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Big Walter Horton

April 6, 1921 – December 8, 1981

Big Walter Horton plays on three tracks of the Earwig album, Old Friends (CD 4902).

Big Walter Horton is one of the most influential blues harmonica players of all time, and a pioneer in the field of amplified harmonica. He isn’t as widely known as his fellow Chicago blues pioneers Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II, due mostly to the fact that, as a rather shy, quiet individual, he never had much taste for leading his own bands or recording sessions. But his style was utterly distinctive, marked by an enormous, horn-like tone, virtuosic single-note lines, fluid phrasing, and an expansive sense of space. Horton’s amplified harp work graced sides by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Johnny Shines, Tampa Red, and many others; he was frequently cited as an inspiration by younger players, and most accounts of his life mention a testimonial from legendary bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, who once called Horton “the best harmonica player I ever heard.”

Horton was born April 6, 1918, in Horn Lake, Mississippi, near Memphis. He began teaching himself to play the harmonica — a gift from his father — at age five, and moved with his mother to Memphis not long after, where he played in Handy Park (near the famed Beale Street) for tips.

In the 1930s he played with numerous blues performers in the Mississippi Delta region. It is generally accepted that his first recordings were made in Memphis, backing guitarist Little Buddy Doyle on Doyle’s recordings for Okeh Records and Vocalion Records in 1939. These recordings were in the acoustic duo format popularized by Sleepy John Estes with his harmonicist Hammie Nixon, among others. On these recordings, Horton’s style was not yet fully realized, but there are clear hints of what was to come. He eventually stopped playing the harp for a living, because of poor health, and worked mainly outside the music industry in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, he was playing music again. He was among the first to record for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, who later recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

During the early 1950s he appeared on the Chicago blues scene, frequently playing with Memphis and Delta musicians who had also moved north. When Junior Wells left the Muddy Waters band at the end of 1952, Horton replaced him long enough to play on one session, in January 1953.

Also known as Mumbles and Shakey (because of his head motion while playing the harmonica), Horton was active in the Chicago blues scene during the 1960s, as blues music gained popularity with white audiences. From the early 1960s onward, he recorded and appeared frequently as a sideman with Taylor, Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon and many others.

He worked at blues festivals and often performed at the Maxwell Street market in Chicago.  In 1977, he played on the Muddy Waters album I’m Ready, produced by Johnny Winter. He also recorded for Blind Pig Records during this period. Horton accompanied John Lee Hooker in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers. His final recordings were made in 1980.

Horton died of heart failure in Chicago in 1981, at the age of 60. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1982.

Sources:  allmusic.com and wikipedia.com

Photo:  D. Shigley

big walter horton
Harmonica Player