To draw a line from an old television commercial, when Ernest Mattson talked, people listened. They danced, too.
Mattson did his talking with the harmonica, an instrument he played for nearly 90 years. He brought his musical prowess to popular Minneapolis haunts such as Whiskey Junction, Famous Dave’s in Calhoun Square and the Ballentine VFW.
On Sundays, he held court at the Eagles Club, where he was a fan favorite. He earned the nickname “Harmonica Ernie” while jamming with Pat Fitzgerald’s Teen King and the Princes on the group’s signature war-era song, “Eve of Destruction.”
Mattson, 97, died Sunday at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis following a short illness.
“He was a real south Minneapolis treasure,” Fitzgerald said. “He carved out a niche and that won’t be replaced anytime soon. ‘Eve of Destruction’ will never be the same without him.”
Mattson almost didn’t get the chance to discover his life’s passion. He was only 3 when the great Cloquet fire of 1918 destroyed his childhood home. His father died. Mattson, his mother and two siblings escaped. Unable to raise three children alone, his mother sent him to a state-run orphanage in Owatonna, Minn.
When he was 9, somebody gave him a harmonica for Christmas, and that was a highlight of his youth. As a teen he was sent to live with a farm family who didn’t let him go to church or school and made him work from sunup to sundown.
He ran away twice, and eventually wound up living with a family near Wabasha, Minn. There, he graduated from high school and earned the nickname “Tiger Mattson.” He was “an animal on the football field,” and led the team to an undefeated season, said his son, David “Buddha” Mattson, of Minneapolis.
Mattson was one of the last-living survivors of Pearl Harbor. He was on the USS Nevada, and survived the bombing by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, by jumping into a gun turret. In 2011, he returned to Hawaii to mark the 70th anniversary of the historic event. He spent eight years in the Navy as a fire controlman chief, and was awarded the World War II Victory Medal and Navy Good Conduct Medal.
Back home he was a TV repairman for Donaldson’s by day, and entertainer by night.
“He always knew which key to grab, so he always fit right in with the band,” said his grandson, Tyrone Mattson. “That’s why so many bands loved him. He’d add color to their show.”
Daughters Laurie Collier, of Bloomington, and Phyllis White, of Gainesville, Mo., recall the time he was on a trip to Lake Tahoe and joined an entertainer on stage. “Nobody was dancing until he started playing his harmonica,” they said.
He was grand marshal of Bloomington’s Memorial Day Parade and he performed during July 4 festivities at the Richfield American Legion, which is adjacent to Veterans Memorial Park where his name appears on a World War II monument. It was the harmonica “that kept him going all those years,” his son said.
Survivors include two other daughters, Suann Mitchell, of Phoenix, and Donette Mattson, of Minneapolis, a half-sister, Doris Hugdahl, of California, 13 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great grandchildren.
Services will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday at First Memorial Waterston Chapel, 4343 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis. Visitation will be held one hour before services at the chapel.