Born April 6, 1918, in Horn Lake, MS; died: Dec. 8, 1981, in Chicago, IL..
Big Walter Horton was a virtuoso blues harmonica player who, ironically, never achieved the fame of the renowned harpists he taught and inspired--including James Cotton, Little Walter Jacobs, and Rice Miller. Horton is remembered as a gentle man who never quite escaped poverty and poor health he was born into. Bruce Iglauer, who produced the 1972 record Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell, called him one of "only four great creative geniuses of modern blues harmonica," ranking him alongside Jacob, Miller, and John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson. Those three harp players were "recognized, honored and extensively recorded with their own bands," Iglauer wrote, but Horton remained relatively obscure at his death in 1981. "Perhaps ... this shy, withdrawn man (was) never aggressive enough to hustle a contract with a major record label. Or perhaps ... his harmonica is so subtle, so delicate, that it requires hard, concentrated listening to appreciate."
Horton crafted "a unique, fluid style that fused blues feeling with an uplifting jazzlike tone," wrote Chris Smith. "The beauty that he created through his music was in striking contrast to the troubled life he lived. Walter Horton was a shy, sensitive man who had to deal with poverty and illness most of his life. Often uncommunicative in conversation, he 'spoke' through his instrument, creating a world of lyric beauty, wit and energy." Writer Charles Shaar Murray offered a similar assessment in The Blues on CD, "Despite the greater fame and popularity of Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Paul Butterfield, many connoisseurs regard Horton as the finest of all the great post-war harp men."
Horton was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, on April 6, 1918. He was given his first harmonica at age five and soon was playing it on the street. "The decision to opt for a career in music was essentially made for him, because he lacked both the physical strength for menial work and the education for anything else," Murray wrote. In his early teens, Horton moved to Arkansas and then to Memphis, where he played with the Memphis Lug Band and performed in Handy Park alongside Johnny Shines, Floyd Jones, Furry Lewis, and Eddie Taylor. "I met Walter, really, in 1930," Shines once said, "and he would be sitting on the porch, blowing in tin cans, you know, and he'd get sounds out of those things."
In the 1940s, Horton met and taught harp players Little Walter and James Cotton, worked in Memphis as a cook and an iceman, and traveled briefly to Chicago--where many Memphis bluesmen were settling--and played on Maxwell Street for tips. He also became a critical part of the post-World War II blues scene in Memphis. In 1951, the legendary Sam Phillips recorded Horton at his Sun studios, both as a sideman and occasionally as a featured artist. Those recordings later were collected by Ace Records on Mouth Harp Maestro. An early Horton instrumental song called "Easy" is still considered a masterpiece of amplified harmonica playing.
In 1953, Big Walter moved to Chicago for good and replaced Junior Wells in Muddy Waters' band. Over the years, he worked in clubs, recording studios and on the road as both as a solo artist and a sideman for Waters, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, JimmyRogers, Jimmy Reed, Tampa Red, and Big Mama Thornton. Horton's erratic, mushmouth singing style garnered him the nicknames "Mumbles" and "Shakey"--which he did not like. His harmonica virtuosity, however, kept him in demand.
During the 1960s, Horton's career prospered as white audiences discovered the blues. He toured the United States and Europe, performed with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars, and recorded his first album as a bandleader. The record, The Soul of the Blues Harmonica, was issued by Argo Records in England in 1964 and later re-released by Chess--but it was largely unsuccessful. In the late 1960s, Horton performed with blues-influenced rock 'n rollers Johnny Winter and Fleetwood Mac.
The 1970s began with promise for Horton, but ended with deteriorating health and professional stature. He recorded his second album as lead artist in 1972, along with his protege, harpist Carey Bell, with whom he toured and played South Side Chicago bars. That album and another, Can't Keep Lovin' You, have been called the best recordings from Horton's later years. He also rejoined Muddy Waters on the blues legend's 1978 album I'm Ready. "His reunion with Muddy Waters was one of the very few bright spots of the '70s, as far as the increasingly alcoholically- challenged Horton was concerned," Murray wrote. Late in his life, Horton was back playing for tips and drinks on Maxwell Street--as he had when he arrived in Chicago four decades before. In a street scene from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, in fact, he is seen doing exactly that, playing his harp behind John Lee Hooker on the song Boom Boom.
"(Horton's) harmonica playing, both on his own records and in his uncompromisingly lyrical solos on just about everyone else's, is breathtaking," Peter Guralnick wrote in The Listener's Guide to the Blues. "In a sense, he embodies the classic definition of a musician's musician, an artist universally recognized by his peers who has had an enormous impact on musicians who are much better known." Along with Little Walter Jacob, Guralnick wrote, Big Walter Horton raised "blues harmonica playing to new heights and created a new role and a new standard for this once lowly instrument." Horton died in Chicago on Dec. 8, 1981.
Walter Horton's Career
Played harmonica with various artists throughout the decades, including Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, and Fleetwood Mac. Had a cameo appearance in the 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers.
- Selective Works
- Mouth Harp Maestro, Ace Records, 1951.
- Sun Records Harmonica Classics collection, Rounder.
- Harmonica Genius, from recording sessions for Blind Pig records, Black Magic.
- Fine Cuts, Blind Pig.
- Can't Keep Lovin' You, Blind Pig.
- The Soul of the Blues Harmonica,Chess.
- Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton, Testament.
- Harmonica Blues Kings, also featuring Alfred Harris, Pearl records.
- An Offer You Can't Refuse (one side of the album is by Paul Butterfield), Red Lightnin' records.
- Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell, 1972, Alligator Records.
- Big Walter "Shakey" Horton: Live at The El Mocambo, Red Lightnin', 1973.
- I'm Ready, with Muddy Waters, BGO, 1978.
- Little Boy Blue, 1980 live recordings, JSP.
- Guralnick, Peter, The Listener's Guide to the Blues, Facts on File, Inc., 1982.
- Murray, Charles Shaar, Blues on CD: The Essential Guide, Kyle Cathie Limited.
- Scott, Frank, The Down Home Guide to the Blues, a capella books, 1991.
- Additional information found in the liner notes from the album Big Walter Horton with Care Bell, 1972, by Bruce Iglauer, copyright Alligator Records.