Little Walter was one of the most influential harmonica players in the history of blues music. His innovative use of amplification and distortion, as well as his virtuosic technique and expressive style, earned him comparisons to jazz giants like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix. He was also a successful singer and songwriter, who recorded several hit songs in the 1950s, such as “Juke”, “My Babe”, and “Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights”. However, behind his musical brilliance, there was a dark side to his personality. He was a heavy drinker, a drug user, and a violent man, who often got into fights with other musicians and strangers. His turbulent lifestyle eventually led to his premature death at the age of 37, after he was fatally injured in a street brawl in Chicago.
Little Walter’s Early Life and Career
Little Walter was born Marion Walter Jacobs on May 1, 1930, in Marksville, Louisiana. He grew up on a farm, where he learned to play the harmonica at an early age. He quit school and left home when he was 12, and started to travel around the South, playing on street corners and in clubs. He met and performed with many older bluesmen, such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sunnyland Slim, and Honeyboy Edwards. He also learned to play the guitar, but he soon realized that his true talent was on the harmonica.
He arrived in Chicago in 1946, where he quickly established himself as one of the best harmonica players in the city. He began recording in 1947, and joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948. He played with Waters until 1952, contributing to some of his classic recordings, such as “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy”. He also started his own solo career, recording for Chess Records and its subsidiary Checker Records. His first solo hit was “Juke” in 1952, which reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart. It was the first and only instrumental harmonica song to achieve this feat. He followed it with more hits, such as “Sad Hours”, “Off the Wall”, “Roller Coaster”, and “Mean Old World”.
Little Walter revolutionized the sound of the harmonica by using a small microphone that he cupped in his hands along with his instrument. He plugged the microphone into a guitar amplifier or a public address system, creating a loud and distorted sound that matched or surpassed the volume of the electric guitars. He also experimented with different effects, such as reverb, echo, tremolo, and feedback. He used these effects to create new tones and textures that had never been heard before from a harmonica or any other instrument. He also displayed a remarkable musical versatility, playing blues, jazz, swing, rock and roll, and even country music.
Little Walter’s Downfall and Death
Despite his musical success, Little Walter’s personal life was troubled. He was addicted to alcohol and drugs, especially morphine and cocaine. He also had a violent temper, which often got him into trouble with the law and other people. He was arrested several times for assault, robbery, disorderly conduct, and other offenses. He also had frequent conflicts with other musicians, sometimes resulting in physical altercations. For example, he once stabbed another harmonica player named George Smith in the chest during an argument over a gig. He also had a rivalry with his former mentor Sonny Boy Williamson II, who accused him of stealing his style and songs.
Little Walter’s health deteriorated as a result of his substance abuse and injuries from fights. He suffered from ulcers, asthma, epilepsy, and chronic headaches. He also lost some of his teeth, which affected his ability to play the harmonica. His musical career declined in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as his popularity faded and his records stopped selling well. He tried to revive his career by touring Europe in 1964 and 1967, where he was still appreciated by blues fans. However, he failed to adapt to the changing musical trends of the time.
On February 14th or 15th (the exact date is unclear), 1968, Little Walter was involved in a fight at a bar on Chicago’s South Side. According to some sources, he was taking a break from performing when he got into an argument with another patron over a woman or money. The patron hit him on the head with a metal object (possibly a pipe or wrench), causing severe injuries. Little Walter managed to walk back to his apartment nearby but collapsed soon after. He died later that night or early the next morning at his girlfriend’s apartment. The official cause of death on his death certificate was coronary thrombosis (a blood clot in the heart); evidence of external injuries was so insignificant that the police reported that his death was due to “unknown or natural causes”, and no external injuries were noted on the death certificate. No one was ever arrested or charged for his murder.
Little Walter was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Evergreen Park, Illinois. His grave remained unmarked until 1991, when fans raised money to buy a headstone for him. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, as the only artist to be honored specifically as a harmonica player. He was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1995. His legacy lives on in the music of countless blues and rock musicians who have been influenced by his style and innovations, such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and many others.