Little Walter: Age 37 | Cause Of Death: BRAWLING/ BEATING

Marion Walter Jacobs

(b. 1 May 1930, Marksville, LA, d. 15 February 1968)

A major figure of post-war blues, Little Walter is credited for bringing the harmonica, or ‘French harp’, out from its rural setting and into an urban context. His career began at the age of 12 when he left home for New Orleans, but by 1946 Jacobs was working in Chicago’s famed Maxwell Street. Early recordings for the Ora Nelle label were the prelude to his joining the Muddy Waters band where he helped forge what became the definitive electric Chicago blues group. The harmonica player emerged as a performer in his own right in 1952 when Juke, an instrumental recorded at the end of a Waters’ session, topped the R&B chart where it remained for eight consecutive weeks. Little Walter And The Night Caps—David Myers (guitar), Louis Myers (guitar) and Fred Below (drums)—enjoyed further success when Sad Hours and Mean Old World reached the Top 10 in the same chart. The group then became known as Little Walter And The Jukes and although obliged to fulfil recording agreements with Waters, Jacobs actively pursued his own career. He enjoyed further R&B hits with Blues With A Feeling (1953), Last Night (1954) and the infectious My Babe (1955). The last song, patterned on a spiritual tune, This Train, was a second number 1 single and became much-covered during later years. Other notable releases included Mellow Down Easy and Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights) which were later recorded, respectively, by Paul Butterfield and the Blues Band. A haunting version of Key To The Highway (1958), previously recorded by Big Bill Broonzy, gave Walter his final Top 10 entry. He nonetheless remained a pivotal figure, undertaking several tours including one of Britain in 1964. His career, however, was undermined by personal problems. A pugnacious man with a quick temper and a reputation for heavy drinking, he died on 15 February 1968 as a result of injuries sustained in a street brawl. This ignominious end should not detract from Little Walter’s status as an innovative figure. The first musician to amplify the harmonica, his heavy, swooping style became the lynchpin for all who followed him, including Norton Buffalo, Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite.