“Big Walter Horton”
Cascade Blues Society’s Blues Notes (February 2000)
by Greg Johnson
When the landmark recordings “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” were released in the mid-1960s, it was an enlightening experience for those listeners outside of the Chicago area. For many, this was a chance to hear that city’s wonderful Blues music for the first time. Names such as Junior Wells, Otis Rush and James Cotton had recognition for some outsiders, while other musicians offered exciting new sounds. Perhaps the biggest impact of this series came about with Volume 3, as a dynamic force was unleashed in the persona of harmonica player Big Walter Horton. His presence was forefront throughout the third LP, despite the majority of this disc being focused on Johnny Young and Johnny Shines. Horton was no stranger to the Blues community. His story goes back several decades prior, stretching a direct line from Memphis to the Windy City. He played with the genre’s greatest names and left an impact forever meshed with musicians plying the harmonica trade ever since.
Born in Horn Lake, Mississippi, on April 6, 1918, Walter taught himself to play the harmonica by the age of five, shortly after his family had moved to Memphis. Even before he was a teenager, Walter was in contact with the city’s famed Blues musicians, playing in Handy Park with such luminaries as Hammie Nixon, Frank Stokes and Honeyboy Edwards. By the late 1920s, Walter was performing regularly with the Memphis Jug Band that featured guitarist Charley Burse and harmonica ace Will Shade. It was even suggested that Walter had recorded with them at the age of 9. (Many historians claim that Walter also appears on the group’s 1931 recording “Kansas City Blues.”) He had also began touring throughout the Deep South with Ma Rainey, Big Joe Williams and Floyd Jones.
Charlie Musselwhite: “Horton was playing around Memphis early in the game. Will Shade had the Memphis Jug Band, and he was a good harp player, but Walter really put the power into it. He really made the way for all those that came after him.”
Walter left Memphis for a short time in the mid-1930s and settled briefly in Chicago in 1938. It was during this stay in the Windy City that Walter first experimented using amplification on his harmonica. When he brought this sound back to Memphis it quickly caught the attention of fellow harp players Little Walter Jacobs and Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II).
Bob Corritore: “Walter told me that he taught Little Walter how to play. ‘He started getting’ popular usin’ my style, so I had to create me a whole new style’.”
Big Walter HortonHorton recorded with the locally renowned dwarf guitarist and vocalist Charlie “Little Buddy” Doyle for the Columbia label in 1939. But he decided to step away from his musical career in 1940 due to poor health. He would accept work in a variety of jobs: cab driver, cook at the Peabody Hotel, whatever work could be had.
Paul deLay: “Walter told me that he had worked for a white undertaker while living in Memphis. He told me in a very serious tone, ‘Ten minutes after you die, everybody turns their natural color. Which is black.’ He really was kind of a character.”
By 1948 Walter was once again playing the Blues in Memphis. He spent time playing with a young guitarist named B.B. King and made regular broadcasts from the famed WDIA radio station. During this period, Horton was approached by Sam Phillips and asked if he would like to record at his Memphis Recording Studio (later to be named Sun Records). Over the next two years, Walter recorded several sides for Phillips under the name “Mumbles,” a moniker that he despised. Phillips in turn sold the singles to Modern Records for distribution and among the numbers placed on disc were “Little Boy Blue,” “Now Tell Me Baby,” “Have A Good Time” and “Need My Baby.”
In 1952, Walter appeared for the first time on sides recorded with his childhood friend, guitarist Johnny Shines for the JOB label. Walter and Shines would record many times throughout their careers. Allowed to expound on his harmonica prowess, these sides contain some of Walter’s best work of the period.
Guitarist Eddie Taylor, who had played with Horton frequently in Memphis, contacted Horton in 1952 and invited him to join Jimmy Reed’s band in Chicago. A couple weeks after arriving, Walter was asked to replace Junior Wells in the Muddy Waters Band. (Wells, who had recently taken Little Walter’s spot, had been drafted into the Army.) In January 1953, the Muddy Waters Band with Jimmy Rogers, Willie Nix and Walter Horton entered Chess Studios and recorded four sides. This was an unusual move for Chess at the time, as Muddy’s band was seldom allowed to record with any harp player other than Little Walter. Horton remained with Muddy for most of 1953, but problems with alcohol and poor health began to pay its toll and Walter started arriving late to or missing gigs altogether. Muddy was suspicious about these missed commitments and later found that Walter had been playing solo shows on many of these occasions. Walter was promptly fired from the band.
Bob Corritore: “Walter would drink quite a bit, but it usually wouldn’t affect his playing. A few times I saw him over the line, but even then his tone was unbelievable, though he couldn’t play with the same ornate detail.”
