It may be fair to say that Little Walter (see Saturday’s Mississippi Juke Joint stage for bio) who took inspiration from the jazz horn players of his day and expanded the possibilities of the simple ten-hole reed harmonica, has in turn inspired more modern day blues harp players than any other practitioner of the instrument. To pay tribute to the master, assembled here tonight are some of the nest of that field.
Although Billy Branch arrived in Chicago just one year too late to have seen Little Walter, who died in 1968, he did have the opportunity and privilege to play with Louis Myers, Dave Myers, and Fred Below, who comprised Little Walter’s band. And he got to play with many other now-gone greats of the blues, an education that can never be had again. Legendary bassist, songwriter, and arranger, Willie Dixon, gave Branch his first leg up, inviting him to record and becoming a mentor. Within a few years, Branch had formed Sons of the Blues with Dixon’s son, Freddie, and Carey Bell’s son, Lurrie, and though personnel have changed, Branch still performs with Sons of Blues nearly forty years later. Branch has become an award-winning veteran and one of the blues’ most eloquent spokespersons and evangelists. His most recent recording is Blues Shock on the Blind Pig label.
In 1965, Corky Siegel was performing with his partner Jim Schwall at the famed south side Chicago blues bar Pepper’s Show Lounge when a drunk Little Walter asked to sit in. Siegel, still wet behind the ears, said, “Why don’t you come back at another time, when you’re feeling better.” The audience set him straight. Walter sat in. The irrepressible Siegel has gone on to
earn quite a bit more about blues and has en- joyed a long and successful career performing in saloons to symphony halls with his esoteric, lightning harmonica licks.
Rick Estrin is the harmonica-playing front- man of the California-based Nightcats, nominated for the Blues Music Award’s Band of the Year four times. Estrin himself won the Blues Music Award in 2013 for Best Instrumentalist Harmonica. At 19 years of age, Rick Estrin moved to Chicago to gain valuable experience sitting in with master bluesmen, and Little Walter contemporaries, Eddie Taylor, Johnny Littlejohn, Sam Lay, and Johnny Young, as well as with the great Muddy Waters who liked his playing and reportedly tried to hire him. He has earned a great reputation for his witty wordplay and clever story lines in his lyrics, and like Little Walter, Estrin is a physical player and great innovator: he seems always to be looking for something new to say with both his songs and harmonica.
Sugar Blue was born James Whiting in New York City in 1949 and left his native Har- lem for Chicago in 1982. Previous to this he had honed his harmonica skills in Europe and landed on three albums by the Rolling Stones, of which his most memorable contribution is the catchy riff on Miss You. Blue recorded two albums of his own, but has appeared primarily on wax as a guest artist. His powerful, avant garde, staccato attack builds on a foundation rst laid down by Little Walter. Given his adroit experiments in musical fusions, he is often cited as a spiritual heir of Little Walter.
Magic Dick (born Richard Salwitz) helped found the J. Geils Band in 1965, which rocked
steady through the 1970s and ’80s and had a sound described as a fusion of Chicago blues and classic jazz. Magic Dick’s harmonica style perhaps owes equal inspiration to the playing of Little Walter and Jerry Murad of The Harmonicats.
Billy Flynn has been said to be one of today’s nest blues guitarists in the style of Chicago post-war blues—the era in which Little Walter created his immortal body of work. In fact, Flynn was one of a handful of musicians chosen specifically for their knowledge of and fluency in the music of the Chess Records heyday to record the soundtrack for the major motion picture, Cadillac Records. For his guitar contributions backing vocalist Beyonce (in the role of Etta James), Billy Flynn was conferred a prestigious Grammy award.
Sam Lay came to Chicago from Alabama in 1957 and was taken in, rent-free, by Little Walter who also hired him as his drummer. He became a contributory player in the world of blues as drummer for both Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as with James Cotton. He then played a role in the transitional period of the 1960s by his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, one of the first interracial blues bands, and later with Siegel-Schwall. And then he made his mark in the world of rock as a member of Bob Dylan’s first electric band and recorded on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Consequently, Lay is deservedly a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.