Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Juke by Little Walter


Written and performed by Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs) Released as a single on Checker Records 1952, you can find this song on numerous compilations and anthologies. Click here for a YouTube recording of “Juke.”

Feel like some Chicago blues? Want to hear some great harp work? Call up “Juke” and crank the sound. The first and only harmonica instrumental R&B single to reach number one on the Billboard charts, from the opening notes, Little Walter wraps that harp sound around chiming guitar chords and dances across the shifting boogie beat.

Little Walter came from Marksville, Louisana and drifted north to Chicago where he quickly found the Maxwell Street blues scene. Soon enough, he hooked up with Muddy Waters and began playing in a trio with Muddy and Jimmy Rogers. Beginning in 1950, Little Walter recorded as part of Muddy’s band and their song “Long Distance Call” (“You say you love me darling/please call me on the phone sometime/when I hear your voice/Ease my worried mind”) marked the first recording of an amplified harmonica.

Muddy and the band would play “Juke” to close out their sets and Little Walter decided to record the song. The band entered the studio on May 12, 1952 and “Juke” became the first song they cut. That’s Muddy and Jimmy Rogers on the guitars with Elga Edmunds keeping pace on the drums. The Chess Brothers opted to release the song as a single on their subsidiary Checker records and it lasted in the number one spot for eight weeks.

The success of “Juke” enabled Little Walter to start his own band –first called the Jukes – though he continued to play and record with Muddy. “Juke” was the first big hit for the Chess Records family. Little Walter went on to reach the top of the charts with a slew of hits including “My Babe,” “Roller Coaster,” “Off the Wall,” and “Blues with a Feeling.” You can hear his work on many of Muddy’s best recordings from the 1950’s, including “I’m Ready,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”  It turns out that Little Walter had more commercial success than Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and many other Chess stars.

The Grammy’s recognized “Juke” as a Hall of Fame song in 2007 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Little Walter in 2008. Little Walter remade how we hear and play the blues harmonica. Players that want to be taken seriously have to master “Juke.”

Unfortunately, Little Water’s personal life suffered even if he left a treasure trove of music for us. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, he died in Chicago in 1968 after a street brawl. He was only 37.

For more biographic info, you can check the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site here or a good piece by Glenn Weiser here. You might also check out this website dedicated to a biography of Little Walter.

You can hear “Juke” on You Tube here as well as “Blues with a Feeling” and “My Babe.”  You can see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute film to Little Walter here. You can see a video of Little Walter Playing with Hound Dog Taylor here.


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