“Little Walter was dead ten years before he died.”
— Muddy Waters
Even now, forty years later, no one knows for sure exactly what killed him that night. Did the brother of one of Walter’s million wounded lovers bruise him with the fatal blow, a crushing shot to the head in an alley fight somewhere on the south side of Chicago, rupturing an injury sustained amid the many prior brawls that marbled his face with a storybook of scars? Was he beaten to death with an iron pipe in the street over a gambling debt, as others allege?
“He’s real tough, Little Walter” Muddy Waters would say not long before then, “and he’s had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now!”
Grooves arched over one of Little Walter’s eyebrows where stitches were sewn and plucked. He also wore the permanent gash of a broken bottle someone corkscrewed into the side of his head, and one darker stripe of skin curled around the socket of an eye caved in by a man’s ringed fist. His death is the lingering mystery of a life lost in an oblivion of alcohol, womanizing, squandered genius, street fights, blues and pain. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter why he died so young in his sleep on February 15th, 1968, more than a decade since the world passed the blues by in a cloud of kicked-up dust called rock ‘n roll and left him to shrink in the shadow of the giant he used to be, blasted on dope, boozed into uselessness, and forgotten along the road to newer thrills with the names of younger gods such as Richards, Page or Clapton. No matter the cause, the greatest blues man to ever play the harp was dead, and he was just 37 years old.
By then, Walter had fallen a long way from the harmonica king who cupped a mic and harp to his mouth and blew the thing into a hand-held fire from Memphis to Maxwell Street, where he’d cut his first record at Bernard and Red Abrams’s record shop in 1947. By the age of 17, Walter had already backed the biggest names in blues, from Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Nighthawk, before Muddy Waters took him in to form the most badass duo the blues has ever heard. Unsurprisingly, Muddy measured every harp player that came his way later on against the gargantuan talents of their predecessor.
“Walter’s was an uncommonly systematic musical mind,” blues historian Robert Palmer wrote. “In his hands, the amplified harmonica became virtually a new instrument. In his soloing, Walter used tone, timbre, dynamics, phrasing and space with the freedom and imagination of a jazz saxophonist.”
Yes, he’d fallen a long way. From the fat cat who rolled around town in a Caddy with a trunk full of cash and credit for beating Muddy to the top of the charts with his legendary harp riff, “Juke,” in 1952. From the home he escaped at 13 to leave behind a father doing time at Angola for murder and busk his way to some kind of living in the streets. From the divine heights he climbed to the minute he plugged his harp into an amp and blew it into a microphone, rivaling the volume of any electric guitar.
“There is no other way around it,” Ben Harper declared as he inducted Little Walter into the rock ‘n roll hall of fame last month, “to pass through life, you must pass through the blues, and to pass through the blues, you must pass through Little Walter.”
Through the haunted whirlwind of harp he blew to blacken the darkest mood on songs like “Blue and Lonesome,” a rattling flicker of guitar and drum blasting the bottom out of the song as Walter wills it to an unforgiving close. Through the spitting threats about the woman who left and hurt him so bad in “Hate to See You Go” and some doomed bastard who’s going around “stealing everybody’s chick” in the livid and fatalistic “It’s Too Late Brother,” how he’s got “no need of goin’ no further” and why the rest of you “better watch yourself.”
It’s exactly the kind of stuff you’d expect of a brilliant bluesman bent on brawling his way to an early grave. “He was behaving like a cowboy much of the time,” writes Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, “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.” It wasn’t long until they’d stare for a different reason, this time at the crumpled and bloody mess he’d become on night after night of boozed-up throwdowns in the streets of south-side Chicago, his talents wasted so thoroughly as to produce unrecognizably lame reworkings of his own songs in a super blues band of Muddy, Walter and Bo Diddley that turned out to be not so super after all.
But America’s heritage of self-destructive genius remains one of its saddest cultural chapters; Walter’s name wasn’t the first to join that tragic list, and it won’t be the last. As Ben Harper said the night Walter’s name entered a more celebrated canon in Cleveland this past March, however, “it is a historical occurrence when the word ‘immortal’ finds its proper home.”
The word most certainly finds its home in Little Walter, and nothing, not even death, can take that from him.