Big Walter Horton: Blues Harp Maestro

Apr 8, 2018

April 6 was the bluesman Walter Horton's birthday. When I first read of him, his birth year was given as 1918, but now I see it listed as 1921, which if accurate means he was 51 when I first saw him at Joe's Place in 1972. He was touring with Chicago bluesmen Eddie Taylor (one of his earliest and longest colleagues) and Carey Bell (a young protege), both of whom were on his new Alligator album, Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell. I think it was the label's second release, and for years it was my favorite, later joined by albums by Fenton Robinson, Professor Longhair and Albert Collins. Bell played second harp on a few of the album's cuts, but he's on bass for "Christine."

The thought of seeing Walter in person was something I anxiously anticipated as much I had first encounters with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, and Charlie Musselwhite. Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Little Walter Jacobs had died in 1965 and 1968 respectively, and Horton, who was known as "Big," "Mumbles," and "Shakey," was the next in line in the pantheon. In fact, he claimed to have been an influence on Sonny Boy, and Johnny Shines concurred, during his early years around Memphis and the Delta. He was also a direct influence on Little Walter, James Cotton, and Charlie Musselwhite, who was 21 when he recorded the harmonica duet, "Rockin' My Boogie," with Horton in 1965. Here's great footage of Horton playing the tune in a European appearance with the American Folk Blues Festival.

Little Walter is widely credited as the major innovator of electronically amplified blues harp playing, but Horton says he first played amplifed harp in 1940, and as he displays on "Easy," his 1953 elaboration on the r&b classic, "Since I Lost My Baby," he was an early master at creating stunning amplified tonal effects. In his book, Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, Kim Fields describes "Easy" as a "harmonica cult classic," and says that Horton's "best solos are masterpieces of power, feeling, and the element of musical surprise. He was a master at filling the harp with air; his playing had a full-throated resonance that has never been surpassed."

Big Walter's singing played second fiddle to his harp playing, and he was most renowned for his work as a sideman with Johnny Shines, Willie Nix, Muddy Waters ("Sad Sad Day," "Flood," "She's All Right," "My Life Is Ruined"), Tommy Brown, Johnny Young, Floyd Jones, Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers, and Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars.

Horton's work with Johnny Shines in the 1950s and '60s represents one of the most simpatico partnerships in modern blues, his playing an astonishing display of rhythmic drive, soulful inflection, and orchestral-like comprehensiveness. Here he is with Shines and bassist Willie Dixon in 1953 playing "Evening Sun." 

Under his own name, through the mid-'50s he'd recorded the dazzling instrumentals "Easy," "Talkin' Off the Wall," and the Glenn Miller classic "In the Mood" for Sun Records in Memphis, and-- in blues harp lingo-- the "first position" classic, "Hard-Hearted Woman," which he'd made for States Records in Chicago in 1954. It held pride of place in kicking off a killer album of vintage Chicago blues essentials that Arhoolie's Blues Classics label brought out in the mid-'60s.

One of Horton's best-known appearances was with Jimmy Rogers in October 1956, when he played the arresting solo on "Walking By Myself." In his biography of Rogers, Blues All Day Long, Wayne Goins recounts the serendipitous circumstances under which it took place. "The harmonica role for that session was supposed to be Good Rockin' Charles Edwards. [But] Edwards was nervous about performing in recording studios...After he learned that Charles had chickened out, Jimmy sent someone to go find Big Walter, who was doing a plastering job. Jimmy talked him into coming to the session, [but] time was of the essence, which meant Horton had no time to change out of his worker's garb...and he was somewhat embarrassed when he entered the studio. 'He was covered head-to-toe in plaster dust--he looked like a ghost,' Rogers recalled." Goins adds, "It is a real testimony to Horton's harmonica prowess...that he delivered a blistering solo with no preparation time whatsoever." When Chess Records reissued Rogers' singles in the late '60s on the album, Chicago Bound, music journalist Pete Welding famously hailed the solo as "high compression harp." 

A few months before Walter came to Cambridge, Blues Unlimited reported that he'd been shot in a Chicago street robbery. When opening night arrived for his week at Joe's, we got there early and as soon as we entered I spotted the gangly man himself standing at the end of the bar. I eagerly made my way to greet him and tell him what a thrill it was to see him in person. Then, being my mother's well-mannered son, I shook his hand and earnestly asked him how he was recovering from the gunshot wound? That's when I got one of my first real lessons in the blues as Walter turned ornery, raised his shirt à la LBJ to reveal a fresh set of railroad-track stitches on his gut, and declared, "See for yourself!" When I retreated in embarrassment to a table of friends and told them what had gone down, the wisest of the group asked, "Did you buy him a drink?" That was lesson #2.

