of Blues Harp
|This is the bio note on Big Walter from my harmonica
transcription/instruction book Masters of
the Blues Harp, which has a
transcription of his Now Tell Me Baby (Mouth Harp
Maestro - Flair Records/Virgin Records Amer. 86297-2)
|Walter Horton, also known as Big Walter or Shakey Horton,
was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, in 1918, and is counted among the
best blues harmonicists. He is also considered by many to have had the
best tone of any Chicago harp player. Horton got his first harmonica
from his father when he five, and won a local talent contest with it.
Shortly thereafter his mother moved to Memphis, then a hotbed of blues,
and according to blues researcher Samuel Charters, Horton was playing
with the Memphis Jug Band by the time he was nine or ten. He also may
have recorded with them in 1927 as he himself claimed- two of their
sides issued that year list "Shakey Walter" as the harp
During the thirties he played with Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, and others, and later gave pointers to both Little Walter and Rice Miller. His first verifiable sides were done in 1939. In the late forties he went to Chicago, but later returned to Memphis to record for Modern/RPM and Sun. Of these sessions, the 1953 instrumental Easy, based on Ivory Joe Hunters I Almost Lost My Mind, became a hit.
By now Horton had become one of the best harp players anywhere. His tone was incredible-he could make the harmonica sound like a trombone at times. He also had a wonderful sense of phrasing. "You could tell it was Big Walter all the way down the street (from the club) when he was playing," Jerry Portnoy told me. "He would create these tensions and then hang a long note out there that would just kill you."
Following the success of "Easy," Horton went back to Chicago to play with Eddie Taylor. But when Junior Wells got drafted, Horton took his place in Muddy Waters band. It didnt last long, though-Horton showed up drunk at a rehearsal and Muddy fired him. He did do some recording later with Muddy nonetheless.
Big Walter worked mostly as a sideman. Always described as shy and nervous, he preferred this role to that of a bandleader. His playing graces numerous records behind Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, and others. He also taught a number of younger players, including Charlie Musselwhite, Madcat Ruth, and Carey Bell.
By the 1970s he was working folk and blues festivals, often with Willie
Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars. In 1972 he teamed up with Carey Bell and recorded some duets with him for Alligator. The 1980 movie The Blues Brothers featured him in a cameo among the Maxwell Street musicians. He died in 1981.
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