“Big Walter” Horton

April 6, 1917 – December 8, 1981

Recording history: 1939-1980 for Modern, Sun, United, Cobra, Chess, Testament, Delta, Magnolia, Alligator, Blind Pig

Also recorded with: Little Buddy Doyle, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, Eddie Taylor, Floyd Jones, Johnny Littlejohn, Hound Dog Taylor, Wild Child Butler, Willie Dixon, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, J.B. Lenoir, Robert Nighthawk, Homesick James, Delsey McKay, John Nicholas, Jimmy DeBerry

Important/historic recordings:Easy” (considered a harmonica instrumental classic), “Walter’s Boogie”, his solo on Jimmy Roger’s “Walkin’ By Myself“, “Evening Sun/Evening Shuffle” backing up Johnny Shines, and the complete recordings orignally released on the LP  “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” but now on CD as part of Blueskvarter (a 3-volume set)

Random fact: Some of Big Walter’s landmark & classic harmonica instrumentals are re-workings of big band or classic blues melodies, such as “Easy” (taken from Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind“), “Walter’s Boogie” (his harmonica treatment of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” which really stems from Pinetop Smith’s 1928 “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie“), and “In The Mood” which again was a big band hit.

About: Born in Mississippi and playing at a young age, Walter Horton went on to become one of the most important and influential of the “Chicago blues” harmonica players, after moving north in the early 1950’s. His shy nature and perhaps his drinking habit contributed to his recorded output being inconsistent and mostly done as a sideman, but with some very memorable sessions with Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Shines, Johnny Young, and others. Known for his big tone & solid phrasing, Big Walter was praised as “the best harmonica player I ever heard” by none other then blues songwriter, bassist & historical figure Willie Dixon. Aside from “Big Walter”, he had several other nicknames such as “Mumbles” and “Shakey” Horton (some say the latter was due to the fact of how he would shake his head to accomplish a “trill” on the harmonica).

The 1960’s saw Horton record on many session as a sideman, in addition to starting to tour in the UK and in Europe. The latter part of his career had many high musical moments including song great recordings on the Blind Pig label (Fine Cuts and Can’t Keep Lovin’ You), another recording session with Muddy Waters (I’m Ready) and more exposure to a new blues audience which has resulted in several live recordings being released from this period as well. In addition to this, Walter Horton also helped guide some of today’s best players in the ways of blues harp, such as Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Jerry Portnoy and others.

Recommended Recordings in-print:

  • “Blues Harmonica Giant” – JSP (GREAT 3-CD set of early recordings, plus a later session)
  • “Chicago/The Blues/Today” Vol. 3 – Vanguard (w/Johnny Shines & Johnny Young)
  • “I Blueskvarter” Vols 1 & 3 – Jefferson Records (killer recordings w/Robert Nighthawk)
  • “With Carey Bell” – Alligator
  • “Fine Cuts” – Blind Pig
  • “Can’t Keep Lovin’ You” – Blind Pig

I’ve found the best selection of blues harmonica CDs to be available at:

blues harmonica, blues harp, lessons, history

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