Joe's Place ads and photo of Carey Bell and Big Walter at Joe's, early 1970s
Credit Author's Collection

On at least one subsequent occasion, I bought Walter that drink when I saw him at the Speakeasy in Cambridge with local legends Johnny Nicholas and the Rhythm Rockers, a band featuring Mark Kazanoff, Ron Levy and Sarah Brown. The group of young but seasoned players (Levy joined B.B. King at age 17 and spent several years with the King of the Blues; Nicholas, Kaz, and Brown have enjoyed long careers on the Austin, Texas scene) toured the Northeast with Horton and backed him on the Blind Pig Records album, Fine Cuts. In his memoir, Tales of a Road Dog, Levy writes, "Big Walter was a particularly fun person and close friend. He was as 'country' as they come and loved his V.O. blended whiskey in the true Chicago tradition...Walter had the hugest harmonica tone I've ever heard before or since. His voice was like that of a lost tribe from a forgotten time and pedigree. He was a true gem...a living and historical blues legend...but very down-to-earth and kindly."

Later in the '70s, I saw him a few times at Boston clubs and at the Knickerbocker in Westerly, R.I., where he worked with Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, a newly established combo featuring Ronnie Earl and bassist Michael "Mudcat" Ward. In Wayne Goins's biography of Rogers, he quotes an article in the Boston Banner about the Bluestones skill at backing the singer-guitarist that applies equally to their work with Horton. "When they hit the stage, they motivated him to take the music to its highest levels...Good drive, moderate volume, hesitating the second and fourth beats, and short, rhythmic soloing in keeping true...to his earlier style." Earl, who was then known as Ronnie Horvath and "Little Ronnie," was then emerging as a brilliant guitarist with a superb feel for backing harp players, and as seen below in this blurred footage, a perfect foil for the great Walter Horton.

Big Walter died on December 8, 1981. One of his last performances was in this lively scene from The Blues Brothers, the 1980 blockbuster in which he's seen sitting on his amp amidst the bustling open-air market on Maxwell Street in Chicago as John Lee Hooker sings "Boom Boom." It's easy to see that the music was overdubbed, but a little less apparent that Big Walter's harp was actually played by Joe Berson. Horton was reportedly undone by the tedious cinematic process of multiple takes and abandoned the set before all was said and done. The other players were veterans of the Muddy Waters Blues Band, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, bassist Calvin Jones, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and guitarist Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson. 

While a major movie set meant little to Horton, those closest to him recognized that his instrument meant the world. Johnny Shines told Peter Guralnick, "You see, this harmonica blowing is really a mark for Walter, it's not something he picked up, he was born to do it." Shines anticipated that even in death, "he'd crack with a harp in his hand and he'd keep it in his hand." Charlie Musselwhite put it like this to Dan Ackroyd: "I learned from Walter Horton in Chicago. He had great tone and a real mastery of the harp-- I think he was the first modern-style player...Other people who had known Walter when he was in Memphis...said that he was the king of the harmonica and everybody came around to learn from him, and Little Walter and Sonny Boy did come too...Walter Horton loved the harmonica; it was just a part of him...But he just wanted to have a good time, and he wasn't into being a business man. He kind of disdained all that stuff. He'd rather be out in the alley playing with his friends than to be inside a joint doing his job."

Guralnick's profile of Johnny Shines is a classic of blues journalism and a centerpiece of his collection, Feel Like Going Home. But he closes the report with a telling anecdote about Big Walter that's drawn from a performance Shines and Horton were making in Boston in 1969 with Willie Dixon's All-Stars. "On the last night of their engagement the nightclub was deserted, it was after one and everybody had gone home. The rest of the band wanted to quit, but Walter Horton was blowing with an endless inventiveness, an aching bitterweet sound, screwing the microphone into his throat, blowing with one nostril, and creating a dazzling variety of effects. 'Blow, blow,' they shouted at him. 'Aw, blow your heart right out, Walter. I don't want him around my house.' And Walter shut his eyes tight and blew for the empty room." 

If I had to choose only one album of Big Walter's work, I'd go with Volume 3 of the Chicago/The Blues/Today series. Johnny Shines and Johnny Young are the leaders, but Horton's really the unbilled star of the show as his playing animates almost every moment of the album's 13 titles.