Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
The greatest harmonica man to ever blow the blues, Little Walter died in his sleep on this day in 1968. He was only 37 years old, but Walter looked much older, his body and soul battered and bruised from hard loving and too many defeats.
Just exactly how he died is another of rock and roll’s great mysteries. And the rumors were always going to spring up surrounding Little Walter, one of the more colorful characters in the tough world of Chicago blues.
Well-known for his quick temper, Little Walter was a fighter and a brawler who took more beatings over the years then he ever delivered. Some say the final straw was a head-blow from the brother of one of Walter’s many lady friends. Others say he was smacked over the head with a lead pipe over a bad gambling debt.
Muddy Waters, whose common sense and level headedness rivaled his prodigious musical talent once said, “He’s real tough, Little Walter, and he’s had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!”
Little Walter’s face grew increasing scarred from fights and beatings in the ’60s. It wasn’t a kind decade as he saw the blues surpassed in the pubic consciousness by rock and roll. Bitter and angry at the demise of his musical career, he sometimes waved a pistol onstage. Such was his temper and erratic behavior that band members would rarely stick around for more than a few shows.
He spent the ’60s on a path of self-destruction, a tragedy for a musical genius whose career had stated so well.
Born Marion Walter Jacobs in Louisiana in 1930, Little Walter landed in Chicago in 1947. A formidable harmonica player, he began to record for the Ora Nellie label, but it was crossing paths with Muddy Waters in 1949, on a Jimmy Rogers session, that changed his life. He began working with Muddy and they recorded Little Walter’s “Louisiana Blues.” Then, in July 1951, during a recording session that produced “She Moves Me,” he used an amplified harmonica for the first time. The sound was revolutionary. Waters now had the roughest loudest blues band in Chicago.
But when Little Walter’s “Juke” became a hit in its own own right, he left Muddy’s band and went out on his own. He scored himself 14 Top 10 R&B hits for Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary. He took Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” all the way to #1 and continued to record with Waters, adding harp to “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Trouble No More” and plenty more.
But as blues music hit a sales slump in the face of American rock and roll and then the British invasion of the ’60s, Little Walter suffered badly. He became embittered, increasingly short-tempered and wound up taking too many beatings. As Mike Rowe says in his book Chicago Blues, Little Walter was out of control, “behaving like a cowboy much of the time, and would roar up to a club date in his black Cadillac with a squeal of the brakes that sent everyone rushing to the door to stare.”
But heaving drinking, constant fighting and years of living life at the limits took its toll. As Waters said after his harmonic player’s death, “Little Walter was dead 10 years before he died.”