's a major artist whose legacy only seems more formidable when it's heard as a whole, as it is here.
Technically speaking, the title The Complete Chess Masters may be a bit of a misnomer. Little Walter issued the majority of his sides on Chess' sister label Checker with his full LPs appearing on Chess proper, but this is splitting hairs: Walter cut all his solo sides for Chess, often in Chess studios, cutting most during a spell in the early and mid-'50s when he was the most successful artist on the label, leapfrogging over his boss Muddy Waters with "Juke," a song cut at the tail end of a Muddy-led session. Once "Juke" hit, the sessions started coming fast and furious, with Walter entering the studio four or five times a year during the mid-'50s, churning out singles that turned into hit after hit and not just on the strength of his electrified harp. Walter was a supple, nuanced singer, the roundness of his voice standing in sharp contrast to his lacerating harp, providing an inherent tension within his records; when he sang "Mellow Down Easy," it sounded as if it were possible to ease into his funky groove, but that harp pulled you right out. Such kinetic inadvertent drama fueled his prime '50s recordings and almost everything he cut was of shockingly high quality, extending beyond the hits "Blues with a Feeling" and "My Babe" and into B-sides and forgotten sides.
This makes The Complete Chess Masters consistently absorbing listening, hampered only slightly by a rather large preponderance of alternate takes that can sometimes slow the momentum of this set. Conversely, the appearance of Walter's legacy winds up being bolstered somewhat by Chess' over-recording of him at his peak and general avoidance of him in his decline. This five-disc set might be billed as stretching from 1950 to 1967 but that's misleading: all but 15 tracks here were recorded in the '50s, a fact that winds up camouflaging just how long Walter was in dire straits. His fall from Chess' biggest star to being given charity sessions reflects the impact of rock & roll on blues sales – not only did they wipe out crossover blues hits, but Walter couldn't adapt to the times, his electric harp too closely tied to Chicago blues. So, he wound up with only a handful of sessions in the '60s, all presented on the final stretch, none less than entertaining, none a patch on Walter at his peak. These final recordings are necessary to fill out the picture, but what remains are those '50s sessions, which defined what electric blues was and what it could do, and produced music that is still invigorating and essential – and best appreciated here, where the true depth of Little Walter's achievement is easy to behold.
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