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Big Walter Horton Profile

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Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell

Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell

Photo courtesy Alligator Records

Born: April 6, 1917 in Horn Lake MS

Died: December 8, 1981 in Chicago IL

A pioneering harmonica player and one of the prime architects of what we today consider to be the classic Chicago blues sound, Big Walter "Shakey" Horton's achievements are often overshadowed by the more flamboyant work of contemporaries like Little Walter and James Cotton. A shy, unassuming musician, Horton was more comfortable performing behind other bluesmen than in forming his own bands. Because of his sparse catalog of recordings, Horton's contributions to the blues are unfairly ignored, yet his signature three-note turnaround can be found in the grooves of dozens of sides released throughout the 1950s.

Traveling Bluesman

Horton was born in Mississippi but moved to Memphis with his mother at a young age. He began teaching himself the harmonica at the age of five, and would often play in Handy Park, near the city's infamous Beale Street, for tips. While in his teens, Horton played with the Memphis Jug Band (as "Shakey Walter"), possibly appearing on a couple of the band's recordings, and learned more about his instrument from fellow band member Will Shade and Memphis legend Hammie Nixon.

During the late-1920s and early-1930s, Horton hustled work wherever he could, playing street corners for tips and hitting up parties, fish fries, and juke-joints for whatever pay was available. He was known to have performed alongside such talents as Robert Johnson, Homesick James, and Honeyboy Edwards, and even toured as part of Ma Rainey's band during the 1930s.

Around 1939, Horton began toying around with amplifying his harmonica, and he recorded with guitarist Little Buddy Doyle for Okeh, the two performing in the acoustic duo format popular at the time. He would literally disappear from the blues scene during much of the 1940s, however, working different odd jobs to pay the bills.

Goin' To Chicago

Horton reappeared in 1948, blowing his harp behind the young blues guitarist B.B. King. He would later perform behind Eddie Taylor, and in 1951 Horton would record a number of sides for producer Sam Phillips. The songs were subsequently licensed to Modern/RPM Records and released under the name of "Mumbles," a nickname given him by Phillips that Horton didn't much like. In 1953, Horton packed up and moved to Chicago, where he soon was recruited by Muddy Waters for his band when Junior Wells was drafted into the army.

Horton would stay with the Waters band for around, and recorded a number of sides with the blues legend before being fired for one infraction or another. By this time, however, Horton's searing harp technique had fully-matured, and he became an in-demand Chess Records session player. Through the end of the 1950s, Horton would appear on classic records by Jimmy Rogers ("Walking By Myself"), Otis Rush ("I Can't Quit You Baby"), Johnny Shines ("Evening Sun"), and even with Waters again.

Horton's Solo Sides

Horton would record a number of solo sides throughout the 1950s, working with producer/musician Willie Dixon on songs released by the Chess, Cobra, and Jewel labels. Horton even traveled back to Memphis to record for Phillips' Sun Records, waxing his signature song "Easy" with guitarist Jimmy DeBerry in 1953. Horton wouldn't record a full-length debut album until 1964, however, The Soul of Blues Harmonica produced by Dixon and featuring guitarist Buddy Guy, released by the Chess subsidiary Argo Records.

During the 1960s, Horton continued to tour with a number of performers, including Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Rogers, Koko Taylor, and Robert Nighthawk, among many others. His musical contributions to the notable Vanguard Records compilation album, Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Vol. 3, when it was released in 1966 earned the blues harpist a larger audience among white rock fans embracing the blues. Later in the decade he would record with Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter.

Big Walter's Disciples

Horton toured continuously during the late-1960s and 1970s, typically performing as a sideman in the band of a better-known artist, and he appeared frequently at blues and folk festivals in the United States and Europe, often touring as part of Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars band. His own recordings often suffered from inconsistency caused by Horton's heavy drinking, and the majority of his best playing was usually achieved as a session player adding his flourishes to the work of stronger personalities.

In the late-1960s, Horton began taking a number of young players under his wing, and his success as a teacher can be heard in the music of harp wizards like Peter "Mudcat" Ruth, Carey Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, and Billy Branch, all of whom forged careers of variable success. Horton recorded the acclaimed Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell with his student in 1973, and would appear again behind Muddy Waters on the blues legend's Johnny Winter-produced 1977 "comeback" album, I'm Ready. A frequent performer at the open-air market on Chicago's famed Maxwell Street, Horton can be seen playing behind John Lee Hooker in the street scene of the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. Horton would die of heart failure a year later.

Recommended Albums: One of the best representations of Horton's technique and talent can be heard on the Alligator Records release Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell, and his 1979 album for Blind Pig, Fine Cuts, is widely considered to be a quiet classic. The Ace Records import Mouth Harp Maestro is a fine collection of Horton's 1950s recordings.

Big Walter Horton - Select Discography
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