Walter had returned to Memphis by the end of 1953 and once again took up with Sam Phillips. Along with guitarist Jimmy DeBerry as his only accompanist, he cut the harmonica tour de force “Easy”. A reworking of Ivory Joe Hunter’s popular tune “Since I Met You Baby,” the instrumental would become one of Horton’s signature pieces.
Walter was back in Chicago the next year, though, where he continued on his solo path. Recording for the States label, he released another strong single titled “Hard Headed Woman.”
Tom Ball: “One evening in December 1966 I went to the Ash Grove in Los Angeles to see slide guitarist J.B. Hutto and His Hawks. Midway through the first set I found myself transfixed not by Hutto, but by the tall, lanky, angular harp player who played with undreamed-of eloquence. This was my introduction to Big Walter Horton. I went to see him two nights in a row and on the second night I asked if he still played ‘Hard Hearted Woman’. Walter vehemently denied ever having recorded or even heard of the song, and became visibly angry and upset. About an hour later he played a masterful, 15-minute version.”
Jimmy Rogers had left Muddy Waters’ band in 1954 to pursue his own solo career and Walter joined his new group. In 1956, Jimmy Rogers recorded his masterpiece “Walking By Myself” at Chess Studios. The song centered around an engaging shuffle by Horton. It would be Rogers’ highest charting single of his career and would be recognized as possibly Walter’s best-known work as a sideman.
Pat “Lamont” Hayes: “Big Walter Horton has always been one of the biggest influences of mine. The first tune I really learned how to play was “Walking By Myself.”
At the end of the 1950s, bassist and producer Willie Dixon took Walter under his wing, utilizing his enormous harmonica talents on sessions for the Cobra, Chess and Jewel labels. Walter worked with many of Chicago’s best musicians: J.B. Hutto, Johnny Young, George “Wild Child” Butler and Otis Rush (Horton can be heard on Rush’s classic “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Dixon also revived Walter’s earlier Modern singles “Have A Good Time” and “Need My Baby,” and included him in his legendary All Star tours of the United States and Europe throughout the 1960s and ‘70s.
George “Wild Child” Butler: “Willie Dixon had Big Walter and me on sessions (together) because he wanted to hear what would happen, because we didn’t sound alike. We both needed money, so Walter asked me if he could do the sessions because he needed some change. Even Willie Dixon did some humming on the sessions. But the record company sent a letter to Willie not to put anybody else singing or playing harp on a session with me. Big Walter was one of the greatest harp players and a very good friend.”
In 1964, Walter Horton’s career appeared to be taking an upswing. Chess released his first solo album titled “The Soul of Blues Harmonica,” featuring famed sidemen Buddy Guy (guitar), Jack Myers (bass), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums) and Willie Dixon (vocals). This was followed three years later with his appearance on “Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Volume 3,” and another strong release with Johnny Young titled “Chicago Blues” the next year. But despite the seeming success, Walter Horton continued to live a simple existence in a small South Side apartment. And alcohol still paid heavily with his lifestyle.
Bob Corritore: “One time I went to Walter’s apartment to pick him up. It was a broken down rise made of wood and it appeared that he had a lot of family living there.”
Peter “Madcat” Ruth: “I took three lessons from Walter at his apartment in 1967 and 1968. When I met him in 1966 he had already been playing for 47 years. His tone was so huge and his phrasing so deep! He was an amazing harmonica player and a huge inspiration to me. His playing was very tasteful. He was kind of quiet. I think he was illiterate. He was dirt poor and a heavy drinker which took its toll on his life.”
For many years, Maxwell Street had been a haven for Blues musicians busking for the crowds at its huge weekend market. Many of the greatest performers of the city spent time here playing for change, and Walter Horton was no exception. Joining some of Chicago’s best, ranging from Johnny Young to Hound Dog Taylor, Walter’s playing influenced a number of up-and-coming harp players with his amazing tone and incredible bag of tricks.
Gary Primich: “I used to play Maxwell Street every Sunday. Occasionally Walter would perform down the street from us with Homesick James, Floyd Jones and Playboy Venson. He would come down to where I was playing and would just stand there and stare. To intimidate the young harmonica punk. It was pretty humbling to have my hero standing in front of me.”
Bob Corritore: “I was watching Walter play on Maxwell Street, with guitarist Rich Molina and Playboy Venson on drums, and Walter performed a solo through his nose. He held the harmonica and mic up to one nostril with one hand and closed his other nostril with one finger. The notes he could play were limited, the tone was amazing! He was getting a deep vibrato and a swooping tone.”
