Today marks 49 years since harmonica pioneer “Little Walter” Jacobs died as a result of injuries he sustained during a fight at a Chicago bar the previous night (he was taking a break from performing when the altercation occurred). The 37-year-old, Louisiana-born musician was a hard drinking, hard living man with a notoriously bad temper, and the nature of his death surprised few people at the time.
Despite his unseemly reputation, Jacobs was even more well known for the innovations he brought to his craft. His use of amplification revolutionized the blues harp game, while his unprecedented use of intentional electronic distortion in the late 1940s and early 1950s had implications far beyond his own instrument.
Jacobs also enjoyed a surprising amount of success for a harmonica player, reaching the Billboard R&B Charts’ top ten on 14 occasions between 1952 and 1958. His 1952 hit “Juke”—released via the Chess Records subsidiary Checker Records—is still the only harmonica instrumental to reach #1 on the R&B chart, though he would hit that spot one more time with the Willie Dixon-penned “My Babe” in 1955 (the song featured some vocal work from Jacobs as well). 40 years after his death, Jacobs was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and to this day he is the only person to ever to be inducted as a harmonica player.
A rare live video of Little Walter