Over the remaining years of his life, Big Walter Horton would record numerous sides as both a solo performer and a session sideman. He would find himself teamed with luminaries like Robert Nighthawk, Johnny Shines, Ronnie Earl and with Carey Bell for an astonishing release for Alligator Records in 1973. In late 1977, Walter received a call from guitarist Johnny Winter who was reviving the career of Muddy Waters with Grammy-winning success. Twenty-three years following his firing from the Muddy Waters Band, Walter was once again recording with the master. The results were six cuts on the Blue Sky release “I’m Ready.” This album would also reunite him with guitarist Jimmy Rogers and allowed him to play harmonica duets with his longtime friend Jerry Portnoy.
Jerry Portnoy: “We hung out a lot together. I used to go over to his house with a bottle of VO, where we’d drink and I’d try to get him to play for me. I just loved his sound. He had the most beautiful sound. To me, that is what harmonica playing is all about. I saw Walter play on every kind of sound system. I saw him play acoustic, on a variety of amplifiers, with a variety of mics and PAs. It didn’t matter. When he played it sounded great and you knew that it was Big Walter.”
Walter was not an easy person to understand if he did not know you. He could come across as gruff and stand-offish. But in reality Walter was a shy and a good-natured individual who was willing to share his knowledge with younger musicians. But he was also very playful and liked to place them on the spot onstage.
Paul deLay: “When I first met him, he was doing this real gruff act and he had me convinced. But he couldn’t keep it up for long and it was easy to wear him down. He showed me how he played harp out of one side of his mouth and breathed out of the other. He showed me while he was playing. It looked like a Popeye cartoon.”
Jerry Portnoy: “Walter had kind of a crusty exterior. If he didn’t know you he could be kinda tough on you. But it didn’t go very deep. You were okay if you spent some time with him. But occasionally he’d pull some funny stuff. He’d call you to sit in and as you were getting to set to play, he’d change keys in the middle of a song, so you’d be standing there with the wrong harp. He was kind of a strange guy, but I loved him.”
Big Walter Horton made a brief cameo appearance in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” playing on a Chicago street with John Lee Hooker in 1980. A nice recording on Blind Pig, “Fine Cuts,” was released in 1979 and a live LP with Ronnie Earl, “Little Boy Blue,” came out in 1980. These would be the last efforts Horton would release. He died December 8, 1981, in Chicago and was inducted into The Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame the following year.
Though Walter Horton may not be as well known to many Blues fans as his contemporaries, he is considered at the top of his field by his peers. Bruce Iglauer, in the liner notes to the Alligator release “Big Walter Horton With Carey Bell,” named Walter as one of the “four great creative geniuses of modern Blues harmonica.” The other three were Little Walter and the two Sonny Boy Williamsons. It is his inimitable tone and power that has influenced harmonica players during his lifetime as well as those who never met him that will continue to carry the legend of Big Walter Horton.
Adam Gussow: “A guy who had tremendously powerful chops and could dig way deep on the three hole draw, nailing the bluesiest blue third every time. The word that comes to mind is ‘Commitment.’ When Big Walter played a note, you knew he meant it. It stayed played. He rattled the reeds!”
Li’l Ronnie Owens: “When you speak of Walter Horton, the first thing you think of is his tone, that big, fat tone. Tone is the most important thing to have, tone and taste, that’s Walter Horton. He could flat play his ass off! I’m still learning from Walter Horton.”
Charlie Musselwhite: “When Walter was in the right mood, he could be the most ferocious, the most inventive, the most dangerous harp player I ever heard. It’s really too bad that hardly anything on record compares with what he could really do.”
R.J. Mischo: “Walter had great impact on my playing. He had unbelievable tone and control. He did a lot of tricks . . . played through a glass, his nose, used different hand tonalities and would put a mic up to his throat while he played. He played strong all night on the shows I saw.”
Paul deLay: “By far the best harp player I think I’ve ever heard. What he could do with amplifiers. He could find a good tone, something to work with out of the worst equipment imaginable. The guy couldn’t have had bigger, more exaggerated tone. He could play in a more extreme direction than any other guy I’ve ever heard. It was fantastic, beyond chilling.”
Bob Corritore: “I was blessed to have grown up in Chicago and to be very close to its Blues scene. When you saw Big Walter play harmonica, you couldn’t help but be touched by his genius. He so effortlessly played the tiny Marine Band with such a wide array of sounds. I remember how impressed I was by the somber, haunting quality of his harmonica. I once asked him how he got such a great sound. He pointed to his hand and said, ‘It’s all in the wrist.’”